Friday, 19 October 2012

Pleasantville (1998)

Fig. 1
Gary Ross's Pleasantville (1998) is an American 90's fantasy comedy-drama. Pleasantville uses cinematography techniques involving the change in colour from black and white to technicolour to portray the prominent themes - that when we challenge our identity there is no such thing as a 'perfect' life structure and no one way to be/exist as. The plot follows teenage siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) who are magically transported from their chaotic 1990's dysfunctional, colourful life structure to a 1950's stereotypical black and white sitcom, where everything is 'perfect and right with the world'. They assume the identities of Mary-Sue and Bud and try to conform to the life style they've been thrust into, yet in a world where sex does not exist and the books are blank pages bound together, its clear these 90's kids are sure to make a stir. As the people of Pleasantville discover the concepts of art, music, books, sex and not conforming to stereotypical living, colour ripples through the black and white background, from the subtly of a red cherry and pink bubble gum to trees blossoming pink flowers and full colour citizens.  

Colour plays a big part in the plot and assists the narrative throughout, conveying changes within the community and its individuals. Almar Halflidason observes, "Both teenagers set off ripples in the bland town with their individuality exciting some, while threatening others. Vivid Technicolor tones seep into the black and white settings, as some within the town ditch their dreary existences to explore new emotions, and indulge in new-found creativity." (Haflidason 2001) Haflidason explains how the two protagonists impact upon their new environment and how the use of colour accentuates the changes being inflicted. Throughout the film the audience learns how the introduction of colour, within the 1950's black and white setting, is a signifier in terms of a transition in identity.      

Fig. 2 
Pleasantville appears at the start to be a typical comedy-drama with a touch of fantasy, to be watched for entertainment purposes, yet as the film continues the underlying and prominent themes makes it so much more. Ross's emphasis on stereotypes and cinematography techniques allows the viewer to see clearly the point he is making.  Roger Ebert describes, "Pleasantville" is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom. I grew up in the '50s. It was a lot more like the world of "Pleasantville" than you might imagine. Yes, my house had a picket fence, and dinner was always on the table at a quarter to six, but things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for." (Ebert 1998) Ebert eloquently portrays what Pleasantville entails, the fact that when thinking about the past decades we have rose tinted glasses on and only see the nostalgic bliss that we believe to be a 'perfect' world. In fact we are just as ignorant as the stereotypes depicted within the film,  the idea being ignorance isn't bliss, that there is something more to life then trying to live it a specific way - someone's idea of perfect.  

Fig. 3
Janet Maslin argues, "Much of ''Pleasantville'' concentrates affectionately on the television-perfect family into which the teen-agers have been dropped. William H. Macy brings a funny, touchingly naive bombast to the father's role, while Joan Allen truly does bloom as the mother. Ms. Allen gives a lovely performance as a housewife who cares most about lavishing vein-clogging food on her family (''And of course, a ham steak!'' she declares at breakfast time) until that rogue color begins creeping in. When it arrives at that fateful night when Dad gets home to find no dinner, ''Pleasantville'' recapitulates the changing family atmosphere of baby boomers' after the ''Father Knows Best'' years." (Maslin 1998) Maslin praises Macy and Allen on their part in conveying their starting stereotypical roles, as well as pinpointing a key theme of the film - sexism within the 1950's and idealising family life. The fact you have such contrasting family structures at the start of the film - 'scatty' single parent compared to loved-up idealistic mum and dad - hits hard on the issue of the transformation in family structure over the years.

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Ross, Gary (1998) Pleasantville Movie Poster. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/12)

Figure 2. Ross, Gary (1998) A black and white Jeniffer with red cherry. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/12)

Figure 3. Ross, Gary (1998) David and Margaret Henderson - David still unable to change from black and white into colour. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/12)


Roger Ebert (1998) Pleasantville. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/12)

BBC Almar Haflidason (2001) Pleasantville (1998). At: (Accessed on: 13/10/12)

The New York Times Janet Maslin (1998) Pleasantville (1998) Condemned to Repeat the Joy of the Past. At: Tomatoes (Accessed on: 13/10/12)

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