Over, World War Two Generation, the Sixties Generation Has
An Essay Review of the Movie, "Pleasantville"
December 12th, 1998:
PART TWO: "PLEASANTVILLE" AS HISTORICAL
The film, "Pleasantville," is a modern sociological allegory or fable.
It begins in modern times against a backdrop of the usual violence, chaos,
and turbulence that we are conditioned by the media to believe characterizes
the 90s in America. Two high school teenagers, David and Jennifer,
played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are planning their evening.
A Tale of Two Siblings
David is planning to watch the Pleasantville marathon on television
and to participate in the trivia contest that will be part of it.
Pleasantville is a an old sitcom from the 1950s in
the Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, My
Three Sons style which has attained a cult-like following and is shown
regularly on a cable channel similar to the "Nick at Nite" one that we know
of which specializes in reruns of old sitcoms. It becomes clear that
David is an ardent devotee of the show in part because it compensates for
the lameness of his real life. Unlike his sister, who is portrayed as
a real "firecracker" of a young woman, he doesn't date or participate in
the school scene. It is implied that he may be using the sitcom as
an escape from not only a boring life but a threatening one and that he longs
to live in the kind of ordered, safe, and unchallenging reality that the
sitcom depicts. David is such an avid follower of the show that he
is shown to be a master of "Pleasantville" trivia and is primed and eager
for the contest on Pleasantville trivia.
But his sister, Jennifer, is planning for a hot date
at home . . . their parents being away for the weekend providing an opportunity
for her to be unchaperoned with her guy -- which she eagerly anticipates.
At odds over what will be played on the TV – Jennifer wanting to watch instead
an MTV concert with her date -- they wrestle over the TV remote and end up
breaking it. However all is not lost as at just that moment and completely
inexplicably a television repairman played by Don Knotts drives up in his
truck, knocks on the door, and imposes his services on them in fixing the
Don Knotts -- perfectly cast, in a Jungian sense, for
it is often the impish or normally overlooked and unnoticed element that
initiates sweeping changes in people's lives -- indeed does introduce the
magical element into the film. He produces a different kind of remote
control, which he claims has special effects saying, "You want something
to put you right in the show!" Sure enough, in checking out the remote
they hit a mysterious button and are transported into the TV and thus into
the sitcom and the town that is called Pleasantville.
To Follow Or Not to Follow
After their initial confusion, they realize what has happened and try
to return, but do not know how to. David – who it becomes apparent
has been thrust into the role of Bud in the sitcom – advises his sister –
Jennifer who has become Mary Sue in the TV series – to go along with events
until they figure a way to get home. Since he knows
all the plots of every show of the sitcom, his idea is that they act out
the events as they are supposed to happen and that they do what the two characters
– the teenage son and daughter of the parents in the sitcom, Betty and George
Parker, played superbly by Joan Allen and William H. Macy – are known to do
in the different episodes he has seen. Essentially, then, he is advising
his sister to "follow the script." And of course it is not hard to
discern at this point that we are beginning to see a metaphor for psychological
realities and that "following the script" has a broader meaning for a choice
that everyone must make in life in growing up, viz., to follow the
script laid out for oneself by one’s parents and society in general or to
follow one’s inner direction and inner guide in asserting one’s individuality
and expressing one’s unique self.
The rest of the movie is the story of how these two
characters – transported magically from the future as well as from the real
world as opposed to a made-up TV world – introduce change into the town
and thereby color. Mary Sue (formerly Jennifer) does it consciously.
Rebelling against her brother’s admonishments to follow the script, she
goes on a date with someone she is not supposed to (according to the sitcom
script) and then – horror of horrors for a 1950s world – engages in sex with
him at the local "lover’s lane" (where the farthest that anyone goes, according
to "script," is holding hands). We find later that her date describes
this unheard of experience to his classmates, and, like ripples emanating
from a pebble dropped in a pond, her action results in a number of the school
youth engaging in sex and thereby becoming, to everyone’s amazement, colorized!
