Archive for October, 2015

I have written many times about how sometimes a movie has to settle before you can really determine its quality, like a meal. This is probably something that only people like me (if they exist) ever do, because I feel like most people watch a movie, mentally rate it on whatever scale they like, and then movie on with their lives. I have a hard time doing that. It may be because I know how much work goes into making a movie because I have worked on them. Or it may be because I over-analyze everything. Or it may be because I am a yutz.

Regardless, I like to analyze movies, and sometimes that can be good, because I see the layers in them, and sometimes that can be bad, because I see all the flaws. Still, i thought there was fodder here for writing, so I’ll step aside from the Fidgeting and Sighing for awhile and figured I’d try this out; namely, seeing how movies “settle.”

I thought I would start with a movie that has been on Cinemax a lot lately (I subscribe to basically ever movie channel known to man, mostly because I hate commercials.); Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, the 1998 black & white/color social study starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as teenagers who are transported into the world of a Leave it to Beaver-like sitcom. Sounds fun, right? A couple of 90’s teen siblings hung up on their rather meaningless lives get shunted into a sickly Americana life, and hilarity ensues. This is a comedy, right? It has Don Knotts in it!

When the movie came out on video in 1998, and I was working in a video store, that’s what I told people when they asked what it was about. You learn to give people elevator pitches because no one wants to hear the film school snob analyze every new arrival. However, there is a lot more to this movie, and a lot of it isn’t very funny.¬†I should have told them about the movie’s portrayal of racism, human sexuality, gender equality, and censorship. There is also some book-burning, lots of references to sex, an extra-marital affair, and even an attempted rape, and that’s by the supposed “good” residents of Pleasantville.

The movie really gets started when forlorn David (Maguire) wants to watch his favorite show, “Pleasantville,” while his harlot sister Jennifer does not. They argue over a mysterious remote control left by TV Repairman Don Knotts, and the remote somehow transports them into the black & white show, and David and Jennifer must assume the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the “aw-shucks” siblings who are main characters on the show. I use the term “black & white” both literally and figuratively, as there is no color in Pleasantville, and the values of the townfolk are also pretty black and white (mostly white.) Also, the weather is sunny and 72 every day, the fire department only exists to rescue cats stuck in trees, and the sports teams never lose, or even miss a basket. Everything is quite pleasant, in fact.

Bud insists that they play their parts to perfection and not mess with the world of the show, but Mary Sue gets bored with the old-timey values pretty quick, and wants to get it on. Specifically with Paul Walker, who plays Skip, the captain of the basketball team. Skip happens to think that Mary Sue is the “keenest girl in school,” and they agree to go a date to Lover’s lane, which causes Bud to realize that this is *that* episode. However, this Mary Sue takes things a little farther than what is presumably pretty far in Pleasantville, and she ends up taking the basketball captain to the hoop. Skip, clearly wierded out by his first sexual encounter (and apparently, his first erection) drives home and sees a a single red flower in the bushes outside his house. Not only is it a cool metaphor because he has been de-flowered, but it is also the first hint of color since the movie shifted to the Pleasantville world.

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It isn’t long before other hints of color start showing up around town, as Mary Sue has started a sort of sexual revolution all by herself. She even has a heart-to-heart with her TV show-Mom, played by Joan Allen, whom she instructs in the ways of self-stimulation (I know that’s not her real mother, but it’s still kind of weird.) The color doesn’t just come from people getting it on, however. The teenagers around town also start discovering the library, and with Bud’s help, start reading books like Catcher in the Rye and Huck Finn. Bud also helps Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), the town soda jerk, find his focus by giving him an art book after Johnson expressed an interest in painting. Subtly, Bud is moving away from the normal Pleasantville ideals.

There is also some sexual tension between Daniels and Allen, who has awakened her own inner Mary Sue. After trying in vain to cover up her now technicolor skin, she leaves her husband, played by William H. Macy (as only he can). She runs to Daniels and ends up posing nude for him as he paints a very colorful mural of her on the window of his diner. Then it all hits the fan. A little color was one thing, but a naked chick? You are stomping on the very morals this great country was founded on! What’s next? Public sex with animals?

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The coolest thing about the color is that it contrasts so well with the black-and-white. For 1998, it was a marvel of cinematic technology, as characters that were in color were digitally enhanced since they had to interact with characters who were in black-and-white. There was a lot of green screen (and in the case of Allen, green make-up) usage to make the characters stand out, like the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List. Until Phantom Menace came along (unfortunately for all of us), Pleasantville¬†actually the most digital effects shots of any movie. So the movie was not only effective in what it was saying, but how it was saying it.

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Interestingly, despite being the progenitors of all this color, Bid and Mary Sue remain in black-and-white. Mary Sue especially wonders why, since she claims to have had more sex than any of her high school brethren. Bud thinks it is more than just sex, and he is proven correct when Mary Sue actually gains her color when she stays up all night reading D.H.Lawrence, reading glasses and all. Bud himself goes color when he punches out a local bully who was terrorizing his mother. So, just like in the real world, having sex doesn’t necessarily “color” you, or change you, but doing something against your character. something good, can help you see the world differently, give you color.

Finally, Pleasantville mayor, played by J.T. Walsh (in his final appearance) calls a special town meeting, where he basically puts Danials and Maguire on trial for painting a colorful mural on the side of Daniels’ diner. In a shout-out to To Kill a Mockingbird, the “colored people” all must stand in the balcony to watch the proceedings, while the black-and-white folks can be on the main floor. While Walsh tries to dictate that only black and gray paint colors can be used, Maguire pushes him, and like Tom Cruise did to Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, finally gets Walsh to get angry enough that Walsh turns color, proving that even the most stubborn hold-outs must accept change.

In the end, the magic remote is repaired and Bud is given the chance to return to his real life. However, Mary Sure/Jennifer decides to remain in Pleasantville, where she is given a second chance. She decides that she can now go to college, whereas in the real world, she has spoiled that chance already by acting a certain way (read: slutty.) To me, that is one of the really interesting aspects of this movie; that sometimes the paths that we choose lead to unforeseen consequences, but we can change them is we want. Interestingly enough, I have chosen to see this movie differently than in my video store days, and I am happy I did. if you haven’t seen it in awhile, or ever, watch it again, and see how it settles for you.

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