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HTF Blu-ray Review: PLEASANTVILLE



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#1 of 15 Michael Reuben

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Posted February 14 2011 - 04:38 PM

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Pleasantville (Blu-ray)



Pleasantville’s insertion of color images into black-and-white photography was both a technical breakthrough and an ingenious narrative device. As Robert Harris and others have already noted in the “A few words about . . .” thread, the film’s innovative use of CGI still looks terrific even now, when many of its techniques have become routine.


But despite its unique look and inventive storyline, Pleasantville is barely remembered today. Revisiting the film for the first time since the 1999 New Line Platinum Edition DVD, I think I know why. The problems are inherent in the film’s script, which was the first one that screenwriter Gary Ross directed himself, after penning such hits as Big (with Anne Spielberg) and Dave. Since Warner was late in sending us a review copy of Pleasantville and Mr. Harris has already vouched for the Blu-ray’s technical quality (an assessment with which I agree), I want to use this review to focus on the film’s narrative – a story that struck me, on this viewing, as being fundamentally at odds with itself. It sets off in one direction, then veers off in another, as if being yanked by an authorial edict: “Thou shalt teach the viewer about tolerance.”



Studio: Warner (New Line)

Rated: PG-13

Film Length: 124 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

HD Encoding: 1080p

HD Codec: AVC

Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; Spanish (Castilian and Latin) 2.0; Portugese 2.0*

Subtitles: English SDH; Portugese (regular and Brazilian);* Spanish (Castilian and Latin);  Danish;* Finnish;* Norwegian;* Swedish*

MSRP: $19.98

Disc Format: 1 50GB

Package: Keepcase

Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 23, 1998                  

Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 1, 2011


*Though not listed on the Blu-ray case, these audio and subtitle options are included on the disc. Several other subtitle options are included in languages designated in alphabets I couldn’t identify.




The Feature:


The following discussion does not attempt to avoid spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, you are hereby warned.


Pleasantville straddles two worlds, both of which are exaggerated for comic effect. One is that of a late Nineties suburb in Southern California where brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) attend high school. Though twins, they couldn’t be more different. Jennifer reads nothing except magazines, and all her energy is devoted to being popular by any means necessary (even she calls herself a slut). David is bookish and shy with girls; his chief pleasure in life is to withdraw into the black-and-white comfort of a Fifties TV show called “Pleasantville”, which is the film’s other world. A broad parody of such series as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, “Pleasantville” depicts a harmonious life in which Dad is always home by six, supper is always on the table when he arrives, Mom and Dad sleep in twin beds, the local basketball team wins every game and there’s no problem that can’t be solved in half an hour (minus commercials).


David infinitely prefers the orderly world of “Pleasantville” to his own reality, where Mom and Dad are divorced, and Mom (a barely there Jane Kaczmarek) is off for the weekend in search of a new man. But he plans to lose himself in a “Pleasantville” marathon while Mom is away. Jennifer has more creative plans for her mother’s absence, having invited her latest prospective conquest over to the house.


When the TV remote gets smashed in a struggle between David and Jennifer, a mysterious TV repairman appears at the door as if on cue. He drives an antique-style truck and looks like he might have stepped out of Fifties TV, probably because he’s played by the legendary Don Knotts. (According to director Ross, on Knotts’s shooting days, the normally jaded film crew were transformed into child-like autograph seekers.) Impressed with David’s devotion to the “Pleasantville” show, the repairman offers him a replacement remote “with a little more oomph in it”. Then he leaves, and David and Jennifer return to fighting for control of what’s on TV. The wrong button gets pressed, and zap! They’re sucked into the screen and inserted into “Pleasantville”.


To be precise, David and Jennifer are now Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the children of George and Betty Parker (William H. Macy and Joan Allen). They’re the family at the center of “Pleasantville”, and as the fashion-conscious Jennifer stares down at her poodle skirt and her now-gray skin, she’s horrified. “I’m pasty!” she shrieks. Dad strolls through the living room completely unconcerned and tells the kids it’s time for supper.


