When I say the word “perfect” what comes to mind? Perhaps it is a baseball pitcher throwing a perfect game. Or maybe it is a movie that you enjoyed every second of (we’ll be getting to a few of those later in this countdown). It could be the view of a sunset or sunrise, giving you something to cherish for the rest of your life.
But one thing that does not come up often are people. Life, at any point in our existence, has never been perfect. Everybody has flaws, quirks, bad days and negativities that even they probably don’t like about themselves, though they’ll try to deny it. To say otherwise would be like looking at a beautiful color picture in simple black and white.
Nobody is or ever has been perfect. Life simply does not work that way.
This is the ultimate moral behind Gary Ross’ 1998 feature “Pleasantville,” among many other messages and comments. A film that not only pushed technical boundaries, but one that manages to seamlessly blend drama and comedy, and being a satire of 1950s family sitcoms without ever drawing attention to it.
The film follows two high school twins, the socially awkward TV obsesser David (Tobey Maguire) and the shallow valley girl Jennifer (Resse Witherspoon), as they bicker and quarrel over the television. After a visit from a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts), the two are transported into the fictional land of Pleasantville, a 1958 black-and-white sitcom. David stresses that they blend in and not upset the natural order, but Jennifer insists on livening things up a bit and adding a bit more color to this world.
I’ve seen many people go different directions with the themes and message of “Pleasantville,” including loss of innocence, repression, Utopian society vs. Dystopian, the rise of Communism, but I have a slightly different interpretation – Family values of the 1950s against those of the 1990s.
The sitcom values of “Pleasantville” are a direct reflection of sitcoms from the 1950s, such as “Leave It To Beaver” or “The Andy Griffith Show,” where everyone is consistently happy, every house on the block is perfect with a white-picket fence, the children are wonderful at school, and the husband returns home every night at the same time to his beautiful wife, ready with a stiff drink and dinner in the oven.
In other words, the city of Pleasantville is the values of the nuclear family taken to their most extreme. Everything must seem perfect, the family must always be content and not with a single hair out of place. The temperature is always 72 degrees, the sun is always shining and the high school basketball team has never lost a game.
But this comes at a cost. Everyone is expected to play their role, no matter what they think of their job. The town’s burger joint owner (played by Jeff Daniels) realizes at some point that it is fun to mess with the status quo and that he hates his job. That he would rather be painting and creating something beautiful.
Every book in the library is blank, and remains that way until David or Jennifer tell the town folk about how the story unfolds. In fact, the people in Pleasantville never bother to go any further than where Main Street or Elm Street ends. These people don’t even know what sex is. They know nothing of the outside world and don’t care to do anything about it. These people live a sheltered existence, possibly because they’re afraid of what might be outside Pleasantville.
That world may not be perfect like them.
On the other hand, you have David and Jennifer, who have been transported from the 1990s. Their family is dysfunctional. The twins don’t get along at all, with Jennifer often wondering how they’re even related. Their divorced mother is constantly going out of town, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. The teachers and class speakers only bother to point out how the world is getting worse, whether through loss of jobs, diseases or global warming. It is no wonder that David likes to watch Pleasantville from a distance.
Right away though, the film makes it clear that, even though David knows everything about Pleasantville, he would rather be in his world and not in the land of a TV show. This is never explained, but rather shown to us over the course of the film.
In the 1990s, David is allowed to be whoever he wants to be. He can live the life that he wants to without having to worry about being repressed. He can be happy, sad, upset or uncaring and not live in fear of what others might think. He can be creative and thoughtful, as well as knowledgeable about the outside world. However, because there is so much to partake in, they have become desensitized to much of it.
They understand that the world is massive and intelligent, but far from a nice one.
When David and Jennifer are sent into the past, their modern day values are clashing with that of the nuclear families. Forced happiness against dysfunctional. Repression against freedom of choice. Security against knowledge.
So, which is the better set of values? “Pleasantville” lets you decide that. The film does not pick one side over the other, but rather presents both sides of the arguments, giving the good with the bad, and leaving it up in the air and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusion.
In one particular scene, David is explaining his world to his date, describing it as louder and more aggressive. His date’s response is, “That sounds amazing!”
That is the moment where both worlds collide and show us a human side to both. David does not hate the 1990s, but he does enjoy the calm and predictable nature of the 1950s. While his date is enthralled with how different and exciting the future sounds. She may be stuck in a poodle skirt, but she is adventurous and curious.
It is when looking at both decades that one realizes they are both flawed, and that neither live in a perfect world. The 1950s are fearful and sheltered, while the 1990s are distant and desensitized. Many of the characters in this film think they live in the best world and that it does not need to be changed. But when everyone is perfect, that means nothing stands out.
“Pleasantville” is one of the few films I know of that seamlessly blends together two entirely different decades and philosophies to make for an entertaining piece that never gives up.
Like so many others have mentioned, the effects in “Pleasantville” are breath-taking, as bits and pieces of Pleasantville turn to color. At first it is inanimate objects, like cars or flowers, then moves to particular body parts, and then full technicolor on select townsfolk.
“Pleasantville” is one of the shining examples of using computer generated imagery to elevate the story, and not replacing actors or sets altogether. It is up there with the T-1000 effects in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the entirety of “Toy Story” and the effects for Gollum in “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. It is only used when there is no other option, and to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to create.
Overall, “Pleasantville” is as vibrant and imaginative as it is relevant and thought-provoking. There is always a conflict between two vastly different points of view, offering two glimpses at American history that makes the film more poignant today than when it was released. Consistently funny, touching and always with an eye for creative use of color and brighten up the mood. One of the best uses of color I have seen in cinema.
Categories: Movie Reviews