The brother also introduces change, and therefore color,
but it is done unconsciously at first. As mentioned, he tries to get
his sister to follow the script. Still, in a metaphorically powerful
scene, when he is late for work at the
local malt shop – this is unheard of as well because "Pleasantville" is
a world where no one is ever late for work – he inadvertently introduces
change himself. In fact, he introduces the most insidious element
of change because he explicitly advises – without realizing what he has
unleashed – that his boss think for himself! In this scene David (now
Bud) finds his boss and coworker, Mr. Johnson, played by Jeff Daniels, stuck
at the end of the counter, cleaning away with a wash cloth, like a stuck
record, at the same spot, even as the surface of the counter is rubbing away.
When the soda jerk, Mr. Johnson, explains confusedly that the normal regimen
would have required Bud to arrive at work before he, Mr. Johnson, could go
on to the rest of his chores, "Bud" simply suggests to Mr. Johnson that in
the future he continue with his next chore even if Bud isn’t there.
So simply in being himself, coming from a future in which people react to
change by thinking out new responses and thereby adapting to them, Bud, aka
David, introduces a totally new element into the soda jerk’s script.
This has far reaching consequences as the movie progresses and Mr. Johnson
begins thinking for himself and having ideas about other things as well.
In this way, the soda jerk, soon to be artist, too ends up "colored."
This movie, thematically, is remarkably akin to the 1968-released movie
"Yellow Submarine" put out by the Sixties Generation rock group The Beatles.
In that film there is a region ruled by the "Blue Meanies." These
Blue Meanies, especially their leader, are depicted as powerful and cruel,
yet sniveling, insecure, weak, and selfish underneath. Their angry
and oppressive personas are shown to reveal poor little whining babies behind
them. Their actions are shown to be those of "big babies," whose gruff
exterior must remain intact at all costs, lest their hidden sniveling and
hurt little selves be revealed. The analogy the Beatles are making to
those of the WWII Generation -- at that time the parental generation, those
"over 30" -- is impossible not to make.
The movies are so similar in theme that the only major thematic difference
between "Pleasantville" and "Yellow Submarine" is that it is music that is
not allowed in "Yellow Submarine" whereas in "Pleasantville" it is color.
But the idea behind them both is the same: Music and color both represent
deep feeling, aliveness, thinking for oneself, and change. In "Yellow
Submarine," the man without music is Nowhere Man, who "knows not where he’s
going to, doesn’t have a point of view." In Pleasantville, the
men without color act in the same ways, performing the same actions, day in,
day out, without change – like characters in a 1950s-style sitcom in which
nothing unpleasant, different, new, or too emotional is allowed to occur.
And above all, the black-and-white men do not think for themselves.
This is graphically portrayed in the scene mentioned where the owner of the
town malt shop, Mr. Johnson, portrayed by Jeff Daniels, is left cleaning the
same spot of the counter for hours so that its top is rubbed away because
his coworker is late and the routine they use to close up cannot be completed
in the way it is done, everyday, in exactly the same way. Confronted
with this small change, he shows himself to be the "Nowhere Man" and like
a needle stuck on a record, he is rigidly stuck repeating the same action,
not having the power to think of an alternative action in response to a change
in the usual routine.
No longer a distant vision.
The differences in the years of the release and the different artistic
modes used to express the themes of these two movies have something to say
as well. In 1968 the changes in culture of the New Age were a vision
and a hope. It is appropriate and telling that "Yellow Submarine" was
expressed in animated form. Like a dream that would take a long time
to realize, it needed to be expressed in cartoon-like fashion, for the time
of its emergence in reality was too far off. By contrast, "Pleasantville"
blends a fantasy world – appropriately it is a TV sitcom, which has more similarities
with reality than an animation – with the actual reality of modern times.
The advance toward reality is patent in the evolution from an animated form
– indicating the change is far off, a fantasy, a wish, a hope – in the 1968
movie; to a black-and-white form involving real actors, real people; and
then to a colorized version involving real people in what is supposed to
be real time and real cultural reality. One might say that what was
a fantasy thirty years ago is, however unconsciously, being heralded as emerging
and existing and coming into being right now – in real time and place.
