The Two Sides of Nostalgia, Part 1: Pleasantville

First we have the movie Pleasantville.

Then we have the movie Blast from the Past.

First, I’ll tackle Pleasantville. The plot of Pleasantville is thus:

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play modern-day teenagers, brother and sister, the children of divorced parents. Tobey is David – the kind of geeky guy in high school who doesn’t have a chance with girls because he’s too sensitive and nice, and also because he’s the type of kid who can recite entire episodes of The Brady Bunch. Only in this movie, he can recite entire episodes of Pleasantville, a fictional black and white family drama, from the 1950s. The kind of show you can see on Nick at Nite. Like Life with Father. Reese plays Jennnifer, his slutty sister. She only cares about boys, and she is obviously very promiscuous. She thinks her brother is the biggest dork on the planet, basically because he’s smart and does well in school.

The movie opens with a battle for the TV. There’s a Pleasantville marathon happening, and David has set his sights to sit in front of the television for 24 hours. There is also a concert on MTV and Jennifer wants to watch it with her hot date. A fight between them heats up, they struggle over the remote until it finally flies against the wall and breaks. Then, mysteriously, the doorbell rings. And there is Don Knotts, who plays a crotchety TV repair guy who somehow showed up at just the right time with an old-fashioned “new” remote. There’s something weird about the whole situation … how would he know immediately that a new remote was needed … but David and Jennifer, still in a fight, start to struggle again over this new remote, and eventually, the magical thing occurs: David and Jennifer, two modern kids, in color, find themselves inside the television, in black and white, in the world of Pleasantville. They are dressed up in the styles of the 1950s, and they find themselves transformed into Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the two kids from the show Pleasantville. There is William Macy as their father, George Parker – a jovial guy, always in a suit, who every day comes home, takes off his hat, puts down his briefcase, and calls out: “Honey! I’m home!” (Laugh track to follow) Joan Allen plays Betty Parker – the mother. She is, of course, the perfect smiling housewife. David and Jennifer decide to play along with their new roles until they can figure out a way to get back out of the television.

Things are weird in Pleasantville. There is no outside world. The geography classes in high school are all about “the geography of Pleasantville”. The basketball team has never lost a game. The roles are clear, the characters are rigid. There is no change in Pleasantville. It never rains.

Jeff Daniels plays the owner of the local soda shop, and he can only open the store if he does everything in exactly the same order. Tobey (as Bud) is a bit late to his job one day, as a soda clerk, and Jeff Daniels’ entire world is shattered. He is immobilized. There is a fire department in Pleasantville, only there are never any fires there. The only thing the firemen do is rescue kittens out of trees. Everyone is white. There’s a very funny scene when David and Jennifer sit down to breakfast with their TV parents … and look at the SPREAD their mother has put out for them. Now in our health-conscious society, you would eat this stuff and feel guilty about it later. But back then? Towering stacks of pancakes drenched in whole butter, mounds of fatty sizzling bacon, huge ham steaks, etc. Reese Witherspoon, as a modern-day calorie-counting girl, stares at the breakfast with horror and revulsion.

Of course the two modern-day kids start to change things in Pleasantville. A whiff of the future comes with them. It becomes apparent that things are only “pleasant” in Pleasantville because reality is so fiercely left out of the picture. Things like: love, sex, curiosity, risk-taking, asking questions, knowledge … all of these things threaten the fragile equilibrium of this town.

But once the changes start blossoming, it’s a runaway train. Tobey Maguire, who in his modern-day manifestation, is a huge FAN of the show, is disturbed by the changes. He doesn’t want Pleasantville to change. Reese Witherspoon takes a different view. She does her best to wreak havoc (I love in her geography class when she raises her hand and asks, “Yeah, what’s outside Pleasantville?” and the entire class stares at her, in awe and horror, at the question.), she starts dating one of the basketball players, and instead of sitting and having a sundae at the soda shop, she drags him off to Lover’s Lane and molests him. Until then, there was no sex in Pleasantville.