Others films combined fictional characters with real ones (Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo are examples), but Pleasantville took the idea further than ever before, both thematically and visually. The world that David and Jennifer have entered is an artificial creation, and it’s missing much of what we take for granted, because it only contains what had to be created for the TV show.


Books have blank pages, because no one ever had to read them; the roads end at the edge of town, because no one on the show ever left; and the bathroom stalls at the high school are empty, because the camera never followed anyone inside. More importantly, characters only behave as they were scripted. When David/Bud is late for his job at the soda shop, his boss, Mr. Johnson (Purple Rose’s Jeff Daniels), doesn’t know what to do; so he just keeps wiping the counter until David appears. It falls to David to explain that, yes, it’s OK for Mr. Johnson to break routine by starting the fries, even though David/Bud hasn’t yet put out the napkins and glasses.


And there you have it: free will by way of french fries. David and Jennifer are independent, unpredictable human beings introduced into a closed system that operates by a known and limited set of rules (which is the case with most constructed narratives). Their very presence upsets what has been the “natural” order of Pleasantville’s universe. As in a time-travel story, David keeps warning Jennifer not to change anything, but he can’t help doing so himself, just by being who he is. Jennifer doesn’t even try to be careful. She’s desperate to get back until she spots handsome jock Skip Martin (Paul Walker) and learns from David that he has a crush on Mary Sue, whose place Jennifer now occupies. When Jennifer takes Skip out to lover’s lane and shows him a few things that were never written into Mary Sue’s script, Skip suddenly sees something astonishing: a red rose bursting out in the middle of Pleasantville’s black-and-white world.


In our world, color TV was a technical advancement, but the clever contrivance of Pleasantville is that color results from emotion – and not just any emotion, but one that is spontaneous, unplanned-for and doesn’t fit into the tightly scripted world in which the town had previously existed. In a comic role reversal, it falls to Jennifer to explain sex to her TV mother. When Betty can’t imagine her TV husband doing “that”, Jennifer further explains the techniques of self-pleasure, and Betty’s explorations in this regard prompt such strong feelings that she turns completely to color as well as causing a tree outside a window to burst into flame. (The latter is a challenge for a local fire department that’s never before seen a real fire.)


These eruptions of color and unpredictability into Pleasantville have rich comic potential, and some of the film’s scenes exploit them brilliantly. For example, after Betty Parker has turned to color, she leaves the house in search of someone to help her understand what’s happened. (The someone turns out to be Mr. Johnson, on whom Betty has a crush, and who has also turned, having discovered a passion for drawing.) Meanwhile, George Parker, who is still following the script, returns to his house at the usual time and announces, “Honey, I’m home!” When nothing happens, he just keeps repeating himself, like Mr. Johnson wiping down the counter. Poor George can’t understand what’s happened to his life, why the lights aren’t on and supper isn’t on the table. No one plays mounting frustration with greater skill than William H. Macy, and this sequence is one of Pleasantville’s best.


Eventually George wanders over to the bowling alley, where the town’s mayor (J.T. Walsh) and other husbands are engaged in their usual evening’s entertainment. George sinks into his seat and recounts his sorry plight, and others come forth with tales of wives who’ve stopped behaving “normally”. And that’s where Pleasantville starts to fall apart.


Having established the basic premise that spontaneous, unscripted feeling and behavior turns people to color, Ross proceeds to violate his own rules left and right. In reaction to the “good” free will represented by Jennifer and David (and, through them, Betty and Mr. Johnson), citizens of the town push back in numerous ways. None of what they do has been scripted for them, all of it is spontaneous, and much of it is actually quite creative (at least from the point of view of people whose lives have been as circumscribed as those of Pleasantville’s residents). But none of these people change color, apparently because they’re not using their free will in ways that are deemed “appropriate”. Signs appear that read “No Coloreds”. A mob storms Mr. Johnson’s soda shop. Another burns a pile of books from the library, which are considered dangerous because they now have text (since David remembers what’s supposed to be between the covers). A detailed code of conduct is drawn up for a town that never needed one before. A group of young men menaces Betty, leading David to punch one of them in defense of his TV mom.


