Our Towns

At once generous and authoritarian, outgoing and self-absorbed, eager-to-please and ruthless, American entertainment has a natural desire to be everything to everyone--its human embodiment would be Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. But can such an other-directed force ever truly reflect upon itself?

With the elaborately allegorical Pleasantville, the entertainment industry strains to ponder just this ontological question. Gary Ross's first directorial outing--after writing speeches for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, as well as the scripts for Big and Dave--is the latest example of that special-effects­driven American magic realism rooted in It's a Wonderful Life and The Twilight Zone. The setting is a media hall of mirrors, as contemporary teen twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (an overaged Reese Witherspoon) are transported not back to the 1950s but into its representation--the echt, ersatz '50s TV sitcom Pleasantville.

The movie Pleasantville is just clever enough to recognize its imaginary namesake as a form of sociological camp, attractive for its corny negation of the modern world. (Ross makes an obvious point in juxtaposing the TV show's black-and-white cheerfulness with 1998 teenagers absorbing all manner of depressing stats on jobs, AIDS, and ecology.) The sitcom is essentially the same artificial world as The Truman Show, but Ross gives it a less paranoid, more obviously political inflection by having it promoted on the film's equivalent of Nick at Nite with such post-'50s buzz terms as "family values" and "kinder, gentler."

TV notion: Macy and Allen in Pleasantville
Ralph Nelson/ New Line Cinema
TV notion: Macy and Allen in Pleasantville


Written and directed by Gary Ross
A New Line release

Written and directed by Trey Parker
An October Films release

The Pleasantville show is a pleasingly skillful simulation, not least in the hyperreal performances of Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the ideal parents. Because this is TV, the rain never falls, and the temperature is always 72 degrees. Toilets and double beds don't exist. "We're like stuck in nerdville," Jennifer moans as, re-outfitted in a cardigan and poodle skirt, she joins her new peer group as they file into school under the American flag. Lived, as opposed to watched on television, Pleasantville has no laugh track, but given the simplicity of its moral universe it scarcely needs one.

With the new power of the Internet, it has apparently become easier for the movies to imagine their old enemy TV as our sole cultural referent. Jesus may be conspicuous by his absence from this particular moral regime, but Ross has no difficulty imagining God's representative as a cosmic TV repairman (Don Knotts). Still, Pleasantville is not without its Old Testament metaphors. Having already nibbled the apple back in the World, Jennifer introduces sex into this drab Eden--and, by thus raising the excitement quotient, makes it more entertaining. This transformation is signified in showbiz terms by the gradual introduction of color--a miracle reinforced by such biblical tropes as a burning bush and a comforting rainbow.

Funny for about half an hour, Pleasantville thereafter becomes an increasingly lugubrious, ultimately exasperating mix of technological wonder and ideological idiocy. (Stop reading here if you plan to be surprised.) The sexual metaphor is wildly inconsistent. Having seduced the gee-whiz captain of the basketball team, Jennifer is free to put on glasses and start reading books. Soon all the cool kids are out on Lover's Lane participating in a Technicolor orgy of secular humanism as they devour Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Eventually, these proponents of teen sex, '50s rock and roll, and good books become Pleasantville's persecuted "colored" people with the black-and-white "no-changists" of the Chamber of Commerce conducting themselves like Nazi brownshirts.

Say what? Father Knows Best as Triumph of the Will? Seemingly haunted by the specter of Pat Robertson's cable network and the early stages of the last presidential campaign, when (at the urging of village scold William Bennett) Bob Dole focused his geriatric fire on Hollywood, Ross feels duty-bound to correct the outmoded entertainment of the 1950s, which has somehow lodged itself in the collective brain of the fundamentalist right as the simulation of a lost American past.

Thus does Hollywood defend itself against itself. The clichés are summoned to the rescue. Ross may believe that he is liberating the uptight Eisenhower era with a zipless '60s sexual and cultural revolution, but, if anything, Pleasantville is a colorized imitation of New Dealish Capracorn. (Even its feeble Freudian justification for "silly, sexy, dangerous" art is basically '40s: "You can't stop something that's inside you" is a phrase familiar to the most casual devotee of film noir.)

It's wild to see a big-budget Hollywood movie lifting the cudgels for "modern art" (or at least the modern art of 75 years ago), but Pleasantville is just as predicated on denial as the TV show it spoofs. Is it churlishly p.c. to note that, all diversity-babble and color metaphors to the contrary, the new, improved Pleasantville is no less comfortably white and heterosexual (or middle-class and suburban) than the old place? Or that the we-are-the-world epiphany that ends the movie is completely mediated by the (newly color) TV and that the coda is a nauseating replica of a 1984 Ronald Reagan "Morning in America" ad?

Proposing that entertainment will solve the "problems" that entertainment has itself created, this hermetically sealed package gives new meaning to the term bubble brain. For that alone, the trope "Pleasantville" deserves to become Op-Ed discourse. This is the year's most richly confused social metaphor, and you can stick that in the ads.

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