A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 81 – Pleasantville

Pleasantville – May 20th, 2010

So, we figured what with the 1950s theme we had going, why not move on to Pleasantville tonight and stick with it. This movie is parody and homage and commentary rolled into one. It’s about the end of innocence and actions having consequences and making choices. The method of it is a little gimicky, but it works. Pleasantville is the title of the movie, but also the title of a television show within the movie. It’s the quintessential 1950s sitcom, where Bud and Mary Sue Parker live with their parents, Betty and George, in the town of Pleasantville. The basketball team always wins, the paper boy never misses, and dinner is always on the table at 6:30 on the dot. Perfect and idyllic and simple and pleasant. And David, played by Tobey Maguire, loves it. He’s obsessed with the show and knows everything about it. In his own life, his parents are divorced, his sister thinks he’s a dork and he can’t muster up the courage to ask out the girl he likes. But in Pleasantville, everything’s just the way it should be.

When David and his sister are somehow magically transported into the town of Pleasantville and the reality of the show at first you would think David would be thrilled. But it’s a strange sort of reality, and soon things begin to change. First, things that never happened in the show start to happen, and then, symbolizing those changes, color begins to spread through the formerly black and white world. Apples, lips, grass, cars, books. Things change. People change. And by the middle of the movie there’s a divide in town between the people in color and the people in black and white. The entire town is white, but for some of them that’s literal. There are nods made by the movie to racial issues, but it’s really all done through allusion and the use of the term ‘colored’ as a literal term meaning technicolor vs. monochrome. I don’t fully agree with that, but I’m not shocked by it, and so much of what the movie does is done so well, I’m willing to forgive it that and hope that in the future of the town, color truly means all colors.

In any case, there are some amazingly well written character journeys. The heart of the movie is in how people change over the course of the story. David/Bud, Jennifer/Mary Sue, their parents, their friends, their parents’ friends, everyone changes eventually. And those changes aren’t simple or easy or painless. One of the most painful moments in the movie for me is when David as Bud has to help his tv mother, Betty, cover up that she’s gone into color. They take her makeup and paint her shades of grey, hiding pink skin and red lips and all traces of her crime of learning about sex and her body. She’s ashamed. Scared. What if people see her? What if people know? Her character arc is one of my favorites. It’s written well and it’s performed well by Joan Allen, starting with her asking her daughter to explain sex, and then to some bathtub masturbation, and finally to the soda shop, where Mr. Johnson paints her nude. She is vulnerable, but also strong. Scared and brave. I’m not sure what the end to her arc was intended to mean, but I choose to interpret it as an imminent threesome. Or, you know, it could be about having options. Whichever dips your paintbrush.

The thing is, it’s not just sex. Sex is the catalyst for color for many people in the movie. Obviously many of the teenagers go into color when sex or romance enters the picture. But it’s also knowledge. I’m rather tickled that reading becomes a new fad, that the books are in color, that the library is seen as a more dangerous place than Lover’s Lane. Knowledge is the key here. Knowledge and learning and new experiences. Sex, reading, painting, expression of self. Emotion. Discovery.

Which brings me to my other favorite character arc: Reese Witherspoon as Jennifer/Mary Sue. Arguably, the whole thing starts because of her. Sure, David/Bud mucks up a few things, showing up late to his job at the soda shop, forgetting that he’s not back home every so often. But it’s his sister who refuses to accept the status quo. She introduces sex to a town where holding hands is as far as anyone goes. She wants to know what’s outside Pleasantville. She wants to know why everyone has to be ignorant and sheltered. She’s the one who tells Betty about sex. She’s the one who introduces reading, though in a limited way until her brother steps in. And her path to color is through reading, as a matter of fact. Her experiences change who she is. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the end of her arc is more a beginning than anything else.