(On the commentary, Ross claims that it’s David who introduces violence to the town, but this gives too little credit to the other boys; while David may strike the first blow, they figured out how to menace Betty all on their own, and threatened violence is still violence.)


Somewhere along the line, Ross appears to have confused the sparks that fly when reality bumps up against an idealized, imaginary world with certain cultural and political issues that have divided America for decades. An acknowledged liberal whose father was a blacklisted screenwriter, Ross seems to have assumed that characters unaccustomed to free will and complex emotional lives would immediately turn to anti-intellectualism, racism and demagoguery, unless guided by more “experienced” hands such as David’s and Jennifer’s. But that’s a huge leap, especially since the behavior from those opposed to David’s and Jennifer’s influence is both elaborate and highly specific for people who have only just been introduced to a bigger world than the tightly scripted environs of “Pleasantville”. What started off as gentle parody of Fifties TV (which, as Ross admits in the commentary, was hardly a realistic portrait of that era’s life) becomes a mean-spirited allegory of reactionary narrowness.


As the film’s theme shifts, the device of having emotional awakening reflected by color loses it charm, because it's no longer applied consistently. In the elaborate scene where the mob storms Mr. Johnson’s soda shop, there are repeated close-ups of faces contorted with passion. The intended effect may be to show the absurdity of mob violence being incited by something as innocent as a colorful nude painting (it’s Mr. Johnson’s art that’s upset everyone). But one can’t help wondering: Why isn’t every angry person in this crowd turning to color?


It’s not as if only “good” emotions cause the change. Anger’s power as a color-inducing emotion is crucial to the plot’s resolution in a climactic courtroom scene that deliberately recalls To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” seated in the upper gallery and the (black-and-) whites seated below. David provokes the mayor into a fury much like that of the mob’s and thereby succeeds in turning both the mayor and the entire town to color, winning his and Mr. Johnson’s acquittal in the process. Why didn’t the mob achieve a similar effect? Why could the town only be turned to color through the intervention of a well-meaning outsider who reads a lot and makes speeches about tolerance, free will and love?


The entire courtroom scene shouldn’t be necessary, but by this point Pleasantville has changed gears and Ross is making a different film. He’s no longer exploring the untidiness of free will so much as he’s lecturing the bigoted, the narrow-minded and the populist yokels about the “right” way to behave. And he’s doing it in the most offensive way possible by having the citizens of Pleasantville, who couldn’t even figure out sex on their own, instantly grasp book-burning, mob violence and “no coloreds” discimination when their way of life is threatened. Either these behaviors are such basic archetypes that even fictional characters can produce them spontaneously, or Ross has mixed his metaphors so thoroughly that they’ve lost any semblance of meaning.


Nothing confirms Pleasantville’s incoherence more than its ending. David returns to the present, where, apparently, the “Pleasantville” broadcast marathon is continuing unchanged despite the complete transformation of the TV town that he and Jennifer have just accomplished. As for Jennifer, she decides to stay and go to college. And why is that exactly? Because she wants to be something other than the slutty girl she’d been in the present. So . . . she elects a pre-feminist Fifties education at a college that’s only recently been “willed” into existence by the intrusion of her and her brother into a world that, until their arrival, ended at the border of Pleasantville – a college stocked with books that will be blank unless her brother happened to have read them (it’s been established that Jennifer never finished a book until now), where the only knowledge is what Jennifer herself brings into it, and where the faculty will teach . . . what exactly?


Sorry, I forgot; we abandoned that whole construct when director Ross switched to lecturing the yahoos. Instead, we’ve entered a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Betty Parker can be sitting on a park bench with both her husband and Mr. Johnson (or maybe not), no hard choices have to be made, and all the mean people have either been colorized or erased from the picture.



