Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Review: Pleasantville

1998, Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Written 21/4/13

Pleasantville is an affectionate parody of old television and its effects on our youth. Or, no, wait, it's a life-afirming tale about a young man's realisation of his mother's strong work ethic. Or it's a racism parallel that shows that prejudice can occur in any scenario. Or it's a left-wing statement about the dangers of isolationism in society. Pleasantville is all this and more - it's not an art film, persay, but it has so many different and equally valid interpretations that it's one of my favourite films almost by default.
     David (Tobey Maguire) is obsessed with his half-idealistic half-terrifying stereotypical 50's sitcom Pleasantville, which is a black-and-white world where the women always have dinner by the time the men come home from work, where children always behave and where the basketball team never lose. His twin sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is the polar opposite - vapid and obsessed with popularity and sex. After an argument, a magic TV repair man comes and sends them into the show itself, where they're forced to go along with the show's universe. Despite their differing attitudes on whether they should, they both make subtle changes to the world that escalate, leading to eruptions of colours that bring out the worst in the authoritarian establishment that made the world possible.
     This is gonna be something of a more analysis-y kind of article, because Pleasantville is the kind of film that consistently merits such treatment. In my eyes, the main focus of the film's protagonist, David, is on his journey from cynical teenager to realistic adult. In his late 90s home he thinks that the world is inherantly corrupt, and wishes that his divorced parents and awkward school life were more similar to that of Pleasantville, his idealism of course making him blind to the inherant prejudice and limitation within that system. "Gaining colour" is used as a visual metaphor in the film for having had some great epiphany or strength of emotion unusual to the norm, and David only gains his colour when he stands up for his mother figure (Betty, played by Joan Allen) instead of putting her down or avoiding the conflict, like he does with his own mother.
When David helps his "mother" obscure her face, he realises
the error of his own attitudes.
     One of the film's most surprising messages for me relates to sexuality - it would be easy to present a 1950s world that demonised sexuality, but instead it's quite tabula rasa and there's a great deal of sex positivity instead - especially towards women. The way this film treats gender dynamics is almost more well-done than the way it parallels race dynamics (which at times get a little obvious, what with the "no coloureds" references everywhere) and the way that Betty drifting away from her stagnant husband (whose cries of "Where is my dinner?" verge on the comical) and towards the artistic Bill (Jeff Daniels).
     Overall it's a look towards how we compare our society in the present with that of those presented not just on TV, but with those of the past. The look at both the utopian ideals of 1950s America and the dystopian consequences of the isolationism and prejudice needed to hold that in place mkaes Pleasantville one of the most comprehensive examinations of that era that I've seen in a mainstream film, and the result is something quite satisfying. The lesson is ultimately that optimism and pessimism are lies; that realism and the acceptance of the bad in favour of the good is the best way forward. There is no 100% right way to live your life - sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and other times it's right to pursue your dreams no matter the odds.
     Pleasantville is at times distinctly unpleasant - but only because it looks into humanity and the way it has the capacity to treat people in a way which we don't want to see. It's a perfect combination of a fun parody of film and TV universes with the inconsistencies inherant to their premise, and a powerful story marking the development of a society through pretty much all the stages of human self-discovery, prejudice and then enlightenment. It's near the top of the favourites list, and for very good reason - go out and take a look.


NEXT WEEK: Tom Hanks gets Cast Away.

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