Do you ever wish we could get back to the wholesomeness and stability of the past, to a world where things are simpler and easier? That’s just the issue explored in the superb 1998 film Pleasantville. The central characters of the movie are teenage twins David and Jennifer, each struggling their their own way with the pressures of modern life and a family that has been through divorce. Jennifer becomes the ultimate party girl, sleeping around and acting on her every whimsy. David becomes depressed and retreats from the world into his room, where he spends as much time as he can watching his favourite TV show, an old 1950’s black and white sitcom, Pleasantville. Pleasantville seems to offer everything David could want – simplicity, intact families, stability, clear community values.
Then one day something weird happens. David and Jennifer are fighting over the remote control for the TV and break it. Mysteriously a TV repairman show sup at that time and gives them an unusual looking replacement remote. No sooner have they hit the button than they are both transported back in time into Pleasantville, the world of David’s favourite sitcom. They find themselves trapped in this world where everything is neat, simple and occurs in black and white. David and Jennifer are part of a traditional family, where mum stays home to do the cooking and cleaning and their clean cut Dad heads off to work, returning each evening with “Honey, I’m home.”
David realised that they have become part of the episodes he knows word by word from TV and decides to play along. There is something appealing about this simple world. Jennifer is horrified. There’s no way she’ll be going along with the rules. David tells her she’ll destroy these people’s way of life, but she doesn’t care. And the funny thing is that she does destroy their way of life, but in many ways she changes it for the better.
You see, the reason everything is so pleasant in Pleasantville is that nobody asserts their individuality. Everybody conforms to the desires of the mainstream. Jennifer’s Pleasantville mum represses her sexuality, the Pleasantville store owner represses his dreams of becoming an artist, the high school kids go through the motions of winning every basketball game but never know how to cope with failure.
Inspired by Jennifer’s chaotic ways people in Pleasantville start discovering their individuality. Jennifer’s mum explores her sexuality and then one day doesn’t have dinner ready and waiting for her husband when he walks in the door. The local storeowner starts painting. The high school kids start breaking out of their rigid conformity and become addicted to sexual pleasure, at least initially. And as all this happens those who begin to assert their individuality turn into colour.
The reaction from the powerbrokers is swift. Initially confused by all these changes they soon become convinced society will fall apart. They organise meetings, enact laws against “coloureds”, apply guilt trips to those who have changed. A darker, uglier undercurrent of abuse and violence emerges as some who resent the changes retaliate. But nothing can stop the change.
The movie raises a whole lot of issues. By the end we’ve discovered that the new full colour version of the world is more chaotic and dangerous than the black and white version. Readjusting to new roles, discovering morality and living with change is difficult. The men have lost the power and convenience of a world oriented around their needs. Yet people are living in colour. They seem happier and more fulfilled.
The movie raises a number of confronting challenges about change.
- The world of today is more complex, chaotic and dangerous than the world of the past, but it is also one where people are liberated rather than repressed – chaotic but colourful versus ordered but black and white.
- When we respect people’s individuality (ie their dreams and desires) we run the risk that they will pursue options and agendas with which we are uncomfortable.
- A black and white world is one which centres around the dreams and hopes of one group by repressing the dreams and hopes of others. In the town of Pleasantville the last to change are the adult men. After all, they are the ones who hold power in this world, with wives and children fitting in with their needs.
- Change can produce an ugly backlash. Feeling that they possess the moral high ground people can be harsh in judgement, vindictive in spirit, and assume they have the right to enforce their views on others.