Nov 01, 1998

Pleasantville:

More Important than Saving Private Ryan?

by Adam Wodon

I just saw a movie. It might be the best movie I've ever seen. After all, how can you not like a movie that champions every fundamental philosophy you live your life by?

Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I dream about making a movie that says everything I want to say, and try to figure out how in the world I'd pull that off. Now I don't have to.

"Pleasantville," directed by Gary Ross, is far from a "pleasant" movie, which is never a commentary on effectiveness. "Saving Private Ryan" is getting a lot of praise for being an "important" film, and rightfully so. But, Pleasantville portrays the essence of life better than any other piece of art I've seen.

"Pleasantville" is about two modern teenagers who are zapped into a '50s sitcom. The town of Pleasantville literally lives in '50s-TV-style black and white, but the teenagers become catalysts for transforming the town and its citizens into color, ultimately achieved through a series of epiphanies that open the heart and mind.

In the process, "Pleasantville" explores many themes. For example: "Modern times are not all that bad," and "Progress is good even if the world becomes a little more dangerous, scary and uncertain as a result."

These concepts may sound simplistic, but it's amazing how disagreeable they are to many people. What makes the film great is how these themes are explored; the execution is so subtle and well done, that most of the audience doesn't realize what's going on until more than halfway through the film.

"Pleasantville" shows us that the mysteries of life, while scary, are something to be embraced. It says, life cannot always be perfect, but uncertainty does not have to be a negative; that without mysteries and negatives lurking around every corner, the positive isn't as good or interesting; that, in order to fulfill one's experience as a human being, you must feel and appreciate all of life's emotions. These are general philosophies that have guided my life, which is what makes "Pleasantville" so powerful.

These concepts are an encapsulation of larger ideas, and in this film we find support for many of the most progressive philosophies of the last 300 years. Einstein, of all people, was the perfect symbol to embody these notions both scientifically and philosophically. And Francis Bacon, and Voltaire, and the existentialists, and many more.

To watch these ideas I so strongly believe in be portrayed so elegantly on film, was an emotional experience that I can't overstate.

Of course, the ideas in and of themselves don't make for a great movie. It's all in the execution. And the acting is superb.

Tobey Maguire, playing the lead teenager, should get more roles. He was solid in "Ice Storm" and again here as that average kid, making a name for himself by good acting and not by teen idol looks. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Maguire's sister, is coming into her own (I loved her in "Freeway"). William H. Macy is under-appreciated but continues to amaze, playing a role as the father that could have become farce if not done right. And Joan Allen should be an Oscar nominee for her heartfelt portrayal of the '50s mom.

The film does start to over-indulge when it steers towards pure politics, delving into topics like book burning, censorship, totalitarianism and segregation. This is when the philosophies the film espouses become more overt, and not as subtle -- and thereby, not as strong -- as the rest of film. And Maguire's closing courtroom heroism was a bit cliche.

These overt parts, nevertheless, were strongly redeemed because the film does, in fact, do a great job of depicting the process by which these totalitarian and segregationist systems come about. You can empathize with the film's white male dads -- who are desperate to hold onto their pristine universe -- even though you know they are wrong-headed. You see clearly how fear begets oppression begets violence.

* * *

The world is opening up to the citizens of Pleasantville, beginning with its teenagers. An emotional, intellectual and sexual awakening is taking place, and -- though with some trepidation -- the teenagers are embracing the change. As a result, their world is no longer black and white ... it's now multi-hued ... colored.

The teenagers are learning independence, are starting to explore, to learn, to feel -- to be human. The town's books, previously blank, suddenly spring to life, and kids are reading "Huck Finn," "Catcher in the Rye" and "Lady Chatterly's Lover" for the first time.

Their parents, especially their dads, are unsure of what's happening to their kids. When they catch on, they resist the changes because they are upsetting the peaceful, comfortable lives these people have grown accustomed to. For the men, the heads of the household, there had never been anything to worry about. Their wife and kids were happy, their kids were doing well in school, they were making good money, they came home and their wife happily greeted them with a prepared meal.

Not knowing what else to do, the town tries to get things back in order by enacting restrictive laws, and by "separating out the things that are not so pleasant."

But, as history shows, once the cat is let out of the bag (can you say "Glasnost"?), it's hard to get it back in with anything short of a Stalinist dictatorship.

Of course, not coincidentally, the aforementioned books are some of the many that have been typically banned over the years for simple-minded reasons. Yet the beauty here is, we see, in a simplified way for sure, how those reasons come about: The books are symbols of anti-establishment change, threatening the comfortable world of those in power.

If anyone needs more modern symbols of the establishment feeling threatened by off-center behavior or thinking, look to pop culture and Ozzy Osbourne or, more recently, Marilyn Manson. (And if you say that Manson is far worse than "Catcher in the Rye" then you are missing the point.) When the world of the Pleasantville dads is no longer comfortably the same, it's these symbols that are the first to be blamed.

Some reviewers believe the adult male characters in the film were too simple. But they were supposed to be vanilla simpletons. They were portrayed perfectly -- as authority figures unwilling to accept the change happening around them. And, properly, we see them as victims of society as much as anyone else. They may have had merely the facade of social prosperity, but at least it was something. But ultimately, they sense their world was just a facade, and that must be soul-shattering.

This has happened through the course of time. Those people having that soul-shattering experience can't really articulate it. They want nothing more than to restore their world to the comfort they once knew. Instead, feeling lost and confused, they turn their blame outward. And the sense of loss is so visceral that the reaction is strong, angry, and sometimes vengeful.

Some have also been critical of the transition in Reese Witherspoon's character, who goes from a self-professed "slut" to college-bound scholar. They say this contradicts the film's message that sexual openness is a positive. But this is silly criticism.