Reversing the Invasion of the
Concerning the movie "Pleasantville," noted movie critic Roger Ebert
quite astutely points out that it "is like the defeat of the body snatchers"
(from his excellent review,
). One might also say that it is one in which Holden Caulfield, the
character in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, wins out and children
do not grow up to be adult "phonies." Another analogy would be that
it is a depiction in which Peter Pan stays young, when he succeeds in keeping
the children from ever growing up and thereby losing their capacity to "fly"
(representing the capacity to dream, to envision, to be open to new possibilities,
What It Is
That Makes One Alive
Against this backdrop of lack of real aliveness, the introduction of
"color" into the town of Pleasantville through the introduction of sex is
not seen as something bad at all. Similarly, in recent history, despite
the increasing drum beating of the Religious Right in the last two decades,
those of us who grew up in the Fifties know that the introduction of sex
– in the Sixties, as in the "sexual revolution" – was a step forward from
the hypocritical sameness and plodding repression of the Fifties.
Other elements introduced into Pleasantville that produce
colorization in the participants include thinking for oneself (Jeff Daniels
in his role as the soda jerk), intellectual passion (the sister), questioning
the way things are supposed to be or, in Sixties terms, questioning authority
(when the brother finally becomes colored), artistic and creative passion
(Jeff Daniels again), and even the passion of honest rage (the chairman of
the Chamber of Commerce). These elements arise in Pleasantville just
as they arose into the collective consciousness of those of us living in
the Fifties and Sixties.
Of course I am not naively saying that these elements
never existed before the Sixties. The underlying factor that was introduced
into the movie causing color and that was also introduced into our society
causing all the sociocultural changes that we, usually, complain about is
the factor of choosing something different than what is expected by society,
than what is expected by the outside. What is introduced (and was introduced
in our culture) is the preeminence of inner authority in making decisions,
as opposed to outer authority.
A New Psychohistorical Era!
In psychohistorical terms this difference is marked by Lloyd deMause
as a difference in a mode of child-rearing. The black-and-white Fifties
Pleasantville is a representation of a mode of child-rearing -- which characterized
the Fifties -- wherein the role of the parents is to "mold," model, and
guide children along paths that the parents have deemed to be correct (the
socializing mode of child-rearing).
The child is expected to be a clone of the parents or at least to represent
the parents' ideas of proper behavior, ideals, and mode of living (regardless
of whether the parent models them or not. And when not, the phrase
"Do as I say, not as I do" and the term hypocrite as applied to the
parents are apropos). The basic nature of the child is considered to
be sinful and evil or at least beastial; the classic novel Lord of the
Flies depicts this view of human nature. Therefore the child needs
to become other than itself and conform itself to something outside of itself
in order for she or he to be considered "good" and to receive good responses
in turn from parents and society.
By contrast, the colorized Pleasantville represents
the mode of child-caring that came out, big time, beginning in the Sixties,
wherein the parents’ role is that of "bringing out" from and supporting,
encouraging, and helping the child to discover what the child’s talents and
inherent abilities, feelings, and proclivities are, and then encouraging
the child to "believe in him/herself" in the expression of those inherent
and inborn good qualities and values (the helping mode of child-caring).
(See "The History of Childhood As the
History of Child Abuse"
by Lloyd deMause on this site.)
This mode contains a radically new view of basic human
nature. Humans are seen to be essentially good (even "divine").
It is evil and painful events impinging upon the child from the outside --
family and society -- that are deemed causative in taking the child from its
natural state of innocence and goodness and inherent unique talents to one
wherein the child is corrupted and thus becomes beastial and lacking
in inherent good qualities and talents. Therefore the solution is to
protect the child from traumas coming from the outside, especially the huge
one of feeling unloved through not being seen or respected as a unique individual
(as opposed to being seen as a mere outgrowth or clone of a parental entity).
And in so doing the parents' role includes helping the child to discover
his or her uniqueness and dispensing unconditional love, that is, love
that is given freely, without the requirement, as in the socializing mode,
that the child do and be what the parents want before the child is accepted
or shown approval or any emotional warmth.
In representing this advanced mode of being (and child-caring)
the "colorized" people in Pleasantville open themselves to possibilities that
were never before considered; they stray from the earlier mode requiring
strict conformity to parental scripts. Robert Kennedy’s Sixties quote
comes to mind as expressing this: "Some people look at things as they
are and ask, why? I think of things that never were and ask, why not?"
