Not So “Pleasantville”
The film, “Pleasantville,” is a postmodern sociological allegory or fable released in the late Nineties. It begins in then-current time against a backdrop of the usual violence, chaos, and turbulence that we are conditioned by the media to believe characterized the Nineties in America. Two high school teenagers, David and Jennifer, played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are planning their evening.
A Tale of Two Siblings
David is planning to watch the Pleasantville marathon on television and to participate in the trivia contest that will be part of it. Pleasantville is a an old sitcom from the 1950s in the Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons style which has attained a cult-like following and is shown regularly on a cable channel similar to the “Nick at Nite” one that we know of which specialized in reruns of old sitcoms. It becomes clear that David is an ardent devotee of the show in part because it compensates for the lameness of his real life. Unlike his sister, who is portrayed as a real “firecracker” of a young woman, he doesn’t date or participate in the school scene. It is implied that he may be using the sitcom as an escape from not only a boring life but a threatening one and that he longs to live in the kind of ordered, safe, and unchallenging reality that the sitcom depicts. David is such an avid follower of the show that he is shown to be a master of “Pleasantville” trivia and is primed and eager for the contest on Pleasantville trivia.
But his sister, Jennifer, is planning for a hot date at home…their parents being away for the weekend providing an opportunity for her to be unchaperoned with her guy—which she eagerly anticipates. At odds over what will be played on the TV–Jennifer wanting to watch instead an MTV concert with her date—they wrestle over the TV remote and end up breaking it. However all is not lost as at just that moment and completely inexplicably a television repairman played by Don Knotts drives up in his truck, knocks on the door, and imposes his services on them in fixing the problem.
Don Knotts—perfectly cast, in a Jungian sense, for it is often the impish or normally overlooked and unnoticed element that initiates sweeping changes in people’s lives—indeed does introduce the magical element into the film. He produces a different kind of remote control, which he claims has special effects saying, “You want something to put you right in the show!” Sure enough, in checking out the remote they hit a mysterious button and are transported into the TV and thus into the sitcom and the town that is called Pleasantville.
To Follow Or Not to Follow “The Script”
After their initial confusion, they realize what has happened and try to return, but do not know how to. David–who it becomes apparent has been thrust into the role of Bud in the sitcom–advises his sister–Jennifer who has become Mary Sue in the TV series–to go along with events until they figure a way to get home. Since he knows all the plots of every show of the sitcom, his idea is that they act out the events as they are supposed to happen and that they do what the two characters–the teenage son and daughter of the parents in the sitcom, Betty and George Parker, played superbly by Joan Allen and William H. Macy–are known to do in the different episodes he has seen.
Essentially, then, David as Bud is advising his sister to “follow the script.” And of course it is not hard to discern at this point that we are beginning to see a metaphor for psychological realities and that “following the script” has a broader meaning for a choice that everyone must make in life in growing up, viz., to follow the script laid out for oneself by one’s parents and society in general or to follow one’s inner direction and inner guide in asserting one’s individuality and expressing one’s unique self. The rest of the movie is the story of how these two characters–transported magically from the future as well as from the real world as opposed to a made-up TV world–introduce change into the town and thereby color. Mary Sue, formerly Jennifer, does it consciously. Rebelling against her brother’s admonishments to follow the script, she goes on a date with someone she is not supposed to according to the sitcom script and then–horror of horrors for a 1950s world – engages in sex with him at the local “lover’s lane”–where the farthest that anyone goes, according to “script,” is holding hands. We find later that her date describes this unheard of experience to his classmates, and, like ripples emanating from a pebble dropped in a pond, her action results in a number of the school youth engaging in sex and thereby becoming, to everyone’s amazement, colorized!
The brother also introduces change, and therefore color, but it is done unconsciously at first. As mentioned, he tries to get his sister to follow the script. Still, in a metaphorically powerful scene, when he is late for work at the local malt shop–this is unheard of as well because “Pleasantville” is a world where no one is ever late for work–he inadvertently introduces change himself. In fact, he introduces the most insidious element of change because he explicitly advises–without realizing what he has unleashed–that his boss think for himself! In this scene Bud, formerly David, finds his boss and coworker, Mr. Johnson, played by Jeff Daniels, stuck at the end of the counter, cleaning away with a wash cloth, like a stuck record, at the same spot, even as the surface of the counter is rubbing away.
When the soda jerk, Mr. Johnson, explains confusedly that the normal regimen would have required Bud to arrive at work before he, Mr. Johnson, could go on to the rest of his chores, “Bud” simply suggests to Mr. Johnson that in the future he continue with his next chore even if Bud isn’t there.
So simply in being himself, coming from a future in which people react to change by thinking out new responses and thereby adapting to them, Bud, aka David, introduces a totally new element into the soda jerk’s script. This has far reaching consequences as the movie progresses and Mr. Johnson begins thinking for himself and having ideas about other things as well. In this way, the soda jerk, soon to be artist, too ends up “colored.”
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