The startling thing about this movie (or one of the things, anyway) is the look of it. As Pleasantville starts to experience upheaval, rebellion, certain things start to become color, while the rest of the world is still black and white. At first, all you see is one rose blooming red out of the monochromatic palette, but after that … patches of color start showing up everywhere. However they managed to accomplish this is amazing. You see startling images like a couple making out – he is still in black and white, she is in full color. Or, you see a black and white girl blowing a bubble and the gum-bubble is bright pink.

Things becoming colorful is thrilling to some, and awful to others. Resistance starts against “the coloreds”. People want to halt the forces of change. Suddenly teenagers are hanging out at LOver’s Lane, and skinny-dipping. Other things start happening too. It’s not just about sex, and that’s one of the reasons why I appreciate this film. It’s not just like: “whoo-hoo, look how repressed everyone was back then – If you have sex, you’re free from all of that!” If that were the plot of the movie, it wouldn’t have worked. That would be too simplistic.

No – it’s different for every character. At one point, 3/4 of the way through the film, Reese is sitting on her bed, kind of perturbed. She says to her brother, “Can I ask you something? Why am I still in black and white? I have been having ten times as much sex as everyone else, and I’m still like this.” Turns out, that for her, of course, a slut in her former life, having tons of sex is no liberation at all. She needs to be liberated from something else. But she doesn’t know what it is. Then, one night, for whatever reason, she starts to read a book – I think it’s DH Lawrence. She wants to read it, because she heard it was “sexy” … but then, she finds herself wrapped up in the story. For the first time in her life, she becomes interested in reading. So much so that she cancels her date with the basketball player, and sits up all night with her book. She falls asleep finally, holding the book in her hand, and when she wakes up the next morning she is in full color. For her, the liberation comes from looking at the world outside herself, and from also discovering that there’s more to life than sex … that she is actually a very smart girl, and likes learning things.

For me, that one detail (her character becoming technicolor after READING) is why this movie is so special. Yup. There’s a deep point being made here, about life, and change, and growth. What will work for one person will not work for another, and we need to have that room to find our own way, make our own mistakes.

Finally, they figure out a way to return home … once Pleasantville is in full color. Only Jennifer (the Reese character) decides to stay on in the imaginary world. She can’t go back to her old self, and her old horrible GPA. She will now become Mary Sue, the smart girl with glasses in the old TV show.

David returns home, back to our modern-day world.

It’s not a complex movie, obviously, except in the black-and-white next to color technology. The theme is simple: “Pleasant” is over-rated, and people who look to the past as some kind of golden age, of simplicity, are being highly selective in what they allow themselves to remember. Sure things might have been “simpler” back then, but at what cost? At what cost?

The film makes no bones about the modern world. David and Jennifer are two teenagers, kind of adrift, left to their own devices, because their parents are too self-consumed to pay attention to them. At the opening of the film, the mother is on the phone with her ex-husband, the father of her kids, arguing wtih him, about it’s “his turn” to have them for the weekend, and besides – she’s going away for the weekend with her hot younger boyfriend. She’s selfish, she’s like a rebellious teenager herself.

The film is not saying: “Hey, everything’s SO MUCH BETTER now.” It is clear that we have paid a price in opening up Pleasantville, in letting in the forces of change.

But the film is also saying: Be careful about nostalgia. Nostalgia, in some lights, is nothing more than a big fat lie. You can go ahead and lie to yourself and talk about the Golden Age ‘back then’ – but you’re leaving out enormous swaths of experience and life in order to see that time ‘back then’ as simple. Nostalgia can be a force for good, it can help us maintain our collective cultural memory, it can help us remember that things are not always complex and dreary – like it seems to be now. I have a friend who romanticizes her adolescence to such a degree that it does seem to me that she is lying to herself a little bit. It is her way of not taking responsibility for who she is now. “Wasn’t it so much easier back then? You go to dances, you hang out with your friends, you didn’t have to worry about money, or the future…” I just can’t get on board with that rosy-glasses view. I say to her, “I don’t know … sure, there were SOME things back then I didn’t have to worry about. I didn’t have to pay rent, and stuff like that. But I remember there being all kinds of heartache and stress and insecurity – when I was a teenager. I wouldn’t go back to that time for anything. I can look back on it NOW and laugh at how upset I was over not going to the Junior Prom, but I will NOT say that it was not a big deal to me at the time. It was hugely upsetting.”

