Pleasantville is a first rate film in every regard. It has a stellar cast with Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as the teen central characters, William Macy and Joan Allen as the perfect 50’s sitcom parents, J.T. Walsh as the bulwark against change, and the inspired casting of Don Knotts to tie us older viewers back into that era of sitcoms that we watched every day after school when there were only four channels.
It is an innovative film, complete with an “a-ha" moment when, after you acclimate to the black-and-white portion of the film, Technicolor reemerges with a splash in just a key element of the frame. One flower. red, in a background of black and white. One awakened teen, framed against her disapproving elders. It’s powerfully effective, and it was the first time I had seen that particular effect.
Pleasantville is also a substantial political film, one with a point of view. Maybe it is just that it’s a combative election year, and I tend to see even entertainment through a political filter. Maybe. Although, I remember seeing it as political back when I saw it in theatrical release in 1998. Pleasantville contains a strong dose of the political and cultural divide between American liberal and conservative worldviews, and being a Hollywood product it takes a side with the liberal worldview. I’ll come back to that thought.
"Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant." Big Bob – Mayor of Pleasantville
That observation from the affable Big Bob is both an understatement and the source of much of the dramatic tension of the movie.
Olivia does an excellent job descriptively recapping the story of David and Jennifer, who find themselves transported as Bud and Mary Sue into the 1950's setting of David's favorite TV escape called Pleasantville. Dramatic tensions – the clash between pleasantness and unpleasant change - ensue from their transference of their knowledge of what lies outside Pleasantville to the innocent denizens within. “How did you know about the fire?” the awestruck teens ask Bud. Well, because Bud and Mary Sue are gifted with knowledge that the others don’t have. Not just sexual knowledge, although that is the vehicle for illustrating that change is coming to Pleasantville. We watch amused as the previously chaste Lover’s Lane becomes a row of cars with teenage limbs spilling out of backseats.
I like Olivia’s exploration of the moral themes of free will, the Garden, and the tree of knowledge in Pleasantville. It’s not just sex that turns the teens, and later the more liberated elders, from black and white to Technicolor. It is AWARENESS. An awakening, whether to sex, or to art, or to injustice. It's an attractive tale in that who doesn't want to be awake? To be cool? To be technicolor in a black and white landscape. Olivia notes Jennifer / Mary Sue’s observation that "these people don't want to be geeks. They want to be attractive. They just don't know how." I saw in this dialogue snippet the writer peeking through – offering a metaphor for how liberals secretly view conservatives. They don’t want to be conservative, they just don’t know any better.
I like how the film explores the time in American history when Pleasantville is set when some didn’t know any better, or didn’t act any better. That was the period of segregation, which is a stain on the American conscience. It does so through the clever use of the phrase “colored” that was prominent in the time of segregation. Two clever moments stand out. First, as more of the residents are turning Technicolor and order is threatened, a store owner posts a sign in his window warning “no coloreds”.
Likewise, as Bud goes on trial in front of Big Bob and the Chamber of Commerce, the citizens that have turned Technicolor are all sitting in the balcony of the courtroom while the main floor has all of the grayscale (white) citizens. This is an iconic image of the time of segregation, powerfully replicated. Whites on the main floor, coloreds segregated upstairs. Injustice! We – liberals and conservatives alike – have a moment of common understanding in that moment of injustice and inhumanity.
There is, however, a partisan setup to this dramatic moment. In the buildup to the courtroom scene, in a frenzy of activity about 1:30 into the film, the producers give us a fevered vision of conservatism run amok. There is, first and foremost, the fascist imagery of the Chamber of Commerce logo shining above Mayor Big Bob’s head. Two white clenched hands. Very authoritarian.
There is a book burning scene going on in the town square, as Skip tries to tear one of Mary Sue’s new found books out of her hands to throw on the fire.
And finally there is the meeting for "ALL TRUE CITIZENS" that results in the publication of a Code of Conduct, fresh out of the bad old days of McCarthyism.
Perhaps I am too sensitive to this, as a Tea Party type and a political conservative who has values at odds with much of Hollywood’s product. But, as I watch those scenes I do not just see excellent dramatic fiction. I see a political clash of worldviews. I know from my interactions in the political blogosphere that this is how many liberals see conservatives even now in 2012. Perhaps even more so in 2012. Many believe that we are crypto-Nazis, coveting facist logos like Big Bob’s. That we are reactionaries who, if you gave us half a chance, would leap at the chance for book burning and censorship codes.
