Life (Lessons) in “Pleasantville”

 

Life in Pleasantville is perfect.
You can eat whatever you want, basketball players never miss a shot and the team never loses a game. The fire department only rescues cats in trees because nothing burns. It’s always Spring, the temperature is always 72 degrees and it never rains. Married couples sleep in twin beds, no one has sex, and books have no actual words. Good things are “swell.” The streets are clean, and so is the vocabulary; the strongest word is “gosh.”

Life in Pleasantville is predictable.
There are only two roads, and both go nowhere. People know one another, and everyone gets along because everyone behaves exactly as expected, with the same shared “family values.” Mother stays home and dinner is ready when Father arrives from work. Kids play sports, do their homework, hang out at the Malt Shop, listen to wholesome music, don’t question authority and never disrespect their elders. It's scripted, which is comfortable and easy. There are no challenges, no hassles and no need to take risks.

Life in Pleasantville is also plain!
It’s in black and white. There is no individuality, no creativity, no self-expression, no questions about the way things are supposed to be and nowhere else to go. Everyone, every place, every place is bland and banal.

change-in-pleasantville

But suddenly, outside influences arrive and life in Pleasantville begins to change. Slowly at first, color appears as the citizens discover things they’ve been missing—art, music, books, individuality, personal freedom, authenticity...and sex. As person after person experiences their own individual revelation, they are changed from black and white into color. For some, it’s gradual; for others, sudden.

As I re-watched this intriguing movie this past weekend, I was barraged with the many obvious and subtle messages. Yes, some are a bit heavy-handed and blatant, such as when Bud’s (David) date sees a red apple on a black-and-white tree, picks it and hands it to him. And once some begin to change, "those  people" are excluded, including "No Coloreds" signs in shop windows. (In a town meeting to discuss what to do about all the changes, the room is segregated similar to the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

 

It's fun movie, with engaging characters, an inspiring story...and it's dazzling to watch. Here are just a few of my insights:

false-nostalgia

The Fallacy of Nostalgia
Pleasantville is not a real place, and I think that’s the point. We are reminded these old shows are fiction, idealized glorifications that don’t portray actual communities, people or families. Longing for those “good old days” and advocating for a return to “traditional family values” is false nostalgia, escapism and futile. At best, they are wishful remembrances of a former time. But it is not reality!

The Security of Predictability
At the beginning of the film, all of our main characters are content in their own form of complacency. David uses TV (and an imaginary family) to escape a broken home. Jennifer relies on her sexuality to avoid achieving her potential. The folks in Pleasantville are stuck in a predestined pattern.
There’s security in consistency and sameness.
Predictability is...pleasant.

The Difficulty and Contagion of Change
This movie is ultimately about change. Not minor alterations, like choosing to take a new route to work, or wearing a belt instead of suspenders. It’s about experiencing life in an entirely different way—visually, intellectually, emotionally, relationally and physically. This is personal, important, momentous substantial transformation. Life is no longer something that goes by us; we are part of it. We see the world, others AND ourselves in an entirely new perspective. We have the ability to see...color!

I’ve read reviews from those who thought the movie elevated sex as the reason for this transformation. But I disagree. In fact, once the changes begin around them, Jennifer asks her brother why she’s not in color. “I've had, like, ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend, like, an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden they're in Technicolor?”
David answers, “I don't know. Maybe it's not just the sex.”

pleasantville-passion

No, change doesn’t come from the act of sex. It comes from passion. It’s the result of finding out and celebrating who we are. Change is embracing our potential. It involves participating in the direction of our life, and interacting with those around us. We admit what we want, regardless of imposed expectations of others. It’s about asking questions, whether or not there are answers. We challenge the notion of "that's the way things have always been done."

This kind of change is rarely easy, especially when it runs contrary to the accepted, the customary, the traditional.

There will be those who do not understand.
There will be those who will object.
There will be those who will resist.
And there will be those who will reject.

(Pleasantville Mayor: “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.”)

But like releasing the genie from the bottle (or Pandora from the box, depending on your view of change), going back to the “normal” is out of the question.

Bud’s Father tells his wife that her newly discovered color will go away, and she defiantly replies, “I don’t want it to go away.”

The Mayor wants the changes to stop, and Bud (David) informs: "But see? That's just the point! It can't stop...because it's in you, and you can't stop something that's inside you."

The status quo has been shattered, and it will never fit back together in the same way.

In a conversation with George, his TV Dad, Bud (David) listens to the man's concern: "What happened? One minute, everything's fine... What went wrong?" Bud assures him that nothing went wrong. "People change."
"Can they change back?" George wants to know.
"I don't know. I think it's harder."

The Potential Outside Our Comfort Zone
As the changes are occurring, some of the students ask Bud (David), “What's outside of Pleasantville?” He tells them, “There are some places that the road doesn't go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going.”

In the final moments of the movie, we see TVs in a shop window, and they’re showing scenes from all over the world.  Main Street now goes outside the city. An interstate bus arrives in town. Jennifer discovers she loves to read, and is smart, so she has decided to stay and go off to college, something she admits would have never happened in her own “world.”
Pleasantville is not all there is.

The Beauty of the Rainbow
At the end of the movie, a rainbow extends above the town.
There is more to experience in life than black, white and gray. But we must allow ourselves to be changed so we can see it, in ourselves and in others.
Not everyone is the same. That may not be pleasant, but it’s a fact.
Diversity is a good thing.

If we learn anything from Pleasantville, it’s that life is better in color.

 


P.S. Before I close, I wanted to share ax extremely personal lesson that came from the movie for me. It reminded me of my life living in the black-and-white world of Fundamentalism, and especially my time in "ex-gay" recovery. Everything was spelled out in precise rules. There was no need to think; in fact, that was preferred. The emphasis was not on beliefs, but behavior. Questions were considered rude, doubt was equated with rebellion and challenges were rewarded with expulsion. Today I am so thankful for a world that is bigger than I once imagined, full of colors I could not see, and populated by people I never would have known.

 

If you haven’t, I hope you will watch this wonderful, touching movie. If nothing I’ve shared here interests you, then perhaps you could watch it for the cinematography/special effects, the music or the award-winning cast. (The late Don Knotts, Paul Walker and J.T. Walsh are among the supporting actors.)


 
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