Her insistence on believing that everything was great “back then” is a way to avoid what she should do to make things better right now.

Nostalgia for the “good old days” has that feeling to me as well. Pleasantville takes the stance that simplicity and pleasantness was only possible through vigorously keeping change to a minimum. And so there is a warning in this film – as light-hearted and comedic as it is (and it is, indeed, very funny.)

We have lost quite a bit, in the transference from Pleasantville to now. But we mustn’t fool ourselves. There HAS been progress. Not ALL change is bad. You can’t control the pace of change, and you can’t say “Okay, so let’s let THIS change happen, but let’s not let THAT change happen.” Or, you CAN, but it’s a losing battle.

I’ll write about an opposing view of Nostalgia in my next post – which will be about Blast from the Past, one of my favorite movies ever.

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20 Responses to The Two Sides of Nostalgia, Part 1: Pleasantville

  1. Lisa says:

    Girl, BftP was on TV (TV, yay!) the other day, and while I was watching it I said to myself, “I wonder if Sheila likes this movie. I bet she does.”

    And. you. do.

    ::cue freakout::

  2. red says:

    Ha!! I do. I just LOVE it. I own it, and i watch it all the time. I’ll be working on my Blast from the Past post later.

  3. mere says:

    I watched Blast from the past the other day on TV too- I love that movie. can’t wait to read your post on it

  4. skinnydan says:

    I really liked Pleasantville too. I think my favorite scene is the bit in the Bowling Alley when Macey walks in to explain to the other guys “there was no dinner.”

  5. red says:

    skinnydan: Right, and JT Walsh (he was from my town, went to my high school) as the mayor, reassuring the men: “Well, we’re in a bowling alley, so we know we’re safe.”

  6. Barry says:

    I loved Pleasantville when it came out, and I have a VHS copy that I watch from time to time.

    Something, though about the ending of the movie has always bothered me and I never can quite put my finger on it.

    I think it has to do with a plot point you mentioned about “coloreds”. At one part of the movie, the B&W’s start making fun of the “coloreds”, and even begin picking fights with them.

    When they introduced that angle it seemed to me they introduced a no-stopping-here angle. Either you now have to take the rest of the movie and examine racial tolerance, as it relates to the situation between the two sets of people in the movie. But it didn’t – it touched on it briefly, then went back to, what I consider, was an anti-climactic court scene that returned to the former main point of the movie.

    I don’t know – I was intrigued by the “colored” angle it took, and offput when that direction was abandoned. The movie kind of derailed a bit from that moment on.

  7. red says:

    Barry – I agree that the court scene is the weakest scene in the film.

  8. Dave J says:

    You know, I’ve only seen Pleasantville once, when it first came out, and I loved it. I’ll have to watch it again real soon, so thanks for reminding me. You also know I’d watch Reese Witherspoon in absolutely anything, so there’s that, too.

  9. red says:

    She’s great in it. Nobody can really hold a candle to Joan Allen’s performance – but then again, that’s always true.

    Reese, in a sweater set and poodle skirt, dragging boys off into the bushes, thinking she’s liberated. heh. It’s great stuff.

  10. Barry says:

    I wish I were talented enough to write a new ending for the film, that addresses where I think they were really going with the plot. I don’t mind it ending up in the same place, but it needed a different denouement…

    Now I need to watch it again :)

  11. red says:

    Barry – member when Bud and the soda-pop guy (Jeff Daniels) stay up all night painting the mural? Even though they were forbidden to paint in color? And they wake up, and slowly the camera pans back to see this spectacular mural – we see close-ups of this image, that image … a crowd gathers, staring, some people are still in black and white, others in color … but they’ve never seen art before. And they’re speechless – the music swelling, as the camera slowly pans in and out through the mural.

