Pleasantville Character Essay

The Garden of Pleasantville

by Olivia Collette

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How do things work in a perfect world? The book of Genesis tells us this much: every living thing lives in harmony, food is plentiful, there is no such thing as pain, and nobody knows the difference between good and evil.

That's the loophole the serpent uses to convince Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "God said not to because I'll die," she protests. "You won't die," the serpent says. "You'll just be wiser, like God, and see things the way he does." So Eve eats the fruit because she can't conceive of anything that isn't perfect, and if God is wise, then wisdom is perfect too. As for Adam, the Bible never really attributes any motive to his deed. He just seems to take the fruit from Eve without question.

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The DVD of "Pleasantville" is available on Netflix. You can stream the film for $2.99 on Vudu or Amazon Instant.

I always wondered why God put the Tree there in the first place. If you don't want your immaculate beings to have any knowledge of good and evil, why give them access to it? When God eventually punishes Adam and Eve, he's not just angry that they disobeyed. He also realizes they're smart enough to want to do it again. And nothing ruins a fine paradise like free will.

You know what David loves about Pleasantville? It's unlike everything that's wrong about the world we live in. The beginning of the movie even shows us some of the harsh truths David is confronted with: pretty girls that flock to jocks; the lack of job opportunities; the threat of STDs; global warming; and Dionne Warwick infomercials.

A super-fan of the 1950s show "Pleasantville," David doesn't give too much thought to the fact that such a heavenly place never really existed. Those sitcoms were as much an ideal then as they are now. But David doesn't want realism. He gets enough of that every day. He's a nerdy nobody in school, his divorced parents fight over who's going to watch the kids, and his twin sister Jennifer is a selfish, slutty brat.

On a night when David and Jennifer squabble over who gets to decide what's on TV, a mysterious (if omniscient) cableman teleports them to Pleasantville to teach them a lesson in nuclear family behavior. The problem is, he takes them to the idea, not the show.

In black-and-white Pleasantville, toilets don't exist. Nor any other ickiness. Nobody knows how they got there, and nobody cares to ask. Nobody knows much of anything, and nobody cares to ask about that either. The people of Pleasantville live in an idyllic little bubble that has no beginning or end, where the sun shines every day, where the basketball team never misses a shot, where firemen only ever rescue cats, and where children win science fairs without having to delve too much into the science. They haven't a clue what "bad" means because everything's so swell all the time.

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Realizing that they're stuck in Pleasantville as the show's main characters, Bud and Mary Sue Parker, David urges Jennifer to play along. He doesn't seem to mind it so much at first, but rebellious Jennifer is mortified. At least until dreamy Skip Martin asks her out.

On that date, Jennifer does something even her Pleasantville parents, George and Betty Parker, haven't done: she has sex. She fulfills her Eve-like role by setting off a shift in perspective: sex is how people in this town start to see color. But that's not all it does; it also introduces the concept of imperfection when the basketball team, distracted by Skip's erotic tales, loses its first game. Oh, and sex causes a fire.

David begs Jennifer to stop messing with this fragile cosmos, but she isn't convinced it's meant to be so stringent. "These people don't want to be geeks," she tells him. "They want to be attractive. They have a lot of potential, they just don't know any better."

David's own geekiness proves useful when he ends up educating everyone else. He tells them how Huckleberry Finn ends, he shows them how to put out a fire, and he reassures them that rain isn't dangerous. As he does, the people of Pleasantville turn to color.

But people don't turn to color merely by way of sex and trivia. It goes deeper than that. It has to be something that touches you on a visceral level. Something that's the opposite of what you think you know about yourself. That's why David and Jennifer are among the last to make the transition, because for the most part, they're the ones teaching Pleasantville new tricks.

For David, it finally happens when he punches a still-black-and-white boy who's harassing his "colored" Pleasantville mother Betty. If you consider that he didn't have the nerve to speak to the girl he was crushing on at the beginning of the movie, this is an important first. For the previously boy-crazy Jennifer, it happens when she hits the books and genuinely enjoys it.

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Before color, Pleasantville was a place of unquestioned rituals and customs except for one person: Bill Johnson, the soda shop owner. I don't know what Bill's doing in Pleasantville, but whoever put him there sure took a risk. Like the Tree, he's a crack in the universe. That he paints a different Christmas mural each year makes him a malleable force. It's the only thing that changes in Pleasantville, and he revels in it. When color is introduced to Pleasantville, Bill's even the first to ask what the point is of doing the same thing in the same way every day. It proves Jennifer's earlier observation about the town's potential. Pleasantville always had the palette and brushes, it just needed to inspire its painter.

Writer-director Gary Ross has dealt with the theme of displacement in earlier movies. It started with Big and carried on in Mr. Baseball and Dave. In each, the expatriation causes discomfort, and the characters inevitably tap into their own resources to adapt. What's great about Pleasantville is that this conversion isn't limited to its main characters. The whole town undergoes the same transformation. And it turns out that it's just as lovely in color as it was in grayscale.

The advent of color in Pleasantville means sacrificing its unsullied state, but the townspeople seem to think they're better for it. Things aren't black and white, they're complicated. That's the beauty of it. That's how we know we're doing it right.

