Pleasantville: A Subversive Allegory

“Pleasantville” was a 1998 film starring a young Tobey Maguire as Dave, a high schooler whom his popular slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) considers a hopeless dork. He fixates on re-runs of a bland 1950s family TV show, “Pleasantville.”

Enter Don Knotts as a mysterious TV repairman who, long story short, zaps Dave and Jennifer into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, slotting them into the roles of that family’s kids.

UnknownIn Pleasantville it never rains, the high school basketball team never loses (never misses a shot), and sex never occurs. It’s not necessary because the town is frozen in time, as are its inhabitants, never having been younger than they are now, hence they didn’t have to be conceived. (This is unstated, but inferred.) Also, Pleasantville is the entirety of existence. Outside its borders there is nothing.

Dave and Jennifer manage to find the repairman on their TV, and beg to go back home. The repairman only agrees to think about it. But meantime, Jennifer alters her character’s chaste relationship with her boyfriend. In “Lover’s Lane,” they have sex.

Thus begins the shattering of Pleasantville’s stasis. Unknown-1Other kids follow to Lover’s Lane. Then, suddenly, inconspicuously at first, amid the black-and-white, a flower blooms into color!

Of course it spreads, this metaphor for change, knowledge, and liberation. Soon, some of the kids themselves are turning colorized. The basketball team loses.

Unknown-2The Mom remarks she doesn’t know what goes on in Lover’s Lane. So Jennifer gives her The Talk: “When two people love each other . . . .” Mom, shocked, says “George [her husband] would never do anything like that!” But Jennifer explains that a woman even by herself . . . . and next thing, Mom is in the bathtub on a self-discovery voyage.

The result is so explosive that a tree by the house bursts into flame. imagesThere’d never been a fire in Pleasantville, and the firemen don’t know what to do. Dave shows them, and puts the fire out, becoming the town hero. This gets him a girlfriend, Margaret, who’d been someone else’s – further rocking the town’s seemingly eternal verities.

Its still mainly black-and-white population sees the colorized minority as a threat to its way of life, and conflict brews, even turning violent. In one scene, Margaret’s ex-boyfriend accosts the pair and ends with a taunt about “your colored girlfriend.” Soon we see a shopkeeper putting up a sign: NO COLOREDS.images-1

To the film’s credit, having made the point, it doesn’t belabor this riff. Indeed, I found the movie hilarious, but in a marvelously droll, understated way. A real masterpiece of cinematic art.

I also saw it as a political allegory, for fairly obvious reasons. There’s even a book-burning scene. But it was more than political. When the repairman finally reappears, Dave has changed his mind, and wants to stay in Pleasantville. But now he’s told he and his sister have messed the place up and must leave. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Dave protests. “Oh yes you did,” the repairmen replies – and shows a replay of Dave biting into a big red apple.Unknown-3

But Dave refuses expulsion from his newfound paradise. He turns off the TV, and with it, the repairman.

I’ve always loathed the Adam and Eve story. Never mind the atrocious idea of punishing unborn generations for a sin committed by others; and even the idea, more vile still, that someone had to be tortured to death to expiate that sin; but what was this so-called “sin?” Effectively, seeking knowledge. That’s no sin. It’s our great virtue. If there’s a God who’d punish this, our response should be not obedience but rebellion.

Apparently the makers of “Pleasantville” thought so too.

Of course, the revolution triumphs. In the end, all Pleasantville emerges into glorious color. And there is a world outside it (where Jennifer, reformed, goes off to college, to get more knowledge).

And the repairman is never heard from again.

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4 Responses to “Pleasantville: A Subversive Allegory”

  1. komarovstyle Says:

    Nice blog….

  2. blogajaxcc Says:

    Thanks Frank .. I may watch Pleasantville now. It might interest you to know that the “apple” was a Pomegranate. Western Europeans saw the depiction of the fruit in art. Our southern Italian ancestors would have such wares from 12th century Palestine etc.

  3. blogajaxcc Says:

    Ummm .. it took a while for the images to resolve but was that your intended image for the pleasantville bathtub scene? Or do I really need to watch the movie?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    It was not an image from the movie (she was dark haired; and there was actually no nudity shown). I did a search to find an image that would tell the story — without being TOO smutty.

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