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)
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*
Disc Format: 1 50GB
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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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