Olivia Collette is a writer from Montreal, Canada. She'd still like to know what God was thinking when he put Adam and Eve within earshot of the Tree. She blogs at livvyjamsand you can follow her on Twitter at @Olivia_Collette 


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Pleasantville (1998) Essay

February 19, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Writings | 1 Comment
Tags: Essay, Movies, Writings

Title: Pleasantville (1998)
Director and Writer: Gary Ross

This film is an obvious satire criticizing the fear of change, and the self oppression of these people in order to prevent this change. Pleasantville would seem like the perfect place to live in. Everything is ideal, when put in other words, everything is right and nothing is wrong. You cannot make any mistakes in Pleasantville, such as the always-perfect goal in basketball, simply because ‘wrong’ does not exist. Everyone in Pleasantville does what they are supposed to do, and only what they are supposed to do. This also means they are very inflexible in their execution, just like Bill Johnson who becomes completely at lost when Bud (David) does not do his job as usual.

When David and Jennifer first get warped into Pleasantville, they immediately realise the switch to monochome colour and the conservative (or so-called “proper look”) dressing and hairstyle. The monochrome colours used readily reflect the townspeople’s mundane and robotic way of life, and also their lack of true and individual personality. They are greeted by their “alternate” mother, Betty Parker, in a very artificial and overly-friendly “Honey, Breakfast’s Ready!”. Massive piles of food fill the whole dining table, and it is obvious that it is far more than necessary to feed the family. Mary Sue (Jennifer) is served a humongous breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancake, steak and sausage. One would notice the high dietary fat content in these foods, and this symbolises the over-abundance of American life in the 1950s. This is even more so portrayed in Betty’s generous pouring of syrup on Mary Sue’s pancakes.

Sexuality:

Sexuality in the monochrome Pleasantville, was almost non-existent. Relationships between man and women were purely for the creation of a family, and the duties of the members in a family was clear, precise and strict. The man worked outside, and the wife stayed at home to prepare food and do the housework, while the children went to school. Teenage relationship was pure and innocent, but this was changed throughout the course of the movie. It all started when Mary Sue is obviously unhappy with this mechanical and innocent way of life, and introduces sex to Skip, who was previously shy and did not want to rush their relationship. Thus began the start of the changes in Pleasantville, and the revolution of sex, as symbolised by the rose turning striking red. It also led to Skip telling the other boy on the basketball team about it, thus starting to “infect” the others to lose their innocence. They become unable to score perfectly in basketball, and this marks a break from the “perfect sequence” of Pleasantville.

The people of Pleasantville are very conservative. They are shocked at the sight of visual art (beyond the “normal” festive decorations during Christmas), and even more so of depiction of nude women. They consider it “shameless” when they saw Betty’s nude figure artwork on the glass display at Bill’s Soda Shop.

Race:

Because Pleasantville was transforming from monochrome to multicolour, this led another theme to surface: Racism. Thus began a racial segregation between the “monochromes” and the “coloured” people. The “monochromes” are considered true citizens of Pleasantville, and continue to embrace the moral values of the town. The “coloured” people are those who have undergone change, experienced emotion and explored personal freedom.

When Bud and Bill Johnson are put in court for trial, the scene becomes reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Court Episode. The “monochrome” people, like the whites, are seated at the ground level, while the “coloured” people, like the blacks, are located on the second level. This is a clear juxtaposition of the racial discrimination between the two “races”. The unfair treatment can be seen when judge is the mayor, and Bud and Bill Johnson are not offered a lawyer to speak in defence for them.

Personal Freedom:

At the beginning, the people of Pleasantville lacked autonomy and character. They said the same, predictable words and greetings along with artificial, almost-plastic facial expressions. They seemed like robots; without feelings, thought or emotion. They do and say as programmed, in order to achieve that “pleasant, idealistic way of life”. The deliberate use of monochromatic greys makes this even more significant. This reflects of the loss of individualism of Americans in the 1950s, where idealism and “perfect living” meant restrictions on behaviour, expression and thought.

When Betty becomes “coloured”, she tries to hide it with make-up in fear of her husband. But when she realises that she has fallen for Bill Johnson, she accepts her “colours” and even resists covering it up when her husband tells her she. She becomes more daring in pursuing her feelings, and does not completely fulfil all the expected duties of a housewife. She is firm in her own feelings, thoughts and emotions, something all the wives in the town are becoming, and this becomes a threat and worry for the husbands and mayor of Pleasantville. Previously seen as a mechanical housekeeper who will keep the family in order and serve meals and do the chores, they now realise that they can think for themselves and have rights to personal freedom.

The ‘Pleasantville Code of Conduct’ is a manifestation of the political oppression to the most ridiculous degree. Setting rules for the type of music to be played, the colour of paint permissible, or even prohibition to visiting the library are undeniably absurd standards to follow. Bud resists this by playing loud rock music, and together with Bill Johnson, paint a large mural outside the local Police Station expressing their discontent with the restrictions of personal freedom.

(976 words)

Reference: Wikipedia: Pleasantville

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