To be honest, I love the vast majority of this movie. The only thing that puts me off is Tobey Maguire, who is King Smug of Smugville in this. His gloat is full of smug. From his knowledge of how every episode goes, to telling the firefighters how to put out a fire, to his impassioned courtroom performance, to his speech to his modern world mom at the end. He has this look of ‘I’m enlightened! I know all you need to know! I’ve got all the answers!’ scrawled across his face. And yeah, that’s part of the character, sure. But it makes me roll my eyes whenever I see it. Especially the end. But even though Maguire’s character is the lead in the movie and the catalyst for going to Pleasantville in the first place, he isn’t the heart of the movie for me. His sister is, and Betty is, and their discovery of themselves is. It’s a very feminist movie. Adamantly so, really. So I can cope with Tobey Smuguire. It’s worth it for a tree erupting into flames and a night spent reading and a movie about discovering roads you haven’t traveled.

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May 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pleasantville

May 20, 2010

Pleasantville

Look at that – we’re back in 1958 again. Or in the ersatz idyllic 1958 of nostalgic television that never was. This time we visit the more perfect than perfect world of Pleasantville – an imaginary television program in the vein of Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver. David and Jennifer, two teenagers from our imperfect world, are magically transported into this creepily perfect world (Transported by a sinister television repair man played brilliantly by Don Knotts.) And their presence in Pleasantville inevitably alters it. They bring change to the world of Pleasantville. Scary, beautiful change.

The poor people of Pleasantville, you see, are all naive waifs who have been living in this artificial perfection, going through the motions of being alive. But when David and Jennifer enter their world they start to think, to have ideas, and to ask questions. What’s outside of Pleasantville? What’s supposed to be inside all the books in their library? What… is sex?

It’s a beautiful, touching and odd exploration of the danger of art, and the inevitable loss of innocence. Writer director Gary Ross has crafted a spectacular thing here. It’s simplistic and corny at times, but it’s also touching and in an odd way true. The imagery and storytelling has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and at times is almost painfully self-aware (such as when all the non black & white people in town come to be called “coloreds” or the scene with David and the apple.)

I’d say that there are only a couple of minor flaws in this movie, and either could bee seen as deliberate choices. First there is the almost unbelievable know-it-all smugness of Tobey Maguire’s character David. At the start of the movie he’s the one of the two siblings who knows everything about Pleasantville the TV show and how everything should be. Then as the movie progresses he becomes a sort of prophet of the world of chaos and art. His know-it-allness expands to cover literary accomplishment, the ways of non-violent civil disobedience, and the ways of the human heart. He spouts zen truisms and grins wisely in the face of all opposition. It gets a little irritating.

The other flaw is the very strange metaphysics of the whole world of Pleasantville. Gary Ross leaves things almost bewilderingly without closure. In one closing scene he has one character mysteriously morph into another in a very strange what-just-happened moment. And then there’s the story arc for Jennifer, who learns something about herself and what she wants to do with her life, but doesn’t seem to have a way to apply that lesson to the “real” world. I’m really not sure what to make of the ending of this film. I just kind of have to let it roll over me and accept it for the strangeness that it is. The beautiful, colorful strangeness.

Of course you can’t review this movie without talking about its use of color. I mean, how many DVDs have a section at the beginning that advises you on how to adjust the color on your TV set? Color and art are characters in the story as much as the people. The movie challenges you to see our own world in a different light – to see things that we take for granted. The color in this movie reaches into my heart and touches me the way that music often does – on a very primal level. Kudos to cinematographer John Lindley for the care with which he captures these many moments, from the first red rose, gently dewed, to some of the broader more spectacular images later on.

What great use of the soundtrack too! The drum solo in Dave Brubeck’s Take Five is brilliantly synced to the editing in a key scene in the diner. Then there’s Etta James’ At Last – which is particularly striking. Oh, and it closes with Across the Universe (not the Beatles version, but still.) I’m not surprised to see that the original music is by Randy Newman. He has that great sort of nostalgic Americana touch that fits this movie perfectly.

May 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment