Based on advance word, I expected Pleasantville to be a winsome fable akin to The Truman Show; a fable essentially contrasting charming but insular 1950s small-town culture and unpredictable but exciting 1990s mass culture. Instead, what I got was a smarmy morality play in which all prejudice, intolerance, and oppression comes from hidebound traditionalists, while those who dare to question their world and themselves and expand their horizons are invariably gentle, enlightened souls who naturally suffer at the hands of the first group.
The film’s premise takes two teenaged 1990s siblings named David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) and magically transports them into the world of an imaginary classic 1950’s black-and-white sitcom called "Pleasantville," where their very presence begins, subtly at first, to change that world. This change is betokened by the gradual addition of color — first a single rose, then a particular person, then other objects and people, and so on. Eventually, the remaining black-and-white populace, threatened by this insidious and unstoppable wave of change, bands together to fight the apparent threat.
The film’s central conceit is that the process of colorization is spread through acts of exploration or self-discovery by which people step outside their customary ways into a new world. In the black-and-white world of the 1950s TV sitcom, one common means of transformation is sexual activity, which didn’t exist in "Pleasantville" until the teenagers (Jennifer in particular) introduced it. When Jennifer gently explains the facts of life to her sitcom mother (Joan Allen), the latter is certain that her prosaic husband (William H. Macy) could never be induced to engage in such activity; so Jennifer proceeds to coach her mother (offscreen) on how to commit self-abuse. The mother then proceeds to do so, with such explosive results that by a kind of sympathetic magic the tree in the front yard bursts into flame.
The colorization of the mother leads to one of the most insidious and disturbing applications of the whole color metaphor. Naturally, the mother cannot reveal her colorized appearance to her husband. Thus David, the teenaged boy, finds her at one point cowering in the darkened kitchen, hiding from the calls of her perplexed husband in the living room, who wants her to wait upon him and a guest (which she, the perfect hostess, has always previously done). Seeing her dilemma, David takes one of her old makeup kits, still neutral grey, and proceeds to carefully make her up so that she appears black-and-white. This scene might play as a mere plot-device, except for the fact that the camera lingers over it for so long, giving us a series of extended close-ups as the natural, healthy color of her skin disappears under a patina of inert grey.
This scene, which one critic inexplicably called "surprisingly touching," in fact plays as a disturbing metaphor for a woman forced by social expectations to bury her true self for the sake of a domestic illusion. And, indeed, I did find the scene disturbing, though for the light it sheds, not on marriage and family, but on the filmmakers’ intentions. (Revealingly, it is another man who is not her husband who later appreciates her for who she is and literally uncovers her true colors.)
Almost as objectionable is the whole suggestion that those who realize the movie’s values of accepting change and expanding one’s horizons are never guilty of oppressing others with different values; that oppression and intolerance always comes from cultural "conservatives." A co-worker of mine said it best: "For a movie that makes such a big deal about color, Pleasantville is awfully black and white."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.