Video:


The Blu-ray’s image is sharply detailed, with grain that’s noticeable but never intrusive. The various shades of gray in the black-and-white images are beautifully delineated, and even softer colors seem brighter when they are isolated within a B&W image. The B&W photography was achieved by post-processing of color photography, but there does not appear to have been any additional post-processing of the Blu-ray image to remove detail or noise, nor did I notice any motion artifacts. This is a first-rate transfer of some very challenging material.



Audio:


Randy Newman’s wonderful score gets a full soundstage across the front three speakers, and it sounds terrific on the DTS lossless track. The rest of the mix is focused toward the front, in keeping with the notion of a Fifties TV world. Dialogue is consistently clear.



Special Features:


All of the special features have been ported from the 1999 Platinum Edition DVD. Not included from the Platinum Edition are a storyboard gallery and the screenplay, with additional storyboards, that was available as DVD-ROM material.


Commentary by Writer/Director GaryRoss. This was Ross’s first film as a director, and his background as a screenwriter are strongly reflected in his attention to theme and character. But Pleasantville was a demanding film technically, and Ross makes numerous interesting observations on the film’s mixing of color with black-and-white photography. He’s also insightful in pointing out the added dimensions that the talented cast brought to his words.


Isolated Score Track with Commentary by Composer Randy Newman. This is one of the most memorable and distinctive commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, because Newman is one of a kind. Except for music, he takes nothing and nobody seriously, especially not himself. He’s cynical about directors (though not about Ross, whom he considers a friend), dubious about the state of contemporary film music (he calls himself a well-paid “farmer’s mule”), never entirely certain whether his music is actually contributing anything, no matter how hard he’s worked on it, constantly second-guesses himself – but still says he’d rather write film scores than any other kind of music. (After all, it’s the family business. Cousin Thomas’ scores include WALL-E, American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption; cousin David’s scores include Serenity and Galaxy Quest; Uncle Alfred’s Oscar collection included statues for The King and I, Camelot, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and The Song of Bernadette – and that’s not even the whole family tree.)


Newman speaks during pauses between music cues, some of which were not used in the final mix. An unidentified voice introduces the cues. The track is mastered in Dolby Digital at 640kb/ps, which is a significant improvement over the DVD track.


The Art of Pleasantville (SD; 4:3) (32:37). Interviews with various artisans responsible for the look of the film, including cinematographer John Lindley.


“Across the Universe” Music Video by Fiona Apple (SD; 1:85, centered in 4:3) (4:30). Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.


Theatrical Trailer (SD; 1;85:1, enhanced for 16:9) (2:32).



In Conclusion:


When reality meets idealized fiction, the clash can generate sparks of tragic grandeur and shards of comic realism. Don Quixote is the classic model, and it’s never been excelled. Pleasantville’s technicolor windmills start off promisingly, but by the end all that’s been generated is a conceptual muddle. That’s why the film hasn’t lingered in the memory. It’s a series of effects without coherence – the thinking man’s version of a Transformers movie.




Equipment used for this review:


Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)

Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)

Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough

Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier                                                                                                                                       

Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears

Boston Accoustics VR-MC center

SVS SB12-Plus sub


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#2 of 15 Adam Gregorich

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Posted February 14 2011 - 05:32 PM

Very interesting take on the movie.  I didn't think about some of the issues you mentioned the first time I saw it.  I'll be interested to see how I feel after watching the BD,



#3 of 15 David_B_K

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Posted February 15 2011 - 02:11 AM

Great review, Michael. That's exactly the way I have always seen the movie.



#4 of 15 Colin Jacobson

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Posted February 15 2011 - 09:57 AM

I agree with this review.  When I wrote up the movie for my own review many years ago, I felt the same way: it's essentially propaganda that pretends to support free thought but really only supports free thought with which it agrees.  Heavy-handed claptrap!


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#5 of 15 Hollywoodaholic

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Posted February 16 2011 - 02:30 AM

My fourteen year-old son loved the movie without even pondering the subtext. He enjoyed it on a purely entertainment level (and this from a kid who doesn't usually watch anything black & white). We adults are more cynically-tuned, but it is possible to just appreciate this on a lighter level.



