Throwback Thursday: The Unpleasant Truth About Pleasantville

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

 

Pleasantville could have been just a flashy display of current special effects and a simple bit of television satire, but director Gary Ross shot for something grander. He saw there was a much bigger and more important story to tell. What begins as a sci-fi premise of merging with a television universe transforms into a remarkable tale about art, sex, knowledge, and looking forward to a future. For being released during an era when everybody was freaking out over the year 2000 dooming us all with that pesky computer bug, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The people of Pleasantville start to appear in color.

David considers the colors he’s unleashed on Pleasantville.

The story takes place in the 1990s, when every adult seemed to think the go-go ’90s were a terrible time to be alive. David (Tobey Maguire) sits through class after class while his teachers continue to drone on about how the future is doomed for everything from politics to global warming. It’s easy to understand why David retreats into the reruns of the 1950’s sitcom Pleasantville, a show that makes the world seem so perfect. He loves the show so much that he becomes targeted by the mystical TV repairman, expertly played by Don Knotts, who gives him a magical remote. When he fights over the remote with his sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), they’re zapped into the television and now occupy the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, as the brother and sister pair of Bud and Mary Sue. Their parents are played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen.

For David, this is a dream come true. He’s familiar with trivia on every single episode of the show that he knows how everything will play out in this sweet existence. It’s a nightmare for Jennifer, however, as she can’t handle a society where bras are too pointy and boys are too shy to hold hands. Most of the first act finds them in amusing situations of the 1950s suburban fantasy. Their parents serve them up a high-cholesterol breakfast of eggs, pancakes, steaks, etc. The school basketball team never seems to miss a shot. A boy that fancies Jennifer speaks about how he isn’t ready to get too serious with holding hands.

And then David and Jennifer begin to turn the tide of this world. David’s character has a job at the local diner, but the owner Bill (Jeff Daniels) is so used to routine that any signs of being late shakes his core, making him fearful of any shift in the usual. Jennifer goes one step too far when she decides to sleep with one of the high school boys. The next day, something strange happens to the boy that loses his virginity: He appears colorful and loses the familiar appearance of black-and-white. At first, the reasoning seems obvious, that sex causes people to change colors. But if this were true, why didn’t Jennifer change? The color is not a result of any one action; it is change itself. And once it spreads like wildfire throughout the town, a new sensation of fear, anxiety and euphoria grips the populace.

David on a date with a colorful Pleasantville resident.

David shares a date with a colorful Pleasantville resident.

Pleasantville was a visual-effects marvel for the contrast of black and white with color while being a comedy that pokes fun at a paranoid era; the film also touches on a grander sense of culture shifting that transcends the simpler comedic element. It’s funny at first that Bill finds switching up the diner duties to be exciting, until we see more of his hopes and dreams. He thinks about art and David shows him a book of some of the world’s greatest paintings, inspiring him to paint on the windows of the diner, which turn to color. He fancies Joan Allen’s character but never thought their love could work because she is married. As for Joan Allen, she comes around to the new color movement when she pleasures herself in the bathtub. There’s a major shift in the household that sends William H. Macy into shock when he comes home to find no dinner on the table. Knowledge begins to flood into the town as the library of blank books suddenly become filled with words and stories. And there is the startling revelation that there is more to the world than Pleasantville’s two streets. A few people in town despise the color because it is new, different, and scary. They try to rally against this epidemic, but they cannot fight change despite all the hatred, book burning, and discrimination they can dole out.

Of course, Pleasantville is a clear allegory for many historical subjects, including racism, feminism, and fascism. But director Gary Ross has stated one of the key themes of the film is that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression. The fear of the discriminating townsfolk is more out of fear than it is outright hate. They’ve been so used to everything being simple and repetitious in their lives, content with knowing full well what the future would bring. Now they know nothing about what tomorrow will bring; a wife could leave her husband, a chef could become an artist, a and teenage couple could have sex.

Joan Allen tries to hide her color under makeup.

Joan Allen tries to hide her color under makeup.

The film was criticized by the website ChristianAnswers.net for portraying morality as black and white and sin as colorfully enticing. They were quick to point out a scene where a young woman tosses David a visibly red apple and encourages him to take a bite, reminiscent of when Adam bit into the apple in Genesis and caused the fall of man. Ah, but where does man fall from? Pleasantville and the Garden of Eden share much in common, as they are a perfect paradise where nothing bad can happen. But if no bad things can happen, there’s no satisfaction in the good things.

I do find it hilarious, though, that if David and Jennifer are supposed to be Adam and Eve, then Don Knotts is God in a scene where he condemns David for tampering with the natural order of Pleasantville. Let that sink in for a moment; there’s a movie where Don Knotts plays God.

 

Pleasantville poster.

Pleasantville poster.

When film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel came on David Letterman’s talk show, the subject of Pleasantville came up where Ebert pointed out the film’s theme of how the 1990s were not worse than the 1950s. Not only did Letterman state that he thought the 1950s were a better time, but he didn’t believe the whole book-burning fiasco of the era. The fact that Letterman was so blind to the darker side of that era is proof enough why a film like Pleasantville should exist: it reminds there was an era when art, sex, and culture were repressed.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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