REVIEW OF PLEASANTVILLE
BY GARY ROSS
STARRING REESE WITHERSPOON, TOBEY MAGUIRE AND WILLIAM H. MACY
A stunningly colorful, beautifully entertaining, and humorous film about the delicate balance between the comfort of conformity and the courage of self-expression.
"It's always the same, you know...it never gets any better or worse...Like the other night when I closed up by myself. That was different."
"...Look, you can't always like what you do. Sometimes you just do it because it's your job. And even if you don't like it, you just gotta do it anyway."
- William Johnson, Pleasantville's Soda Shop Owner talks with David.
"...They're happy like this."
"No David, nobody is happy in a poodle skirt and sweater set."
"...You don't understand. You're messing with their whole Goddamned universe."
"Maybe it needs to be messed with David. Did that ever occur to you?"
- Pleasantville's prototypical modern teens, David and Jennifer.
"What's outside of Pleasantville?"
"Um... Well...There are some places where the road doesn't go in a circle. There are some places where it keeps on going...It's louder...And scarier I guess...And...and a lot more dangerous."
"I mean, I know you want it to stay "Pleasant" around here, but, there are so many things that are so much better: like Silly...or Sexy...or Dangerous...or Wild...or Brief...And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them."
"This behavior will stop at once."
"But see that's just the point. It can't stop at once. Because it's in you. And you can't stop something that's inside you."
- David and Bob, Mayor of Pleasantville.
"You know, when your father was here I thought well this is it...I have the right house and the right car and the right life..." - David's Mom
"There is no right house. There is no right car..."
- Nominated for 4 Oscars, an American Comedy Award, a Chicago Film Critics Association award, and winner of a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award.
- "We always condemn in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves." - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
In hindsight, you can certainly understand how 1950's suburbia has come to be seen as an innocent paradise of sunshine and apple pie, and this "good old days" image is not without merit. Films like Roger and Me accurately depict this as a period of economic stability and job security, where you could afford to raise a family, own a house and car, and take a vacation each year on one parent's salary. While it lacked some of the fast-changing excitement of our day, there was a comfort and security of which we can only dream. People knew what to expect. And all of this was reflected in the wholesome, black-and-white television shows of the day.
Comparison with our own era seems to further justify such nostalgia. Fifty years later, we live in a world where children from increasingly unstable families have kids of their own before driving age, and grow up assailed by a myriad of concerns of previously unimaginable enormity. AIDS, global warming, ozone depletion and terrorism loom constantly in the background, while the insecure and poorly paying job market produces a frighteningly immediate sense of uncertainty. The white picket fences are, for the most part, gone and we lock our doors, keeping a gun in the house - or in the school locker - for additional protection. The recent slew of teen shootings seems symbolic of a vast world of problems literally crashing in on them. There is a sense of a generation lost, grasping for direction. And our television sets reflect the chaos in a mosaic of trashy reality TV and talk shows, surpassed in coarseness only by the evening news itself.
However, it is crucial that we not oversimplify history. For, when the curtain is pulled back from the 1950's paradise - secure economy and promising job market notwithstanding - its ugly, monotonous black-and-white frame casts a shadow on its bright, sunny image. Let us not forget that this was also an era marred by rampant censorship, widespread segregation, and vicious racism. When the picture is seen in its fullness, what emerges is a seemingly paradoxical mix of quaintness and unbridled hatred and intolerance. There is a fakeness in its simplistic facade, devoid of complexity and self-expression.
Conversely, for all the progress still to be made, there has never been a more apt time to re-examine just how far we have come since then in combatting such discrimination, intolerance, and restricted expression. Nor has there been a more timely day to contemplate the delicate balance between freedom and security. You can't blame many for wanting to return to those seemingly safer, more pleasant days. But, although it was in many ways more innocent, was it worth it? Sure, their television shows were warm and inviting, but they were also almost laughably formulaic - wholesome, but nonetheless, colorless.
Such is the case with twin siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), Pleasantville's prototypical modern teenagers. While David escapes the emptiness of his fatherless family and dateless social life in daydreams and comfortable old-time television reruns, Jennifer immerses herself, like so many teenage girls, in pop culture, boys, sex, and a hilarious caricature of the high school popularity mill. When, one night, their contrasting escape routes converge on one of our cultural centerpieces - the television - a twist of events whisks them back to that era of "family values", white picket fences, and small-town security. With the help of an unforgettably quirky old TV repairman (Don Knotts), they are transported into the comfortably colorless world of David's favorite television show, a town called Pleasantville.
Pleasantville is a place of ultimate safety. Everything is laughably scripted, every day exactly like the one before it, every meal served like clockwork. The town's congenial citizens - the quiet soda shop owner, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), George (William H. Macy of Wag the Dog) and Betty (Joan Allen) - know no fear, no worry, and literally no sweat. Even the dangers of fire are unknown in these parts, where David and Jennifer are seamlessly adopted into the two-parent family they never knew.
But this security is not without a price. The town is pervaded by a painful and all-enveloping social pressure, invisible to those inside, but quite striking to David and Jennifer - and to us. Old, outdated habits have become absurdly rigid shackles, adapation to the most minor change is impossible, and you could wait all year for the opportunity to express the slightest individuality. The lovely poodle skirts and timely, delicious meals are not pleasant options, but imposed mandates. Creative fashion is simply not tolerated, and you'd better be hungry come mealtime, like it or not.
