Back in my day, they did films like this. A 1998 fantasy comedy-drama romp from director Gary Ross.
The film extensively uses colour as a metaphor, whilst keeping things fun and accessible for casual viewers. Nice!
Righto, the film starts in late ’90s America with brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon).
She’s shallow and spoilt, whilst he’s a geek who spends most of his time watching a ’50s TV show called Pleasantville.
This is a rather idyllic take on white picket fence America, with idealism on repression and conservative living.
One night, a mysterious TV repairman turns up at their home and is impressed by David’s knowledge of the show. He hands him a special remote as a prize.
When David activates this, it zaps himself and his sister into Pleasantville.
The pair is then forced to act as the show’s characters—Bud and Mary Sue Parker. But, of course, with their ’90s sensibilities they’re hopelessly out of place in the wholesome world of ’50s life.
The new Bud launches himself into that task with much conviction. But the new Mary Sue Parker immediately starts causing controversy.
Yet they both have to get to grips with an idealistic way of life, such as indulging in the most appalling breakfast since time began with their father (William H. Macy, fresh from his fantastic performance in 1996’s Fargo).
The town is also free from conflict—there is no fire, for example, with firefighters on hand merely to rescue many cats from many trees.
And the locals are all unaware of an “outside world”, believing everything to be contained within their little, pleasant, and relentlessly cheerful town.
So you can kind of see the allegory going on here.
But despite being from 1998 (heading on for 25 years ago), the lack of news references from the time provide a timeless quality to the plot.
One of overcoming internal, and external, repression. And about accepting change in society, even if it opens the door to the harsh reality of life.
What this means in Pleasantville is the the more vivacious and liberal characters from late ’90s America cause a bloody storm in an ultra-conservative town.
And all the locals begin to discover themselves. Which leads to a liberation of sexual mania, artistic freedom, creativity, innovation, and the concept of life beyond a tiny town.
Mary Sue, for example, immediately starts flirting in an outrageous kind of modern way that shocks Pleasantville’s repressed community.
The local jocks, for example, always score a three-pointer shot. That is until the arrival of this temptress woman and her she devil ways.
In the film, this change in ideologies (if you please) is depicted by colour gradually sweeping across its town and people.
Bud’s mother Betty Parker (Joan Allen) has the transformation and is concerned about what her husband will think, which leads to Bud improvising.
However, and predictably, those with colourful outlooks are banned from public venues and riots ensue.
Local shop owner Bud (Jeff Daniels), for example, is introduced to modern art by David. And he begins painting a nude mural onto the side of his building—this sparks further outrage.
So yes, Pleasantville’s depiction of liberation and social change is presented in a straightforward allegory that’s easy to behold.
Some viewers may have an issue with this simplicity, but the way it’s done is accessible for all, appealing, and backed up by earnest performances.
And so the collapse of complacency, gentle at first before ramping up to hint at the world’s larger problems, makes for a clever and engaging film.
We feel Pleasantville has become a rather obscure Hollywood production these days.
But it hints at the level of innovation and new concepts the business should be targeting to win back some of its naysayers.
Despite being the first feature film to use scanning/digitizing of recorded future to manipulate colours, the set was plagued by issues.
Cameraman Brent Hershman died following a 19 hour shift—whilst driving home after this he fell asleep at the wheel.
This brought about more attention on the film industry’s often thunderous hours and the negative health implications.
To make matters worse, off the film’s $60 million budget it wasn’t much of a hit. It went on to make only $49.8 million worldwide. Which is a shame.
Despite the star studded cast, we suppose there weren’t any proper A listers in there to shift it good and proper.
But it has, at least, left a legacy of innovation and thoughtfulness. And that’s always something to be celebrated in the film industry.