This is a revised re-posting from my other blog, which is a Porsche.
In many ways, Pleasantville is crashingly obvious and quite crass in its delivery of its message. In other ways, though, it’s beautifully done, and an example of wonderful visual storytelling. Every time I watch it, there are scenes that take my breath away. A lot of it is obvious, yes, but still done in a refreshingly upfront way. Once you’ve made the decision to tell a story through the gradual introduction of colour to a black and white world, well, you might as well go for it. Why hold back?
Tobey Maguire plays (true to form) David, a lonely nerd, who is fraternally twinned with Jennifer, his “slutty” sister played by Reese Witherspoon. Jennifer is mortified to be related to David. We first see David after a couple of standard establishing shots of the modern American high school he and his sister both attend. Here Director Gary Ross plays with our expectations of shot-reverse shot, and has David conducting a conversation with a pretty girl:
Note that David is off-centre to the right, while the girl is off-centre to the left. The background in both shots is out of focus, so they both stand in isolation. Thus our expectations of how a conversation might be filmed are toyed with. Before long, the traditional ringing of the school bell signals the end of the establishing moments outside the school, but not before David is revealed to be talking to himself, and standing alone and isolated in a featureless modern environment under a clear blue sky:
The wide angle here serves to emphasise his separation from his environment, while the lack of trees shrieks of Modernity Gone Wrong. Before long we are in class, where a series of vignettes shows us the relentlessly miserable and harsh world that these high school kids are growing up in.
The camera moves slowly in over the heads of the students in class after class as teacher after teacher delivers the downbeat message so beloved of teenagers since they were invented: no future:
Even if they manage to find one of the rare future jobs, the message goes, they’ll probably die of AIDS, or find their world disappearing under a deluge, or blowing away in a famine dustbowl.
No wonder, then, that David finds refuge in his favourite 50s family sit-com, Pleasantville, whose repetitive dialogue and ultra-safe world is as warm and friendly as his is cold and isolating – in spite of being in black and white.
David sits at home watching his favourite fictional family, even as his mother tries to persuade his reluctant absent father to take responsibility for the kids for just one weekend.
We see David slouching on the couch, surrounded by his comforts (crisps and coke, remote control), but his eyes keep drifting off screen right, to the sound of his mother’s voice as she tries to dump him on his dad, and discusses her new relationship. We see the mother on the phone a couple of times, and then we get the shot above, showing David’s fictional and perfect mum and dad on the right, and his reluctant mother (Jane Kaczmarek, playing the same kind of mother she is in Malcolm in the Middle – perhaps the modern day anti-Pleasantville) over on the left – and through a doorway.
That doorway is important, because it emphasises David’s isolation. She’s through a door in another room, which might as well be another world. He views his mother through doorways and windows, like a boy in a bubble. Such a stark contrast, then, to Bud in Pleasantville, who is shown (immediately after this) walking confidently through a doorway to greet his perfect family:
Doorways aren’t barriers to Bud, who is comfortable in his skin, and might as well be able to walk on water.
Events take their turn, and Jennifer and David end up – somehow – inside their TV set, inside Pleasantville, playing the parts of Bud and Mary Sue Parker. Suddenly David/Bud, who knows the show inside out, is at home and on top of his game (as witnessed by his inability to miss a basketball shot), while his sister Jennifer/Mary Sue is completely out of sorts. She’s a confident girl, though, and after initial qualms, goes along with things on David’s advice.
In a neat contrast with the earlier classroom scenes, we see Mary Sue sitting in a very different geography lesson (one not involving global warming and possible famine), where her body language marks her out from her peers, just as David’s body language in the earlier scene had marked him:
We view Mary Sue from the right, and we see the others in class sitting upright with their hands clasped in front of them. David, earlier, had adopted the upright pose, while many others in the class behind him sit slouched, cheeks resting on fists. The angle of the camera on David is slightly above, while the angle of the camera on Mary Sue is slightly below.
When Mary Sue takes Skip out to Lover’s Lane, Bud panics and runs home from his job in the diner. His father joins him on the porch for a man-to-man chat.
Here we get a wonderful echoing of an Edward Hopper painting (Summer Evening):
The painting could feature the equivalent of Bud/Mary Sue, or it could be Mary Sue with Skip – the boy trying to persuade the girl to come out with him. In the film, as Bud adopts the girl’s pose on the porch, Mary Sue herself is leading Skip into temptation.
When Skip eventually arrives home, we get our first splash of Pleasantville colour:
Red, of course, is the colour of both passion and danger, and we’ve a little bit of both here, and Skip’s puzzled reaction is just the dawning of the raising of consciousness that goes on all over town in the days to come. I think the use of the rose itself is a little joke. Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose has said that he likes the idea of the rose, because roses are so heavy with symbolism (ironically, often used when introducing students to semiotics) that they’re actually fairly worthless as signifiers, because they could mean anything (like the colour red, in fact). But, you know, at least the rose, when it’s a rose, is a rose, whereas when the flower is gone, all we have left are words. Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.
This line, a quote, refers to the materiality of the signifier, the key differences between the thing itself, its name, and its meaning. There are various translations of the line, which you can read about on Wikipedia. Signs, according to semiotics, have two parts, but if you take into account the (literal) materiality of the signifier, they have three. This idea appeals to me because, as you know, I am fond of typography, and always pay attention to the forms of the letters, their shapes, as well as to the words they form and the things that the words mean.
Anyway, back to Skip’s reaction:
Pleasantville goes on to offer a tour-de-force of special effects, from the black and white girl growing a pink bubble, to the wonderful scene when Bud and Margaret arrive at the Lover’s Lane, driving at first in a black and white car under trees shedding pink blossom, and arriving in a yellow car at an Eden-like lake surrounded by green vegetation, and kids in various stages of colourisation. You can see more in my Pleasantville Slide Show over at Slideshare. 4388 viewers can’t be wrong.
Sometimes the message can get crass and overblown. The signs that go up in some shots saying “No Coloureds” are almost insulting in a film with an all-white cast. On the other hand, all of the events of the film – from book burnings and art desecration to (implied) racism, the feminist revolution, and the growth of rock ‘n’ roll – all are drawn from American history over the past 50 years.
And I can forgive the occasional bum note, because the performances in the film are wonderful, and the story is well told, and the point it has to make about raising consciousness – about accepting that with increased knowledge and enlightenment come responsibility and difficulties – is an important one. Reese Witherspoon is perfectly cast, as the good girl pretending to be bad pretending to be good, and the poignancy of Jeff Daniels’ performance (and his scenes with Joan Allen) outweigh the mawkishness. There are so many scenes that take my breath away: the aforementioned car arriving at the Eden by the lake and pink bubble, the burning bush, and the use of paintings (which – just as in Ferris Bueller – always makes me cry) are just a few.
It’s important, I think, that a lot of the paintings we see are Modern art (i.e. modernism, because Pleasantville (the place) itself is very much pre-Modern, a realist world in which cause follows effect and standard Hollywood storytelling applies. But to have members of the audience interacting with the show, well: some would call this a postmodern experience, but I’m more likely to argue that this – like the paintings in the film – is Modern.
The use of colour in films is a difficult subject – just because they can mean so many things both culturally and contextually – and this film shows us just how complex and multi-layered are the meanings of colours can be. In a way, the film is a response to the backlash against so-called political correctness. We no longer live in that innocent world of moral absolutes and black and white. Instead we have shades and shades of colour, and we face all kinds of difficulties in dealing with the introduction of colour into our lives. But it’s worth it. Sometimes you feel uncomfortable, but the world is a vibrant, exciting place, full of wonder and possibility.