There are a lot of people who think an earlier time was better than the current day. An entire Presidential motto was written around this idea so apparently hundreds of thousands of people agree with some basic idea of this. This is not something I think about too much but it is worth looking into. Whether better life is achievable in another era or place on the planet we need to see how they got there. The movie was released in 1998 and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it a better time I think it was a me time. What I mean by that is I watched a YouTube on school during the different decades of the 20th Century and nothing else really seemed to fit who I was so perfectly. I’ll watch a clip from the 70s and notice how fun it looked and would like to take a time machine for a couple of months but I just can’t see it matching who I am if that makes any sense.
Pleasantville opens with a montage of high school teachers explaining the endless problems in the world. When Disheartened student David goes home at the end of the day his Mom fights with someone on the phone in the next room. He is now free to get lost in his one escape from the world his favorite TV program from the 1950s that shows life as an idealize paradise. After breaking the remote a repairman comes to the door to deliver a replacement which transports David and his sister into the show in full black and white and 50s outfits. While other movies have elegantly mixed black and white with color (‘Wings of Desire’ and ‘High and Low’) they didn’t manage to tie it so deeply into the heart of the storyline as was done here.
As they meet with people in the show they start to gradually change into color. Through out the film what makes one person colorful may not have the same effect on everyone. After seeing each story play out you begin to understand what the meaning of life means to each of them. It would pair well with “After Life” (also from 1998) which is about the characters picking a memory from their life to remember forever. The similarity between the two films is that what many of these people originally set out to do ended up not being either the right route in the present situation as the case in “Pleasantville” or the best past memory in the case of “After Life.” Other films in the same vein; “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Defending You Life,” “Ikiru,” “Citizen Kane” could change a person’s whole outlook.
Pleasantville makes the characters think about the mold they have conformed to live in and why they do so. How would different ways of approaching life effect their search for significance? Will the ramifications of those decisions lead to worse off outcomes with unruly mobs threatening to tear Pleasantville apart? We then get sent back to the 90s where David’s real life Mom is ending a fight on the phone tearfully explaining to him how life should be. Through a role reversal the teen explains the wisdom he gained by being forced to live the perfect life. “How did you get so smart all of a sudden” the Mom says. The great thing about movies like this, we as the audience can learn important lessons on life through film, not all movies have to be made for mere entertainment.
There were a lot of people talking about this values war. That thing we say we long for, that thing we miss verses where we are right now. Is that really the paradigm or is there a a third thing? This movie advocates the third way. Which is an open society and an open culture explains Pleasantville director in the opening scenes of the movies commentary track. "I think hope belongs in the present and the future. I don’t think it belongs in the past." Gary thinks all the values that were presented in that 50s TV show as being false values that were never really values to begin with but well organized stereotypes. What is displayed as moral principals are not about treating others with understand or compassion or care of consideration. These symbols get confused with ethics.
We repress what we are sacred of in ourselves and bring that to the broader society. This provides stability while drowning out doubt and uncertainty. The problem with that is that it is the embracing of that uncertainly that is the only thing that will let us engage in our social structure and live more fruitful and fulfilling lives. When the characters enter Pleasantville the first topic is sex. It is not that it is the only thing that is liberating but so many others topics can be so much more complex than the sexual impulse so if you are closed off to something so fundamental it is hard to be open to other things. Being open here gives rise to a new level of nuisance and beauty that is nonsexual and significant. One of Gary's inspirations was his school's motto “laws without morals are in vain.” I'd say that is the mark of a great motto, to distill the start of what could be a dissertation down to one sentence.