People Change: Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, a film fiction on history and nostalgia, creativity, independence, sexuality, and television

By Daniel Garrett

Pleasantville
Written and directed by Gary Ross
New Line Cinema, 1998

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: History is the past as lived and the past as interpreted, and yet the two are usually at odds, depending on our perspective and what we know, remember, and prefer. The history of America is a long line of contradictions, with freedom and slavery, and ambition and provincialism the most obvious. Often the 1950s are described as a time of peaceful simplicity, though those who recall the influence of active modernism—industry, technology, film, jazz, rock-and-roll, literature and poetry, and psychoanalysis as well as the civil rights movement—recall a time that was more roiling with change, conflict, and possibilities. The vision of family like the one Ozzie and Harriet Nelson presented on their black-and-white television show in the 1950s was comforting and dull in its simplicity; and that vision is often what some people remember—rather than the convulsive reality—when they think of the 1950s. It is evidence of the profound impact of culture, whether culture is light or serious, high or low. I have wondered, sometimes, about what happens when one does not find a master text with which to interpret life in a way that offers the possibility of friendship and love, health, joy, progress, useful work, and wisdom. Does one conform to whatever master text one has found, whatever text recognizes the inclinations of one’s personality and the issues of one’s social existence, even if that text offers dimensions of alienation and disease and poverty and death? Gary Ross’s great film Pleasantville, a black-and-white and color motion picture, has a wonderful story focused on a rosy-cheeked young brother and sister of the 1990s that find themselves in the brother’s beloved and favorite black-and-white 1950s television program, and the story is full of reverberations about individuality and community, about creativity, sensuality, and thought, about the value of difference.

In Gary Ross’s beautiful, funny, imaginative and intelligent film Pleasantville, a shy bookish brother who loves old television programs, especially the one set in the mythical town of Pleasantville, and his more indulgently sensual, pretty, popular sister—she chews gum, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with boys—argue over the television remote control on the weekend their divorced mother has taken a trip to be with her young boyfriend. Their contentious fumbling over the device breaks it; and, without their calling anyone, a repairman arrives to replace it. The repairman is a magical gatekeeper, the bridge between reality and fantasy; and he gives them a bulky silver device that allows them to enter the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, where the brother David is comfortable but his sister Jennifer or Jen is not, as they take on the 1950s lives of Bud and Mary Sue, the children of George and Betty. David/Bud is Tobey Maguire, Jen/Mary Sue is Reese Witherspoon, and George and Betty are William H. Macy and Joan Allen, Bud and Mary Sue’s parents, whose thoughts revolve around the husband’s possible professional promotion and big, rich family meals. Jen is loudly complaining about being in Pleasantville, until she realizes a cute boy, the sporty Skip (Paul Walker), likes her as Mary Sue; but she is dismayed to attend school in the town and learn that they have no conception of life anywhere else. “What’s outside Pleasantville?” she asks, a question no one understands.

The isolation and ignorance of other ways of living may, in fact, correspond to the sensibility of people who see their own way of life as the only right way of life and never learn about other people and places. People in the small community have limited creative responses; it is a wholesome, conformist world. Pleasantville is a town in which a boy in a gym shoots a basketball and it always goes into the hoop’s net and the basketball team always wins its games: and when doubt or change is introduced, that easy assurance and success is threatened. David as Bud (Tobey Maguire) works at a diner and his boss Bill Johnson is so used to their coordinated efforts Bill does not know what to do when Bud is late, finding himself rubbing the counter in absurd repetition, bruising the paint. Jen as Mary Sue is rebellious and brings new habits and language to the place; and, aggressively sensual, she arouses Skip, who sees his first bit of color—a red rose—and Skip brings the news of sex to his friends, demolishing their basketball skills. Other colors begin to appear in town—a green car, a red cherry atop an ice cream. Meanwhile, when diner boss Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), who has drawing skills he pursues only at Christmas time, stops by to see Bud he gets a glimpse of wife and mother Betty (Joan Allen) and the two are drawn to each other; and Betty finds, while in a card game with friends, that her cards have red hearts. Slowly what emerges is a clear conflict of values between the routine on one hand, and inspiration and improvisation on the other.