This means, then, a capacity to experiment and adventure in one's life, which,
at bottom, involve a belief in questioning authority and thinking
for oneself in Sixties terms or, in Sathya Sai Baba's words, a belief
that we are, each of us, "experiments in truth" in our sojourns on Earth.
And just as these elements and beliefs became more and more a part of America’s
collective consciousness in the Sixties and Seventies and ever since then,
they also gradually develop in "Pleasantville."
"Love My Uncertainty"
One reviewer described the ending of the movie as "not at all easy and
tidy, but rather very, very messy" (
by Chris A. Bolton). Ebert – more astutely but not quite correctly
-- wrote that the determining factor in whether someone became "colored"
was the factor of change. The first reviewer, like someone with one
foot still in "Pleasantville" or one who is still not fully colored, does
not understand that the ending, wherein the characters proclaim that they
do not know what is going to happen next, contains exactly the essential
message of the movie. The ending can only be "messy" if one expects
a particular ending. And the whole point of change is that it is always
something one does not expect. Likewise, where people act out of inner
rather than outer authority, one can only expect that what happens will be
unique, like people are when they are not conforming to external expectations.
So there could be no pat or predicted ending. The moviegoer could not
leave knowing whether Betty Parker, the Stepford housewife turned women’s
libber, returns to her husband, George, or takes off with the soda jerk turned
artist, Mr. Johnson, because that would destroy the uncertainty inherent in
change, growth, aliveness, and so on. So the ending is exactly what
it has to be.
And this ending expresses the spiritual razor's edge
each of us must cross during our life's sojourn. Whenever we try to
put life, or love, into a box, package, or a gilded cage, it dies or stagnates
-- just like a boring black-and-white sitcom world. Real change and
spiritual growth means letting go and opening oneself to the unexpected and
the unknown. So it is in this vein that the spiritual teacher Sai Baba
tells his followers, "Love my uncertainty," in helping them to deal (after
the usual "honeymoon phase" at the beginning of their spiritual path) with
the trials, changes, tribulations, and suffering that his devotees experience
later on, along their path to greater purity of heart and compassion, and
eventually spiritual liberation.
The Scenery of Healing
One of the reasons the movie, "Pleasantville," so appealed to me is
that its view of current events is so akin to that which I have been expressing
in recent writings – e.g., the articles
"The Scenery of Healing"
and "The Emerging Perinatal
and the book Apocalypse, Or New
Age? – wherein I make the argument that recent events
are not evidence of a downfall of civilization, as conservatives like Newt
Gingrich and Pat Buchanan would have us believe, but are the necessary "birth
pains" of a new age being born. In Pleasantville, indeed, though
everyone smiles and there is no crime or unpleasantness – which is supposed
to reflect the view of reality presented in Fifties sitcoms like Father
Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver – it is inherently flawed in
that it is lacking in "color." Those of us who lived through the Fifties
know that the lack of color is an apt metaphor for exactly the way it was
at that time. It was a back-and-white world – a world that covered
up its underlying nastiness and evil by repression and denial – psychological
defense mechanisms that characterize the World-War-Two Generation especially.
New Mantram: "Thinking
for Oneself Is Good!"
The point in the movie, which is so appealing, is that it causes us
to look again at the changes in our society that have occurred because of
the various "revolutions" of recent decades (civil rights, student antiwar,
women's rights, sexual, and so on) and to stop bemoaning the "messiness"
that comes with freedom. We have more choice, more freedom now than
ever. And this freedom allows us the opportunity for a higher spirituality
-- some would say the only true spirituality -- which involves the harrowing
path of deciding for oneself, based upon one's ability to intuit or "feel"
the correct path, and experiencing the consequences of one's choices, as
opposed to the preordained religiosity of following a script. Though
many would argue this, one has only to look, as this movie forces us to do,
back at where we started. And from that perspective, with that stultifying,
hypocritical, dishonest, and phony kind of supposed "living" in mind, we can
easily see the changes and progress made in individual freedom and, dare I
say, genuine spirituality, and accept the uncertainty, emotional pain, apparent
evil, "messiness," social and political turbulence, and all the rest that
comes with it.
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