A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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