But, is that reality? Who are today’s censors worthy of those fevered scenes in Pleasantville? I would argue that it is not found in conservative circles, but in the American left. Who are today’s censors, if not those who chased Glen Beck off of TV and are salivating this week at the chance of chasing conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh off of America’s airwaves? Witness America’s liberal foundations pouring millions of dollars into the thought censors at Media Matters For America with the sole purpose of silencing Fox News. Where are the codes of conduct more draconian than the Speech Codes on America’s university campuses – where liberals dominate the faculty and administration?
The other political clash of liberal/conservative worldviews that I reacted to in Pleasantville is in what I see its stereotypical Hollywood attack on the nuclear family. That attack is not just an overt attack, as it is with the development of Joan Allen’s character. Hey bored housewives, wake up (and turn Technicolor!). Leave your stodgy and demanding husbands! There is liberation out there, and a better way! That kind of overt attack on the nuclear family is not limited to liberal dramatic fiction, by the way. I was stunned this week to read a featured article in the Huffington Post – on the Divorce page – from a link titled “Why I walked away from my perfect marriage!”. This was, naturally – on a unabashedly liberal forum – portrayed as a good thing.
No, the attack on the attack on the nuclear family is not just expressed in mockery and in subversion to a better, cooler, Technicolor way. It is also subtle. It’s found in the oft-repeated aside that the nuclear family is a fantasy that never really existed anyway. The ideal of the nuclear family, it is asserted, is as fake as the phony sitcoms like Pleasantville.
Oh, but they did exist. They existed in the American Midwest that I know. They existed in my family and in families that I grew up around. My family, while certainly not perfect, was a nuclear family. My parents raised 4 kids in their 50 year marriage. My in-laws, also married 50 years, also raised 4 kids in a lifestyle as close to a Pleasantville sitcom as I’ve ever seen. All of the children from those two nuclear families are each married once for periods of 25 to 40 years each. and we face difficult challenges like everyone. But, we draw strength from the nuclear family. Sure, it isn’t exactly like the Pleasantville families. It’s more accurately depicted in the O’Brien family in the excellent movie “The Tree of Life”. But, to say that the nuclear family never really existed is to mock that, and I react viscerally to that suggestion in a film.
It’s a touchy subject to discuss Hollywood’s attack and mockery of the nuclear family. It can be interpretated in the reverse as my attacking the non-nuclear family. Which, I wouldn’t do. The NNF can, and does, produce terrific people. It’s just that it’s an empirically harder struggle to do so. If I had a wish for children, I would wish for them that they had the opportunity to grow up in a nuclear family. The movie Pleasantville, ironically, validates that in two ways.
First, in the dramatic twist of the film, Reese Witherspoon’s character opts not to return to 1998 and resume her life as Jennifer when the TV repair guy comes back. She opts instead to stay in the conservative environs of Pleasantville as Mary Sue. She’s had an epiphany, an awakening, of her own and is rejecting her modern chaotic promiscuous life. “I’ve tried the slut thing, David. It got old”. (Does she share that epiphany with the newly active kids out at the formerly chaste Lover’s Lane?)
It validates the nuclear family of Pleasantville by contrast as Toby Maguire returns to 1998 as David and finds his mother crying at the kitchen table, where she is unsuccessfully trying to date at age 40. “Where’s my perfect house? Where’s my perfect car?” It’s the wrong question in 1998 and 2012. Where’s your family? I see her at that table, sad and unsatisfied, and I have to ask the question: What was so wrong with pleasant?
We wrap up our time in Pleasantville with William Macy and Joan Allen sitting side by side on a park bench, both now in Technicolor, and smiling blissfully. “Where is all of this heading?”, one asks. “I don’t know”, says the other.
Well, I have an idea where it’s all heading. We get a clue from the choice of song they selected to take us into the credits. I recognized it immediately. It’s “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. The Beatles. Ah, yes. We’re headed to the 60s and 70s. To political upheaval. To cultural revolution. Away from the nuclear family as an ideal. Away from Pleasantville.