“Have you seen this? Great movie.” A line I can clearly remember coming from my dad on numerous occasions growing up, this was the way I was introduced to so many movies, before we had Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and HBO, and movies like Cool Hand Luke and Keeping the Faith would run from time to time on our basic cable package. One movie I distinctly associate with the memory of walking into my family room just in time to catch some scene that prompted my dad’s “great movie” rating happened to be the crux of Ebertfest this year, the primary reason I was so thrilled to have been invited to attend, and the festival’s undeniable highlight for me: Gary Ross’s ever-relevant 1998 masterpiece (can I say masterpiece? I’m gunna say masterpiece), Pleasantville.
For years, I had only managed to catch bits and pieces of Pleasantville, mostly near the end--like every TV movie viewing experience when I was a kid, it was unpredictable. You never knew when you were coming in, and there was no way to rewind. (“Aw, it’s almost over…” “Yes! It just started!” “Aw, we missed the best part…” “Yes! I love this part!”) We were a TV family. I’m not sure if that sounds lame or superficial, but many of the most ordinary, special moments I’ve shared with my parents and siblings have been in front of the screen in our family room, part of a ritual more sacred than our goodnights or dinnertimes. We were all on the island together in Lost, wondering who Jacob was and whether we were in heaven or hell; we all laughed in shock at Michael Scott and cheered for Jim and Pam; we feared for Jesse Pinkman while still rooting for Walter White; we were in on the early days of How I Met Your Mother, Community, and Modern Family, and late to the game on Mad Men and Arrested Development. That the act of watching television and the effects of absorbing its stories are at the core of Pleasantville only makes sense for a movie that would end up being so important to me.
Even by the time I’d finally seen Pleasantville in its entirety, though, I still had only a vague understanding of what it was all about. In my early middle school reading of it, I was confused by who got to be in color and why others were left out—more than that, I couldn’t understand why everyone wouldn’t want to be in color. The parallels to racial segregation were fairly clear to me on a basic level, but I didn’t really think about the role of sexism and sexuality until much later. In fact, it might have been this viewing at Ebertfest, as part of a five-day film curriculum focused on social justice and female sexuality, that made it clear to me just how essential acts of sex instigated by women are to the entire story. Although some of the only criticism I heard from other members of the Ebertfest audience after the showing included the outdated feel of the word “slut” and implication of the shameless slut as a character type, I have to say, it kind of feels like Ross knew what he was doing there; the point of the teenage girl’s sexuality is not so much that she likes to have sex, but that she is willing to act on her desires. Not only are these actions imperative to the complexity of characters played by Reese Witherspoon and Joan Allen, they are literally what drive the plot forward: it is only when Jennifer/Mary Sue (Witherspoon) teaches innocent athlete Skip Martin (an adorable Paul Walker—how did I miss that for so many years?) what to do with his dick that the peaceful waters of Pleasantville begin to be disturbed, and only when she teaches her TV mother Betty (Allen) about masturbation that the rigidly traditional family structure, so crucial to the kind of sitcoms Pleasantville plays off of, begins to fall apart.
Of course, the consequences of these actions, both seen and suggested, are not all cause for celebration. When we see Skip quietly sharing the details of his enlightening experience in the car with Mary Sue to his fellow basketball players, a small part of me couldn’t help but react this time with Fuck, well there it is! The convergence of jock culture and rape culture begins! Similarly, when Skip later shows up outside Mary Sue’s window demanding to know why she missed their plans to have sex, it felt like I was watching the origin story behind the patriarchal expectation that men deserve immediate pleasure whenever the urge strikes—which, of course, makes it all the more worth cheering for when Skip is rejected in favor of a night in with D.H. Lawrence. And because Betty begins to become self-actualized and see herself as an individual rather than a mere housewife and mother, George (William H. Macy, who always seems to play the most perfectly pathetic men) is sent spiraling into utter devastation and confusion over the loss of his leading role in the household.
Pleasantville only gets more hilarious as I get older, but the funniest—yet, by the end, most unsettling—scene this time around was easily in the bowling alley after Betty finally leaves George. This gathering of black-and-white men in their sanctuary (“Thank God we’re in a bowling alley!”) is what makes it obvious why the husbands and fathers of Pleasantville are the only ones who remain unaffected by the presence of “real” colors and changing behavior from their increasingly emboldened wives and children. (No dinner? GASP.) This has always been their world, and suddenly everything they thought was so simple and fixed is shifting beyond their comprehension! The first ‘us’ and ‘them’ are born there, as the shaken men agree to resist the changes at hand and defend their old, outdated values, eerily chanting their agreement in a way that depicts, more clearly than maybe any other cinematic representation I’ve seen, the somewhat ironic, cultish logic of the (probably) straight, (probably) white, (definitely) cisgender men who refuse to accept any other variations of humanity: “Together! Together! Together!”
