Holy Hell! Pleasantville Turns 20

Holy Hell! Pleasantville Turns 20

Ironic as it is, I first saw Pleasantville at my grandmother’s house. It was one of the few VHS tapes she owned and probably contained a few too many heady ideas for someone under the age of 10. But for the amount of times I’d pondered “The Andy Griffith Show” reruns’ transition from black and white to color, my elaborate explanations never quite approached the loss of innocence and discovery of free will and self-determination that occurs in Gary Ross’s film. Even so, my comparison for the fictional “Pleasantville” show was more perfect than I knew, as Ross cleverly chose Don Knotts to play the mysterious TV repairman who engineers the film’s time/screen leap. On its surface, Pleasantville toys with simple metaphors and minor commentary on the past. What makes the film worthy of continued celebration, though, is its depth, its ability to balance several commentaries and move beyond the stark differences between the 1990s and the ‘50s and explore the differences between people exposed to the real world versus a fictional ideal.

David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are typical mismatched siblings. While Jennifer is only concerned with dating a dreamy Jordan Catalano-equivalent, her brother drowns out their divorced parents’ arguments with the blissful family perfection of the sitcom “Pleasantville.” He’s seen reruns enough times to know virtually every episode, and he’s been anxiously waiting a year to watch a special 24-hour marathon. David’s enthusiasm gets him more than he bargained for, though, when he and Jennifer are transported into the show, replacing teens Bud and Mary Sue Parker. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer doesnt want to play by the ‘50s rules.

Even though David knows every aspect of the show, he still struggles not to change events in Pleasantville. Jennifer’s antics – having sex with Skip (Paul Walker), the captain of the undefeatable basketball team, and telling her mother, Betty (Joan Allen), about masturbation – make David frantic. But simply being late to his shift at the soda fountain begins to alter this unchanging world. Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the owner of the restaurant, couldn’t conceive of his routines being out of order until he assembles an entire burger himself. It’s such a little thing, but it’s immeasurably freeing for him.

Gary Ross’s script teases out the miniscule changes in Pleasantville and allows the audience to believe that the extreme, progressive, sexual changes are to blame for the town’s loss of innocence. But these events all build upon one another, and Ross charts the town’s education of the outside world by several means. The film’s famous use of color amidst its black and white scenes (still impressive to this day) serves as multi-layered imagery throughout. After Jennifer and Skip visit Lover’s Lane, a brilliant red rose blooms. Betty’s sexual discovery causes a tree to spontaneously catch fire. Bubblegum turns pink, and lipstick finally makes a bold statement. With each enlightened, self-aware character comes a pop of color in the stark sitcom world.

What began as a fish-out-of-water story with David and Jennifer, though, takes on a political bent. The initial transformations of these characters prompt conservative reactions from George Parker (William H. Macy) and town leader Big Bob (J. T. Walsh), who are desperate to keep things pleasant. The outright persecution of “coloreds” by the town council illustrates best that what’s at stake in Pleasantville isn’t the present come to forcibly pull the idyllic ‘50s sitcom into the modern era but to put an end to the wilful ignorance and repression rampant in the fictional town. (That “Pleasantville” represents a fiction that was pushed as a social ideal to aspire to in the past simply adds another layer to the commentary.) People never before questioned why the books were blank, or why the “the end of Main Street is just the beginning again.” Book burning and efforts to enact suppressive laws flirt with familiar history and delightedly play with that imagery but ultimately reflect the town council’s fear of change channelled into violence, a leap far too easy for such self-avowed pleasant people.

Ross’ script can become a little cumbersome when it comes to his central messages and symbolism, how they reference the familiar and use it as a jumping off point. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that such a tale from the writer of Big fudges some of the logic behind its TV universe or David and Jennifer’s presence there. But what’s important is the parable at hand. Pleasantville has a lot to say – from stressing the importance of free will and subverting societal norms by being true to oneself to rejecting false, sanitized ideals and not being afraid of change or learning about what’s beyond Main Street – and does so movingly.

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