Learning from Pleasantville



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Newly released on video is 1998’s most charmingly insidious movie, Pleasantville, written and directed by Gary Ross. An instant Bizarro-world classic, Pleasantville unwittingly delineates Hollywood’s impressive contribution to America’s cultural collapse and does so with more dumb bravado than any movie since Easy Rider.

The movie opens in contemporary California. The two protagonists, high schoolers both, suffer visibly through their parents’ messy divorce and their mother’s ensuing affair with a man nine years her junior. Jennifer is a mindless slut; her brother, David, a feckless nerd who seeks refuge from his chaotic life in an old Leave It To Beaver-like sitcom called Pleasantville.

Through some mildly entertaining gimmickry, David and Jennifer find themselves bodily transposed into a living, breathing, black and white Pleasantville. Here, they emerge as Bud and Mary Sue Parker, model children of the equally perfect George and Betty Parker. A relentless fan of the show, David knows not only the quirks of the characters, but also the mores of the town. In this knowledge he attempts to instruct his wayward sister.

She will have none of it. From minute one, she resents Pleasantville’s sterile harmony and proceeds to undermine it as best she can. The most lethal ammunition in her war of liberation is sex. When she introduces the phenomenon to P-ville’s virginal jocks, they mutate from black and white to color. They, in turn, spread the charms of sex to their friends. These newly deflowered lads and lasses blossom in full color as well. Ironically, so do the flowers around them in this anti-Eden. Ross is not at all subtle in his metaphors: apple in hand, Eve has trumped Adam. Soon enough, David is enlisted in her cause-less rebellion. The revolution is on.

The quietly restless Betty Parker (Joan Allen, appropriately the Pat Nixon of Oliver Stone’s Nixon) discovers her own color by masturbating in the bathtub. She becomes fully radiant when she betrays the dull but decent George and beds down with the aptly-name “Mr. Johnson,” the soda shop manager. Mr. Johnson taps his inner rainbow not just through adulterous sex but through bad, abstract art.

The forces of change soon shake, rattle and roll the once complacent burg. Dave Brubeck sneaks onto the sound track. The kids at the soda shop switch from sweet 50’s pop to raunchy R & B. David introduces his new friends to literature. They now read presumably subversive classics like Catcher In The Rye and Huckleberry Finn(?).

This plot-line might have been amusing enough were our heroes merely rebelling against “Pleasantville,” the show. But director Ross seems unable to distinguish between the fictional Pleasantville and the real America of the 1950’s. In his view, however confused, they are pretty much one and the same.

It is only a matter of time before the town fathers, black and white to the man, fascist to the core, attempt to suppress “the coloreds” and reinstate their own “values,” a word that drips acid when spoken. This frantic little effort climaxes in a court trial whose set smugly, if preposterously, mimics that of To Kill A Mockingbird. But it’s too late. The 60’s genie has escaped from the 50’s bottle. And there’s no putting the cap back on.

Ross’s thesis, as film critic Roger Ebert correctly understands it, is that “sometimes pleasant people are pleasant only because they have never been challenged.” Think about this. The powdered, porcine Rogert Ebert has the temerity to tell a generation that survived a depression, won a world war, undertook the burden of a cold war, and fought to a bloody standtill in Korea that they “have never been challenged.” What stunning gall. What dazzling historical mindlessness. If such utterances are not a capital crime in some state, they ought to be.

Like his late partner, Gene Siskel, Ebert gave the film four stars. The characters, he notes, discover “that it’s sometimes dangerous to learn new ways.” The “coloreds,” in fact, revel in the “danger” of their movement throughout the movie. This, too, is curious. 50’s kids lived under the very real threat of immiment nuclear war. Plus, they never wore a seat belt, sat in a smoke free restaurant, struggled with a child-proof cap or called the FDA when their hamburgers came back pink. They lived freer, more risky, less litigious lives. Even more bizarre is the notion that 90’s kids had to teach them to read. 90’s kids? Name two you know who have ever read a book of their own accord. Or a newspaper for that matter.

Before they can contract AIDS, catch fire free-basing, or start up Pleasantville’s own Trench Coat Mafia, David and Jennifer are miraculously transposed back to the present. To his credit, Ross acknowledges the chaos and messiness of the world these kids inhabit. Upon their return, they are greeted by a mom distraught over a botched weekend with her cub scout of a beau. As the mascara runs down her weary face, she tearfully tells David, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”

Before his Pleasantville experience, David would have agreed with her. But like the epic heroes before him, David has grown savvier on his personal odyssey. He has learned that values are a scam, marriage a fraud and innocence an illusion. The wise man, he knows now, avoids moral judgement at all costs. So he reaches out to his weeping mom and reassures her, “It’s not supposed to be like anything.”

Incredibly, David’s new-found relativism proves to Ebert “that there is hope--that the world we see around us represents progress not decay.” Yikes! I wonder if the parents in Littleton would be so easily reassured.




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