The resistance of the men in the bowling alley is more timely than ever—although we know now that that kind of resistance is not exclusive to one race or gender. We know that white women played a major role in the election of Donald Trump, and that even the most well-intentioned people are reluctant to admit that systemic prejudices exist within them. It’s easy, now, to see the black-and-white husbands as those (on the right and left) who criticize PC culture and “snowflakes” who “can’t take a joke” anymore, who are frustrated and angry with the rising complications of being human in the modern world, who don’t understand why we can’t go back to “simpler times” when things were “easier” for “everyone.” The very fundamentals of our language are changing on a daily basis, and while it’s true that this can feel overwhelming and difficult to keep up with at times, Pleasantville reminds us that the beauty of these many intricacies lies in the fact that these small details are actually what make the world bigger, creating space for everyone who could not find theirs in our history of black-and-white. I think of the opening theme of All in the Family, the subject of an extremely well-placed documentary on Norman Lear which played right after Pleasantville: “And you knew who you were then; girls were girls and men were men…Those were the days!” The nostalgia for simplicity is a beast Pleasantville tackles head-on and, like Roger Ebert says in the (yes, wonderfully nostalgic) clip of Siskel & Ebert on the topic, the movie ultimately comes to the radical conclusion that, despite our inclination to believe the worst, the world has, in fact, gotten better.
In the fantastic Q&A following the Pleasantville showing, Ross claimed that this nostalgia for simplicity is the result of “personal myth-making to avoid the untidiness of life,” and that, seeing his movie now, fifteen years after his last viewing, he still feels deep affection for its message and wholeheartedly believes it still belongs “to the tumult of youth.” Seeing Ross’ steadfast love for his work and what it communicates about the power of the next generation hit me hard, much like the Q&A from Ebertfest’s opening film, Hair, when Michael Hausman addressed us youngsters directly in the midst of our conversation on war and protest, telling us, “It’s your turn. I’m counting on you now to get together.” It felt like a real responsibility was being bestowed upon us. And while it’s true that things are more complicated than they were before, and complications often seem to make life harder, I think what Pleasantville wants us to get at is the realization that these complexities are not appearing “now” or “all of a sudden.” Those complexities have always been there, but what makes this world a better place than the one from fifty years ago is the fact that more and more of us can recognize, accept, and celebrate those complications, and see shades of people we didn’t see before.
When I was in middle school, Pleasantville, to me, was about the importance of artistic expression in the face of conformity. I used to cry when I heard Randy Newman’s score, set to the sight of art books and paintings made with colors I didn’t know should be appreciated. I saw the teenage discovery of rock ‘n’ roll and Jennifer’s newfound love of reading as very much aligned with my fifth grade, sixth grade self, as I felt I was starting to become a person instead of just a kid. Into high school and early college, the darker patriarchal undertones of the movie and importance of questioning those structures sank in a little more, along with (as Ross pointed out in his Q&A) the absurdity of segregation. Eventually, the meaning of the colors started to make sense—it’s not just art that makes us colorful, and it’s not just sex, so what is it? Love? Passion? It must be something like that. “It’s louder, and scarier I guess,” Tobey Maguire’s David/Bud carefully explains when asked about his world. “And a lot more dangerous.” But where does the noise, fear, and danger come from? Deviations. Unpredictability. Discord. “Sounds fantastic,” his still black-and-white companion responds in awe and envy.
Like most people, I thought passion was what made the citizens of Pleasantville colorful, but now I think it’s something more like independence. Taking action of your own free will, accepting responsibility for those actions and having the guts to make choices on your own before your personal oppression becomes political—as a recent college graduate, I’m feeling more and more like that’s what everything is all about. For almost a full year now, I’ve had no one telling me what to do; no assignments, no deadlines, no expectations, really, and I have been dismayed to realize how fucking terrible that is; to realize no one will make decisions for you anymore, and you are actually all on your own. I hate to admit how much I miss my life being structured for me, but there it is. Turns out, we do love our little cages, if only because they keep us focused on one tiny little corner of this growing, exquisite mess. That’s something I didn’t get before, though I thought I knew it in theory: the bigger the world is and the more possibilities there are, the scarier and more unmanageable it becomes. I understand the black-and-white husbands a little better now, and that’s definitely not something I expected going into Pleasantville this time.
Sigh. That’s the kind of movie Pleasantville is, and the kind I like best—it changes every time I see it, and forces me to see myself and everybody else a little differently. Even having seen the ending far more than the beginning, Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe” still gets me every time, and every time strikes me as more perfect. The haunting melancholy of Apple’s voice carrying one of the more alien songs from (don’t fight me on this) the greatest, most unexpected and yet most mainstream band in music history is unbelievably fitting, capturing the cosmic shrug Pleasantville leaves us with. Luckily, if there’s any one good place to ponder the strangely absurd, crushing nature of personal freedom and how you’ll ever work yourself up enough to actually exercise it, it’s probably in a beautifully ornate old theater, watching one of your favorite movies with a packed audience of other cinephiles from the perfect distance, at the perfect angle on a Saturday afternoon, sandwiched between two good friends who are probably thinking the same thing. I like my crises better when I’m reminded that we’re all having one, and Ebertfest might have given me my favorite one yet.