Pleasantville

When CV sees a movie like Pleasantville, we get a little worried about slipping into a double standard, on the one hand, and preaching condescendingly, on the other. We don’t want to do either, but movies like this one make it difficult.

Let us say right out that we enjoyed the movie. It is very well made in the best tradition of Hollywood mass market product. It is creative in its special effects; its use of an original mix of black and white with color is crucial to the premise. The cast is appropriately capable and charming and the script is well thought out. The tone stays light, even as the lessons are being doled out.

Oops. Therein lies the problem. This is a film that spells out its points to the viewer, somewhat like a second grade teacher reciting the moral of the story. (We confess to reading a review of Pleasantville in a major "intellectual" magazine which professed to have trouble piecing together the intent here. Hello??)

Pleasantville says that passion and creativity and art and life itself are experienced only with risk and pain and the unknown future that looms before each of us. It all comes together in a messy package, not necessarily with well trimmed lawns and dinner on the table promptly every night at six. To make the point, a brother-sister team are beamed back from today’s realities of lousy job markets, AIDS, global warming, and broken homes (yes, it is all catalogued for us) into a 1950s television show not unlike, say, Ozzie and Harriet. On the surface, at least, a simpler time, problem free. (Seems to me the Ozzie and Harriet folks ended up in real life with, well, real life difficulties of their own.)

Turns out it is all artificial, of course, and our young interlopers bring a different reality into Pleasantville. The contrast between now and then, the real versus a perceived (and media-generated) ideal is the structure on which both the themes of the story and its comedy hinge.

I enjoyed some of the lines like: "We’re safe now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley." and "What were you doing in the library?" "I got lost."

But my problem with the film is that it lays it all on a little too obviously, a little too patly. How much more effective it might have been if it made the audience work – just a little – to think through the lessons, rather than have them spoon fed like pablum. We need the lessons. They would be learned with greater depth if the viewer took an active role in understanding.

Book burning and sex police and reactionary chambers of commerce must always be guarded against. People must grasp this intellectually; they must understand it in their heads as well as in their gut if the lesson is to be taken to heart.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.