The world of Pleasantville has its own simple logic. That world is brought to eye and mind by director Gary Ross with visual effects supervisor Chris Watts, color effects designer Michael Southard, production designer Jeanine Oppewall, cinematographer John Lindley, editor William Goldenberg, composer Randy Newman, and music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg. The difficulties of presenting both black-and-white and color in the same film, with different requirements for colors and tones and lighting, was met by Gary Ross’s team. This is a special effort. The film’s story—with its themes of history and nostalgia, generational difference, and the irritating but valuable fact of unique personal perspectives—has a pertinence that will not end soon. Will we maintain tradition, or will we change? Revolution can begin with fundamental things: with a color or a question. “What is sex?” asks mother Betty of her daughter. Jen as Mary Sue (Witherspoon) has a confidential conversation with her mother, and explains sexuality; and pleasure inspires the appearance of more color. When giving herself pleasure in the bath, the mother sees colors on the ceiling and a tree in the yard outside the family home bursts into flame. The fire department has not had a fire before, and does not know how to respond, until David as Bud (Maguire) instructs them, which earns him a civic medal. When Bud returns to work in the diner—there is a jazz score—he is met by a group of curious young people with questions about the fire and what’s outside Pleasantville and also literature, especially about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the freedom of Huck and Jim. “There are some places where the roads do not go in a circle, where they keep going,” Bud says, a thought that resonates. Young people begin to line up at the library to read books (books that were once blank are now full). The mayor, Big Bob (J. T. Walsh), stops at the house of George (William H. Macy) and his family to discuss what has been happening in town, the independence of the women and the experimentation of the young. A ripple occurs in George’s house and life when his wife Betty does not answer his call: she is in the kitchen, hiding, having become “colored,” her white cheeks now pink. The mother Betty had been confident and kind, but now she is ashamed, insecure, tormented. Her son helps her by getting her make-up and putting some of the gray powder on her; and one has the sense of the painting of a corpse, that the covering up of color is a kind of death.

The brother and sister are finding some joy in Pleasantville, brother David with a girl he likes, Margaret (Marley Shelton), and sister Jen with her discovery of books, starting with D.H. Lawrence. The magical gatekeeper (Don Knotts), upset about the changes that he is seeing, tries to reprimand and correct David, who does not listen, turning him off. Yet, there is a crisis: after David as Bud has shown to Bill a great book of art images—portraits and nudes and landscapes and abstracts, full of color and experiment, a revelation—Bill (Jeff Daniels) paints Betty (Joan Allen) in a portrait of color—he presents her upper torso nude—and the image causes outrage in town when Bill puts it in his diner’s window, an evocation of the anger and censorship art sometimes inspires. A group of men congregate at the bowling alley, their entertainment turned into the beginning of a conservative political movement; and they plan a town meeting. Yet, the next morning there is a rainbow over the town, with color throughout the diner, and more people in color, including both mother and daughter, Betty and Mary Sue; and wife Betty, after preparing dinner and dessert and the next day’s lunches, leaves her husband George, who had been happy and secure and is now befuddled, miserable. There is a price to be paid for change, and he is paying it. A couple of boys in a car, going around the neighborhood to alert people to the town meeting, see Bud with Margaret in front of his family house and one boy makes a comment about pink-faced Margaret as being Bud’s “colored girlfriend.” That is but one more sign of the growing division in the town. Hostility is accelerated when Bill paints a full-bodied nude of Betty and puts that in his window, public art the public here demolishes, before wrecking the diner itself and going on to burn library books. This is reminiscent of 1950s hostility to art and activism, a recurring hostility. Brother and sister have changed Pleasantville and been changed by it. The brother’s passionate physical defense of his mother against youthful harassers and his sister’s new intellectual interest have turned them both “colored,” he is colored with courage and confidence and she with curiosity and more depth, and the colored people meet inside the savaged diner, the diner savaged by those who think of themselves as decent people, the diner where Betty (Joan Allen) and Bill (Jeff Daniels) embrace.

The town council issues a code of conduct: insisting on manners, no vandalism, no Lover’s Lane, no music but temperate pleasant music, no rain gear to be sold, no large beds fitting two people, and a view of history that is simple and does not acknowledge change, as well as no colors used in public signage but black, gray, and white. The sporting goods shop has a sign in the window saying “No Coloreds.” I saw and liked Pleasantville upon its original release and recall at least one writer calling the allusion to America’s racial politics a stretch, as if that were anything apart from the usual conception of the 1950s or the intentions of the filmmakers: the assumed quietude and docility of blacks are what some people yearn for when they dream of the past, despite the fact that the quiet slumber is a myth (they confuse their deafness for the quiet of others). Pleasantville shows what is repressed or misunderstood in conservative views of the past. People rebel. Bill, with Bud’s help, paints a public mural in protest against the town council’s edicts on the wall of the police station; and the two are arrested. “Unnatural depiction,” the mayor Big Bob (J. T. Walsh) calls the painted work at trial; and one is reminded that interracial and homosexual associations have been labeled unnatural. However, David as Bud speaks, defending creativity and passion, the “silly, sexy, dangerous.” The mayor and others object but Bud insists, “You can’t stop something that is inside you,” a line with implications for emotion and creativity and sexuality. The mayor tries to resist, but Bud angers him, puncturing his placidity, and soon the mayor and everyone else, and the town landscapes and buildings, are in color: a new experience produces change. The ending of the film is decidedly odd: David (Tobey Maguire) decides to return to his 1990s home, but Jen (Reese Witherspoon) wants to stay in 1950s Pleasantville as Mary Sue a little longer, from which she can go to a related college; and it is not clear who Betty (Joan Allen) will be with, husband George (William H. Macy) or lover Bill (Jeff Daniels). It is a new life with knowledge gained and strange possibilities.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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