Pleasantville (1998)


Director: Gary Ross

Stars: Tobey Maguire, Reese Wiltherspoon, Joan Allen

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy

The 1998 film Pleasantville is a story which comments on social change, passion and prejudice. It begins when a super-charged TV remote control zaps twins David (Maguire) and Jennifer (Witherspoon) from the reality of their normal 90s life into the set and family of the hyper-perfect ‘Pleasantville’, a black and white 1950s TV show where everyone and everything is, well, ‘pleasant’.

David is a big fan of the show and has no problem adjusting as he know all about where he is and who all the characters around him are. His sister however is furious to be missing out on her life back in the ‘real world’ and hates being confined to 50s fashion, habits and values. She refuses to give up her 90s outlook on life and soon begins to wreak havoc as she introduces a whole new set of ideas to the people of Pleasantville, and dares to ask the questions that everyone else had left well alone.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Witherspoon (Jennifer) asks the very simple question to her teacher “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” and “What’s at the end of Main Street?” the teacher then begins to explain in a patronizing way that Jennifer already knows the answer to that in that there is nothing beyond Pleasantville and the end of Main Street is also the beginning. It is alluding to the fact that the people of Pleasantville live in an urban and societal prison to which they have no choice to exist in much like our real world. However, the movie later shows that it is within ourselves to discover that there is something beyond the system, and one can break free if one so chooses. It also points out the fact that the people themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously, re-enforce their own servitude and imprisonment through participating and being complacent with how things are. They are unaware that they have imprisoned themselves by allowing someone else to control their lives.


Betty (Allen) in the film is awakened by this to the feelings she has for her son’s boss, Bill Johnson (played by Jeff Daniels). Eventually, having turned into full colour, she leaves her life as a faithful wife to be with Bill. Does this portray the message of pursuing our own happiness regardless of others or of the responsibilities we may have towards them? It is ironic that, back in their real life, David and Jennifer come from a broken home and we hear their real mother arguing over custody rights with their absent father on the phone. Perhaps the film is trying to indicate that the choices we make in ‘black and white’ and the changes that we instigate now may result in ‘joyful colour’ for a while but have implications further down the line. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Essentially, it is saying that true freedom is messy and you must be able to be accountable for your own choices since it’s all on you, whereas if you lived a life under societal obligation where your world is pre-programmed by the current architects of societal behavior/norms. Settling for anything may be comforting, easy, and safe in the short-run, however in doing that you are giving up something extremely powerful: control.

Take video games for example; if I went out and bought Grand Theft Auto V in September (waiting eagerly) took it home, and then suddenly decided to let someone else play the entire game for me, would that make any F*ing sense whatsoever? You’re right it would not. It would be moronic and a waste of my wallet-cheese. Real-life is like a GTA open-world style game where everyone is a player in the “game”. In the game, there are planned out missions/plotlines that the makers of the world set out for you, however, it is your choice whether or not you want to do what has been chosen for you, or if you would like to just roam the streets of Los Santos looking for hookers to hit with your car whilst you fire shots into a crowded intersection. In all seriousness, the point being is we have the choice to play by the rules or make up our own. The former being the safe and what is expected, and the latter being; messy, controversial, black-sheepish albeit freeing and un-chained.


The character Jeff Daniels (Bill) plays above all illustrates one of the heaviest messages that the film elicits: living up to your true potential and self. Bill in the film ultimately comes to the realization that what he does in Pleasantville (flips burgers) is un-fulfilling and everyday is the same/uneventful. Bill in this film might as well be a representation of 70% of today’s American population. A recent gallop poll just revealed that out of 100 million Americans polled, 70 million of them have said that they absolutely hate their jobs and are miserable. That means on average, 7 out of 10 American’s can’t stand what they do for a good part of their lives. The average person also spends 90,000 hours of his life working, that’s a total of 3,750 days of working throughout the course of your life. The last time I checked, wasn’t America-like Pleasantville- supposed to be built on the American dream? Wasn’t it the land of opportunity? The place where people could immigrate to and prosper? At least that is what it is supposed to be, until now. The truth is, and it’s a sad truth that not many want to admit, the American dream is dead, and it is no longer that land of opportunity. America has turned into the land of the significantly average -thanks to many self-destructive policies- who hold their heads up high, thinking they are better than the rest of the world. It’s not just America though, it’s a global trend.

I remember taking a trip to Toronto during my first year at University; I had to walk through the financial district of Bay Street to reach where I was trying to get to. What I saw that day changed my perception on life forever; I saw what we call the rat race. It was 8:50AM and seas of people were on their way to work, in one large bunched up group: everyone looked the same, dressed the same, had the same coffee in their hands, it was as if they were all robots. To make matters worse, each and every person in the rat race had the same exact miserable look on their faces, it was a Wednesday and they probably were counting down the minutes to the weekend(que Working for the Weekend by Loverboy).

Most “jobs” in our society now are not even socially necessary; like for instance hedge fund managers or valet’s. Do we need hedge fund managers? No. Not if we had a legitimate monetary system rather than our fiat debt based economy. Do we need valets to park our cars for us? No. Last time I checked I have the mental dexterity and fortitude to park my own god damn car; however the valet person is more of a useful option of giving your money too instead of people who are more likely to destroy than to create. This is because I am sure most valets aren’t in that line of work for the money and fame. There are two types of people in our society, those who work to live, and those who live to work. I would give my cheddar points to the valet because maybe that valet parks cars because he/she wants to make money so that they can pursue their real interests and passions like playing an instrument, writing a book, making a film, painting a masterpiece, help the less fortunate, or exploring the world: something of real value to the human spirit and condition.


The reason why most people hate their job is because they are a part of that rat race; they are just as much of the problem, as they are the solution. And it’s because they expected the world, and by world I mean the real world, to reward them by following the “rules” and what was expected. But what it really comes down to is the fact they, just like most people out there, had no idea what they wanted to do in  life. And instead of going out there and finding out what they really wanted to do they chose the latter, the easier decision of doing what is safe; what will pay the bills and what will just allow them to coast and get by. Sure the truth might be harsh, but there is a science to the madness or at least there has to be for hundreds of millions of people to hate what they do. Bill in Pleasantville epitomizes this idea to a tee.

The remarkable power of this film lies in its cinematography as the black and white world of Pleasantville soon becomes ‘contaminated’ and things start to change into colour before our very eyes. After Jennifer seduces the otherwise wholesome and clean-cut basketball captain Skip, he drives home to find a red rose blooming on an otherwise black and white bush. This startling imagery really highlights the main theme of the film: change.


Different people react to change in different ways. Some embrace and relish it, some are resigned to its inevitability, whilst others cling resolutely to the past and refuse to let go of what they know. As with most things in this world, change can be good or bad. However, the changes that occur in the town of Pleasantville help us to examine our own attitudes towards things changing. The film is consciously celebratory of change – shown most fundamentally through flowers, people, scenery, books etc turning into colour. Because, let’s face it, who wants to be in black and white when you could be in colour? Black and white is continually associated with an old style of life (e.g. black and white TVs, photos, etc.) and the arrival of colour heralds a new way of thinking within the film.

So, what is the underlying message behind Pleasantville? Does it help us examine our own attitudes to changes around us – whether we like the change or not? Does it prompt us to think about what has changed us in our lives? Within Pleasantville, it seems to be the things which inspire passion within people that brings them to life and turns them into colour. For some it may be relationships. For others, their passion is stirred by art or literature or music and not following the crowd.



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