Pleasantville (1998) Written and directed by Gary Ross. Toby McGuire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen. (124 min).

David travels vicariously from his pained adolescence by escaping, via B&W tv reruns, to a peaceful little sitcom town named Pleasantville. Don Knotts (in his last film) plays a tv repairman with a magical remote which zaps him and his reluctant sister into the screen. But, utopia can be suffocating.

How often do we wish for a simpler time, a life free of the wearying complications of modernity? Gary Ross’s incisive comedy suggests that the paradise of the nuclear family, with the male breadwinner, the mom in the kitchen, and two perfect children struggling with issues like whether or not to hold hands with their crushes, hides a more complex reality.

Greil Marcus, writing in Esquire when the film was released, compared Pleasantville to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another title under consideration for this series of Norman Rockwell-inspired films. Marcus considered it the most imaginative movie of the year, although it was ignored during the year’s awards season. At the time, it was described as a movie without stars, even though William H. Macy and Joan Allen were already Oscar nominated actors. Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar for Walk the Line and Toby McGuire’s Spider Man immortality were in the future.

Marcus wrote, “With all of the uplift and release of the good guys winning in a Frank Capra movie, the picture means to prove that America always contains a secret country, a zombie second self–and that that zombie America can be overthrown, in this case with sex and art. Sure, it’s a fairy tale. But it’s a fairy tale rooted in stories that have already been lived.” In Pleasantville, the pod people have triumphed. The population is placid and happy in the world familiar, to people of a certain age, from the blandly comforting sitcoms of the era. Marcus calls the 1950s “the dream the country has never been able to wake from.”

It’s fruitful to compare this film to the current tv hit Mad Men, which also idolized the time when the white man was king. Unlike the sitcom town of Pleasantville, the world of Mad Men does have vices; and the viewer’s thrill is partly reflecting on a day when once could indulge in guilt-free smoking, drinking, eating and opressing. In Mad Men, the design of the interiors, objects and clothes are enticing, part of the series appeal. This is not true in Pleasantville, where an uninspiringly bland suburban aesthetic rules.

Another point of reference is Back to the Future, where Marty McFly time travels back to the small town of his parents’ day. Now, thirty years ago, the 80s of that film also has a comic dimension. Marty finds, most tellingly, that his mother, as a teen yearned for the vices of the Mad Men (forbidden her as a girl) instead of the way she mythologized herself as a parent, white lies of which we are perhaps, all guilty. Although, which child wants to know…really…about their parents’ youth? Michael J. Fox speaks about the reluctance in which the studios viewed a movie about the 50s in the 80s…still too close in memory to be a “period” film. The production designer intentionally referenced the 1940s, to make the McFly’s home town seem more nostalgic. Tell me, is the soda shop not the same set in Back to the Future and Pleasantville, further blurring the line between the two? Fox’s angsty Marty McFly, a fantastic performance that makes the film, is the progenitor of Toby McGuire’s uneasy, conflicted hero.

Looking forward to Bigger Than Life, which will continue our Norman Rockwell references into the Winter Film Series, one sees the same image, the lone boy watching television for escape in his suburban living room. That rectangular window to the outside world symbolizes the era. A boy watches a cowboy show (in the 1950s), a sitcom shows a boy watching a cowboy show in the 50s watched by a 1990s boy in his living room. I watched Bigger Than Life on a tv in my suburban living room, continuing the hall of mirrors nostalgia.

In this version, it’s the pod people who change, in the world where bathrooms don’t have toilets and firemen only rescue cats. Where notions of feminism, racial justice, and the value of art intrude uncomfortably on a bland reality. Pleasantville asks, do you REALLY want to go back? And, as always, the answer is maybe a little bit, but, no. The past is most compelling when it is idealized.


Sources include: Greil Marcus’s Esquire article: