Friday, January 22, 2010


Year 2, Day 21 - 1/21/10 - Movie #386

BEFORE: OK, so I guess the term I should be using is "metafiction" - a kind of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction. I thought dramatic irony might be the right term, but metafiction seems to use irony in a more self-reflective way. So "Delirious" was a piece of metafiction, using and highlighting the common devices seen in soap operas. Tonight's film is an example of metafiction using the common devices of 1950's TV shows, set in "ideal" American towns.

THE PLOT: Two 1990's teenagers find themselves in a 1950's sitcom where their influence begins to profoundly change that complacent world.

AFTER: Squabbling siblings David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are sent into the fictional TV town of Pleasantville by a magical remote, provided by a mysterious TV repairman on the night of a "Pleasantville" marathon. They assume the identities of two of the show's characters, but their influence ends up changing the town in unexpected ways.

Jennifer's Lover's Lane dalliance with her character's boyfriend awakens some unusual feelings, as symbolized by the addition of color to the black-and-white world. Soon the basketball team is losing games for the first time (the assumption is that they're suddenly interested in girls instead of sports, I guess...) and people start to question their ideal yet humdrum American suburban lifestyles. The local diner owner (Jeff Daniels) discovers a desire to be an artist, and housewife Betty Parker (Joan Allen) discovers a desire to be an artist's girlfriend...

Before long a number of people in the town are turning on and turning colors, and their emotions are being awakened for the first time - it's a variation on Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden, once forbidden knowledge is introduced, it can't be unlearned, and the genie can't be put back in the bottle.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to have a clear message. Is the 1950's "ideal" TV show setting really ideal, or is it lacking something? If a couple of teenagers dry-humping was enough to shatter all the conventions and mores of society, then how solid was the foundation - how ideal could it have been? In other words, is it hip to be square, or were the "good old days" not all they were cracked up to be?

Look, I'm just asking for some consistency here - even the fantasy world has to have rules. Dorothy had to follow the Yellow Brick Road, and Alice had to play a game of chess and answer riddles. The 1950's society portrayed in "Pleasantville" is a town without any double-beds - so the implication is that sex doesn't exist there, at least not in the same form. While it's an interesting idea to show a daughter teaching her mother about the birds and the bees, it just doesn't make sense - where did the daughter come from? And how can sex and passion and all the emotions that come with it not exist, then suddenly exist, just because someone thinks of it? Either they were always there, lurking below the surface, or they can't be introduced - but you can't have it both ways.

The last part of the film seems to be a strange commentary on racism, with the black-and-white townsfolk squaring off against the "colored" people. It's an odd tangent to introduce, and then not follow up on. Then there's a "Code of Conduct" implemented by the town leaders, forbidding rock+roll, public displays of affection, and vandalism. Another commentary on social injustices and conservative Fascism vs. liberal freedom that seems to go nowhere?

And we're left with a lot of questions - where exactly is "Pleasantville", inside the TV or in the alternate 1950's dimension? Who exactly was the TV repairman (played by Don Knotts), and what was his motive for sending people into the TV-Land dimension? Was that a prize in the trivia contest that the main character was preparing for?

And if a character chooses to stay in the TV reality, and no one in the real world seems to miss them - is that bad parenting? Or just a plothole?

Also starring William H. Macy (not Bill Macy from "My Favorite Year"), Jane Kaczmarek, and king of the character actors J.T. Walsh.

RATING: 5 out of 10

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