While David responds with a mixture of relief and frustration to these comfortably predictable "family values", Jennifer feels utterly stifled. Like many of us, stuck in jobs and lives with which we don't necessarily agree, she resents her obligation to just "go with the program". She feels lost in a world where the townspeople unquestioningly follow rigid patterns, individuality is seen as an illness to be cured, and, reminiscent of The Truman Show, questions about what lies beyond are neither tolerated nor understood.
However, like many persuaded to compromise by the lure of riches and fame, Jennifer is won over by her usual currencies of choice - boys and popularity. As she grows more comfortable with some of the pleasantries of this new world, she seeks to infuse them with her own personal outsider's stamp. While Jennifer opens inexperienced eyes to previously unheard of pleasures from our era, David aims to inject some flexibility and adaptability to change into the town. Art, music, rebellious literature (Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye), and love begin to break down the walls of this previously isolated little community.
The freshness and excitement of change proves intoxicating to some in the town and curiosity grows rampant. Jennifer and David have unknowingly opened a huge Pandora's Box and infected their neighbors with the highly contagious "disease" of individual thinking. A deep-seated longing for change and self-actualization has been unleashed, and some of the townspeople begin congregating around a beautiful, exhilarating vision of personal freedom and expression. Pleasantville is about to become a lot more colorful.
But, like in the classic dystopias of Huxley and Orwell, the dark side of Pleasantville soon rears its ugly head. Even as these changes enrich the lives of some, they create jealousy, fear, and suspicion for the town's more conservative denizens. At first, they are talked about in hushed tones, like so many of today's issues that we might wish to brush under the rug. Eventually, however, the secrecy gives way to an equally vocal group of townspeople who congregate to crush this swell of personal expression and destroy the newfound dreams of their neighbors.
Rooted in the fear of dissent and the powerful desire to appear loyal, a period of segregation, judgmentalism, and moralism sets in. A policy of oppression and censorship is disguised as an innocuous plan to keep things "pleasant" and restore the values deemed appropriate by this paternalistic faction. The town's recently self-empowered citizens, along with David and Jennifer, are forced to make difficult choices between conformity and personal expression. Suddenly this quaint, fictional town takes on an eerily familiar pattern, and, in the process of attempting to hide any "imperfections", grows more imperfect than ever. As surely as David and Jennifer have been incorporated into Pleasantville, so has it seemed to begin merging with our own modern world.
As the rest of the witty, insightful plot unfolds, it offers a penetrating social commentary on the absurd witch-hunts that ensue in the name of "values" and the arbitrary nature of segregation. Writer, producer and director Gary Ross (co-creator of Big), along with Oscar-winner and co-producer Steven Soderbergh, provides a rare look at issues such as civil rights, gender rights, and free speech through the unclouded eyes of an outsider looking in. Employing stunning visual effects, and Oscar-nominated art direction, costume design and music, Pleasantville exposes how narrow-minded fear drives us to persecute the very qualities in others that we deeply long to unearth in ourselves. At the same time, Ross carefully preserves the humanity of the rigidly enculturated and lost oppressors, who seem all the more human for their transparently frightened and comically pathetic flailings. Indeed, Ross makes it clear that the seeds of such oppression lie within each of us, should we submit too easily to the temptations of "going with the program".
In the end, Pleasantville is a crucial reminder that only through new ideas and expressions - in art, music, science, or just the way we dress - can any real progress be made. It is just such creativity and freedom that has brought us the cherished rewards of modern life. With the benefit of hindsight in the light of decades of social growth, we certainly have much to teach recent generations past. But, so too do they raise enlightening questions for us.
- How many of our unqestionably well-intentioned policies would seem as senselessly impractical as dystopian "pleasantness" were we able to view them objectively?
- As modern values continuously impose upon traditional lifestyles throughout the world, we must question whether even the most pleasant sounding life - "freedom", "democracy" - is quite so pleasant when it is imposed rather than consciously chosen.
- Which of today's "troublemakers" will be considered tomorrow's heroes, revered for unmasking painful, yet crucial issues, catalyzing progress beyond dangerous stagnation, and enabling adaptation to our dynamically changing world?
This vast social quest for balance is mirrored in our own individual struggles between fitting in and standing out. And Pleasantville raises equally invaluable personal questions, challenging us to peer through our own facades.
- How often do you let fear drive you to "go with the program", repeating senseless patterns that have long since lost their meanings?
- How much are you fooled by words such as "values" and "freedom", so often manipulated to substitute for "intolerance" and "imposition"?
- Which roles do you play each day to feed that desire to belong?
- And, when change is needed, how often do you wait for someone else to take the initiative, rather than do it yourself
Pleasantville reminds us of the incredible power of even one person bravely overcoming fears, escaping the trap of stagnant comfort, and realizing the beauty of true self-expression. Perfection is not the goal. For, it is the quirky uniqueness that makes each individual special and beautiful, and colorful imperfection can be far superior to an ugly, stale version of idealism. Paradoxically, true belonging is only possible through expressing yourself - unique imperfections and all. Once you get used to it, you may not be able to go back. And, perhaps, that is both the scariest and most exciting part of all.
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