Mary Sue hardly disavows her sexual openness -- she "teaches" the entire teenage population of Pleasantville not to be afraid of exploring their sexuality. Just because she personally has moved on from the "the slut thing" does not mean the general point is lost. She did, after all, read "Lady Chatterly's Lover," the first book she ever finished. The point, as evidenced also in the nude painting created by Jeff Daniels' character, was that there is nothing wrong with being more open about human sexuality, and Mary Sue heading to college does not contradict this. She has, in fact, gone beyond it.

* * *

Many people in the theater clearly did not know what they were getting themselves into. In one sense, I am glad they were there and I hope they stumbled in and got something out of it in the deep recesses of their brain. But on the other hand, they kept wanting to laugh, which was annoying. There are funny moments, don't get me wrong, especially at the beginning, but there comes a point where even a statue can see what's going on and what the larger point is. And if you can't figure it out, the (brilliant) soundtrack should clue you in.

For example, there's a scene where the William H. Macy character comes home and says his standard, "Honey, I'm home." It's something he's obviously repeated ad infinitum every day for as long as he can remember. But this time, there's no answer, and no dinner, and the lights aren't on, as he keeps repeating the same line. That is not funny. It's actually sad and poignant. Remember, it was only when he could recognize his feelings and admit to his loneliness that he turned to Color.

Later, some shop owners in town put up a "No Coloreds" sign, and some people were still chuckling, immediately recognizing the correlation and perhaps thinking at first that it was pure satire. But at that point the whole theater finally said, "Hey, are we supposed to be laughing?" and realized that a point was trying to be made. So, yes, this was less philosophically subtle -- that pretty much hammered home the point -- but perhaps that was necessary.

Two powerful scenes stand out among the many. One, when it starts raining and Maguire stands in it while the other kids look on with fear. The other, when Maguire helps his mother cover her "colored" face with gray makeup. This could easily have been farcical, but in context, these scenes were as visceral as any in Saving Private Ryan.

A small but nice touch would have been the creation of a negative situation after the town started changing colors. For example, after the townspeople walked out of the courtroom, I kept expecting someone to be hit by a car or something, just to symbolize how more openness also leads to more danger. Remember, however, the anti-repressive revolution was just beginning, and at the end of the movie when the modern-day mother is sobbing, Tobey Maguire tries to soothe her by saying that there are no right answers, and sometimes screwed up things happen for no reason. Very existential. Smart kid. (I admit to having a soft spot for movies where youth teaches us.)

* * *

It has been said the '50s are being unfairly picked upon in "Pleasantville." And, surely, there were many centuries past that were more repressive than 20th century America. But in a relative sense, repression is what the '50s were all about. Coming out of the war, the '50s returned America's focus to its puritanical roots, the worst manifestation of this being, of course, McCarthyism. And, suddenly, we had utopian televisions shows to tell us what the ideals should supposedly be.

The filmmakers had to know, as we do, that behind the facade of television, the '50s had as much evil as any other period. They used the '50s analogy, however, because the TV shows were all in black and white and because it's so obvious how transparent they are now. It's useful to "use" the '50s as the symbol of repressed purity because it's easy, thanks to television, to make the comparisons.

And while this film was not necessarily trashing the '50s, it has been said that burgeoning technologies and creation of the mass media in the first half of this century was making the West more uniform than ever. Remember, this was a time when brutal totalitarian governments thrived and our own Red Scare created a nation of ... well, colorless people.

Repressing thought and feeling may make us seemingly happy, but in a very superficial way. You cannot really be happy until your mind is free. Though "happy" may not be the appropriate word, because, as this film shows, openness also means accepting potentially bad times. But having an open mind of free will makes us more human, and since we are humans, that has to be better in the long term. The key is to then embrace all that there is about being human.

Life today, more dangerous and scary, is also more honest and open. Not as much as it could be, but leaps and bounds more than it once was. The fact that there is more cursing, killing, rape, molestation and nudity on television and movies are not, necessarily, signs of the degradation of humanity. In some ways, they are a sign of progress, a sign of openness and awareness that is positive, for if we can understand these things and realize that they exist in reality without sweeping them under the rug, then we can better move on from them without worrying as much about it. And in the process, we feel better because we let our humanity come out.

"Pleasantville" is brilliant in subtly trying to convey to its audience that the world today ain't so bad, and there are numerous things that are better. Diet is better, or at least awareness of it, as pointed out in numerous scenes. Hygiene is better; whenever I see a period movie about ancient times or even pre-1900, I cannot help think how they do not accurately depict the way people's teeth must have been wretched, and how their skin was probably more blemished, and their hair rattier.

There is also a tremendous amount more diversity today, which seems to be a very recent exponentially-increasing phenomenon. If you think about it, yeah, '50s rock came on the scene and was a revolution for all kids, but today, kids go in a million different directions musically and they are all reasonably accepted. Even in "my day" of the '80s there was the fringe music I wouldn't/couldn't listen to that I had to learn to appreciate later on.

There is more diversity of clothes, styles and just plain attitudes too. There is more individuality and acceptance than ever before, and though there are many things that are still taboo in mainstream America, those things are less and less. Whoopi Goldberg said recently that when she first came on the scene, people thought she was a freak because of her hair. Now, no one cares, and not just because she is a celebrity -- they don't care for anyone who wears their hair like that, at least not the large majority of culture. It's no longer taboo to talk about condoms, birth control, masturbation, and so on. This is not a bad thing. Sure, referencing these topics has often manifested itself in unnecessarily vulgar or gratuitous ways, but it's a net positive.

* * *

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "... [T]he ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade of ideas -- that the best test of truth is in the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. ... [A]ll life is an experiment."

In this case, as an experiment in movie making, Pleasantville worked. It's a film that makes me grateful to be alive.