So I watched Pleasantville all the way through, from beginning to end, for the first time this weekend. For those three of you who haven’t seen it, the story goes like this: Through a freak accident and a magical TV repairman (played by Don Knotts) a teenage twins David and Jennifer find themselves transported from their wild and cray cray 90’s life into the world of a 50’s sitcom about the Parker family–Pleasantville.
In Pleasantville everything is, well, pleasant. People speak politely to each other. Gender and social roles are clear, and the citizens stay within the boundaries imposed. Children–even teenagers–are respectful. Streets are swept. Beds are twin. There is no sex. And everything is black and white. Literally. In keeping with the simplistic world created in the show, and the times, Pleasantville is shot in black and white.
At least until David and Jennifer hit town, taking on the lives and roles of the Parkers’ two children. David works at the local soda fountain, where he discovers that his boss, Mr. Johnson, is actually a frustrated artist. And that’s when things start to fall apart in Pleasantville. One night Mr. Johnson paints his shop windows. With nudes. In color. Jennifer introduces the captain of the basketball team to the joys of sex–and suddenly the team, who “always wins,” is throwing up bricks instead of baskets, and Lovers Lane is crowded with rocking cars in which only feet are visible. Mrs. Parker, David and Jennifer’s Pleasantville mother, and Mr. Johnson fall in love, and suddenly the nudes in the windows of the soda fountain are not only in color, but they wear Mrs. Parker’s face.
Mr. Parker comes home one day to discover that–horrors–his dinner is not on the table. A wife in town says she’d like to get a double bed, and get rid of the twin beds. Mrs. Parker has an orgasm, a tree in her front yard catches fire, and David must show the fire department that their truck and equipment is good for more than just getting cats out of trees. And at each of these crisis points, people change not only internally, but externally–they switch from black and white to color. It’s not always an easy transformation. Mrs. Parker is delighted to experience her first orgasm–and horrified to discover that she is no longer her black and white self. David helps her apply gray make-up. We see Pleasantville’s monochromatic society devolving into a world where “coloreds” are distinctly second-class citizens, where thought is banned and books are burned. The library is closed.
Pleasantville is no longer pleasant. And somewhere along the way, Jennifer, 90’s skank, discovers that she loves to read even more than she loved popularity back in the 90’s.
This is a movie about the tension between stasis and creativity, between order and disorder. It’s about the joy–and the discomfort–of truly engaging with life. It’s about the tension between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, to put it in artistic and literary terms. It’s about expression and repression, in social terms.
It would have been easy to craft this movie as a triumph for expression, for Romanticism, for art, but it’s not that simple. Jennifer, the wild and crazy 90’s teenager, opts to stay in the 50’s world of Pleasantville not for its restrictive qualities, but because she has discovered the world of thought. At the end of the movie David goes back to the 90’s. Jennifer goes off to college, in the 50’s.
This isn’t a tidy “Pleasantville” ending. It’s a paradox. The movie’s resolution comes not in choosing “black and white” over “color,” but in making room for both. Mrs. Parker leaves her husband and sends David back to his own time–but she does it with meat loaf and sack lunches. And we love her for it. When she acquires color she mourns the loss of her simple black and white beauty–and she is beautiful, both in shades of gray and in color. In the end this isn’t a movie about then and now, or good and bad. It’s a movie about values in the truest sense of the word, and how we balance them when they conflict.