#6 of 15 Michael Reuben

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Posted February 16 2011 - 02:52 AM

Thanks for the reference, Colin. An interesting read. I'm probably closer to your father's interpretation, because, like him, I started from the internal inconsistencies in the use of color, then worked outward. You also seem to have identified a greater thematic consistency than I was able to with your idea of the film as an "attempt to deify the 1960s". I'm not willing to concede Pleasantville that much coherence, which is why I opted for a more generic phrase ("cultural and political issues that have divided America for decades" -- I probably should have said "centuries" Posted Image ).


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#7 of 15 Chad R

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Posted February 16 2011 - 08:30 AM

Huh, I never read it as "emotion" that precipitated the colorization, so much as the willingness to change. I guess there's several different ways to read it.



#8 of 15 Michael Reuben

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Posted February 16 2011 - 09:25 AM


Originally Posted by Hollywoodaholic 

My fourteen year-old son loved the movie without even pondering the subtext. He enjoyed it on a purely entertainment level (and this from a kid who doesn't usually watch anything black & white). We adults are more cynically-tuned, but it is possible to just appreciate this on a lighter level.


That sounds like the defense of a popcorn movie. Maybe I was onto something with the Transformers reference. Posted Image


Originally Posted by Chad R 

Huh, I never read it as "emotion" that precipitated the colorization, so much as the willingness to change. I guess there's several different ways to read it.


If there's anything in the mayor's tirade at trial that indicates a willingess to change, I can't find it.


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#9 of 15 PaulDA

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Posted March 05 2011 - 05:15 AM

I'd have to re-watch the film to be sure, but as far as I can remember, Betty (the mom) does NOT change to colour immediately after her "hot bath". She changes in the kitchen when George is asking for the snacks (for the mayor). Also, before people start changing, objects are the first to undergo a colour change and many people see the coloured objects without changing themselves. Could not the changes, then, be triggered by an acceptance of the "truthfulness" of the coloured perspective? No matter the strength of an emotional reaction in the film, it seems the change of colour in people stems from the moment when they adopt the view that the coloured perspective offers them something better than the previous one OR when they are confronted with irrefutable evidence that the colour is not going to go away (again, I've only seen the film once, so my theory is admittedly tenuous).


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#10 of 15 Paul Penna

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Posted March 05 2011 - 05:32 AM

I agree with your take on the film. What starts out as a sweet and whimsical tale becomes a tedious and heavy-handed sermon. I wind up feeling betrayed, like after a few bites into a nice, shiny red apple and then finding a worm.



#11 of 15 Rodney

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Posted March 05 2011 - 07:47 AM



Originally Posted by Colin Jacobson 

I agree with this review.  When I wrote up the movie for my own review many years ago, I felt the same way: it's essentially propaganda that pretends to support free thought but really only supports free thought with which it agrees.  Heavy-handed claptrap!


I totally agree!


What an interesting thread this has turned out to be. It is refreshing to read that others feel the same way as I do about this film. I was extremely disappointed with this film when I saw it.


Thanks for the review, Michael.


-Rodney


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#12 of 15 Michael Reuben

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Posted March 05 2011 - 08:20 AM


Originally Posted by PaulDA 

I'd have to re-watch the film to be sure, but as far as I can remember, Betty (the mom) does NOT change to colour immediately after her "hot bath". She changes in the kitchen when George is asking for the snacks (for the mayor).


Your memory is exactly right. Objects turn to color around Betty's bath, but she herself remains B&W long enough to attend the ceremony at which "Bud" is awarded a medal for helping to save the town from its first fire.



Quote:

Originally Posted by PaulDA 

Also, before people start changing, objects are the first to undergo a colour change and many people see the coloured objects without changing themselves. Could not the changes, then, be triggered by an acceptance of the "truthfulness" of the coloured perspective? No matter the strength of an emotional reaction in the film, it seems the change of colour in people stems from the moment when they adopt the view that the coloured perspective offers them something better than the previous one OR when they are confronted with irrefutable evidence that the colour is not going to go away (again, I've only seen the film once, so my theory is admittedly tenuous).