    Member that? That might have been a nice ending.

    No need to have a trial. The black-and-whites were already defeated by that point.

  12. Barry says:

    I don’t think the mom’s “liberation” was settled at that point, and of course William Macy hadn’t turned yet, until the trial. I think the story couldn’t end until the personal changes of the mom and dad had been concluded, one way or another.

    Would it have made it more interesting if the dad had not changed? Or the mayor? (Can’t remember – did JT Walsh finally change at the end, or was he the final holdout?)

  13. red says:

    Yeah – it’s at the trial when William Macy realizes that his wife is actually beautiful and that he misses her. He admits vulnerability. That’s his change.

    JT Walsh changes when he screams at Tobey Maguire to shut up (which doesn’t really make sense – because he’s angry and intolerant throughout the whole film.)

    It might have been better to not have him “change” – because, after all, some people are, indeed, just too rigid and attached to things. That’s the way of life. I know people like that, and you do too.

    Actually, the mother had her transformation way before the trial. After her, ahem, time in the bathtub. :)

  14. Barry says:

    I guess TPTB thought the movie would end on too much of a downer not to have everyone change. Which, in fact, kind of defeats the purpose of learning to think for yourself. Some people really do decide to stay the same, and that’s fine.

    As our friend Joshua said, “Sometimes the only winning move is not to play,” and for some folks it’s the best way for them.

  15. red says:

    Joshua!!! From what is, perhaps, my favorite movie of all time.

  16. red says:

    And yes… If someone is more comfortable in black-and-white, then by all means – stay black-and-white. The problem came when the black-and-whites got organized against those who had become technicolor. Live and let live, you know? Way easier said than done, though. The point of the film seemed to be that living in color had to do with having a full and 3-dimensional experience of life, as opposed to just doing things by rote. Taking time to smell the flowers, making sure you get to know your children as well as raise them, being tender with those who are in pain … These are all examples from the film. So definitely, the film-maker is making a moral judgment on those who refuse to engage with the world on that full and rich level.

    But there are, again, people who will never engage with the world on that full level. (Scott Peck wrote a whole book about such people)

    JT Walsh’s character is one-dimensional. There is no indication that he would ever be able to change, or accept this new colorful world. He likes it way too much the way things were, because – in that black-and-white world, he was king, he had authority, he was the most important person in the town. That’s a tough thing to give up.

  17. Ken Hall says:

    I thought the filmmakers covered that “tough thing to give up” angle–if inelegantly–when J.T. Walsh turned color. My take: he saw he was just like everyone else, couldn’t deal with everything that implied, and fled. To get more than that from him would have taken three more scenes and twenty minutes, I think. However, a great many of you are much more fluent in the language of film than I.

    I really like your analysis here, Sheila. I remember most contemporary reviews (well, the ones I recall seeing) being more gleeful about (paraphrasing) “turning over the rocks in Squaresville and sticking it to the Man, right on fight the power up against the wall whitey”, ignoring the fact that the world from which David and Jennifer had come wasn’t any prize either. It’s measured and balanced, and I really appreciate it.

    …or maybe they (them of that school of thought) thought that (our) world is just hunky-dory, thank you very much. After all, I doubt we’d have the world we have if some people didn’t thrive on it, or believe that they did.

    ‘Scuse me, that’s a little on the ranty side.

    “Her insistence on believing that everything was great “back then” is a way to avoid what she should do to make things better right now.”

    That is just golden. Exactly. Preee-cisely.

  18. Barry says:

    Wargames and Pleasantville: double feature? :)

  19. red says:

    Barry – hell yeah!!

  20. Have a Pleasant Day

    Read Sheila on one of my favorite movies, although it frustrates me at times, Pleasantville

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