That's an interesting and inventive approach. But when you next watch the film, see whether you can square it with the courtroom scene.


Originally Posted by Rodney 

What an interesting thread this has turned out to be. It is refreshing to read that others feel the same way as I do about this film. I was extremely disappointed with this film when I saw it.


I seem to have provided an outlet for everyone who had issues with Pleasantville, while the fans gathered in Robert Harris' thread. Posted Image  The odd thing is that I didn't have a strong reaction either way when I first saw it in the theater, probably because I was dazzled by the effects. It was only on this recent viewing that the mixed messages (and that's putting it mildly) seemed so glaring.


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#13 of 15 PaulDA

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Posted March 05 2011 - 08:46 AM

I'm tempted to re-watch the film tonight (if I'm not too sleepy after the hockey game). If not tonight, definitely soon as I am now curious to see how my theory holds up (or not).


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#14 of 15 RickER

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Posted March 05 2011 - 09:02 AM

My take has always been that Pleasantville was not only black and white in look, but also in life. There was no gray area (ha! a funny) in what they believed.

They were perfect, they had no sin, and they also had no choices. Once they saw they could make a choice, free will, good or bad, the "garden of Eden" began to change around them.

Once a person "saw the light", they too would change to color.


I bought the Blu-ray, but have not watched it yet. As I recall from the last time i watched the movie, 7 or 8 years ago so I could be remembering wrong, one of the first things to change color was an apple.


My 2 cents, for what it's worth.



#15 of 15 PaulDA

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Posted March 05 2011 - 02:47 PM

The apple is an early convert to colour and your observation about viewpoints being "black and white" dovetails with some of the ideas I've had since my last post (though I've not watched it again). I'd like to add the following to my theory for further discussion:


Each character in Pleasantville is limited by his (or her) narrowly defined characteristics--the "good parents", "the silly girls", the "simple-minded jock" and so on. Consider that, even as their universe begins to change (in subtle and unsubtle fashion), the characters tend to be guided by their defining characteristics in their reactions to that change. Some teens change faster than others (roughly mirroring teens that are perhaps more open to experiment and change than others). Others cling to their original mould (they are strongly defined in archetypical roles--father (George), mayor, older generation) for much longer. The mayor, in particular, is interesting to consider. He appears to be designed as a character to which everyone else, particularly the 40+ crowd, is "programmed" to defer (witness the scene at the barber shop). He has the most to lose from the change AND he is in the most powerful position to sway others--others who are pre-disposed to both follow directions (scripted behaviour) and especially directions from "the leader".


So, if we combine a threatened leader who holds considerably sway over a significant portion of the population (and who might be inclined to strongly resist change), with a pretty clear (though not uniform) breakdown of older vs younger people in the town (apart from Mr. Johnson (?) and "the mom", most of the colour converts are quite young IIRC) AND the less imaginative teens/less rebellious teens (of which there are many in real life--I taught high school for nearly 10 years and I've seen the gamut), you get a critical mass of people who resist the change in increasingly severe terms.


As for the courtroom scene, I will have to re-watch it to see if it fits my theory or not. From what I remember, though, the final change happens when David (Bud) forces the mayor to concede that change, regardless of its desirability, is irreversible. The leader's resistance to change is thus broken, clearing the way to making the changes "universal". (I propose this with some reservation pending a re-watching of the film).


I do concur that the final wrap-up is weak (though not enough to prevent me from enjoying the film overall). The marathon of shows should have been colourized, at the very least, and the decision of Jennifer (Mary-Sue) to stay behind is inconsistent with the rest of the film.


At any rate, this is far more analysis than I ever anticipated doing of a film that I considered a pleasant (pun intended) diversion when I watched it. But that is one of the beauties of film--something seemingly simple can (though does not always, by any stretch) provoke thoughtful reflection and discussion. In the end, this thread has made me appreciate the film all the more for having prompted such a discussion. My thanks to the reviewer for prodding me to dig deeper into the film.


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