Sometimes a movie comes along that perfectly captures the zeitgeist — that practically cans it and pickles it — and you know you are looking at something with legs. Such is Gary Ross’s Pleasantville. The movie’s appealing premise is that two kids from the rad nineties — brother and sister — are magically projected into the black-and-white world of a fifties sitcom called “Pleasantville,” where they are cast as Bud and Mary Sue.
The sitcom is in the classic Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best vein. Everything is Eisenhower peachy: Pop has some vague job that requires a suit and a briefcase, but is close enough for midday pop-ins; Mom smiles and bakes 24 seven, and if Junior ever forgot to wax the Ford or Princess dated a guy without a cardigan, the sky would crack and fall to earth.
Now, some of us still like Ike and his prehallucinogenic era. But this film will have none of that. My goodness, it seems to be saying, haven’t you seen Blue Velvet? Didn’t you know that most of those handsome hat-wearing men were closeted gays or wife-beaters — or women, waiting for Christine Jorgensen to blaze her transgendered trail? There, there. Pleasantville is here to remind us. And remind us.
All of which is a terrific pity. No sooner are you thinking how fun this is going to be, wondering what retro delights the director has in store, than he begins to fulminate and cluck like a tie-dyed schoolmarm. “Now, now,” he tsks, “This was a bad, repressive society! Women had to wear dresses and cook dinner — simultaneously! Nobody even knew who Mick Jagger was!” You can practically smell the codliver oil approaching.
To remedy this backward state, Ross arranges for the cynical, sexually active Mary Sue to seduce Skip, the innocent captain of the Pleasantville basketball team. Unlike her brother, Mary Sue never liked this dull sitcom in the first place, and while she’s trapped here she’s going to have a little fun rocking the boat. She knows that introducing sex to this cloistered world will begin its eventual unraveling. That it does.
Immediately after their tryst, a single rose blooms red on the otherwise black-and-white screen, and we know that sin has entered Pleasantville. It should be a supremely sad moment, recalling the last, tragic lines of Paradise Lost, where the freshly fallen Adam and Eve “with wand’ring steps, and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” You could get a lump in your throat. But Ross treats it like the kickoff to the Superbowl. Clearly he thinks this the best thing that could have happened to this unhep, black-and-white Squaresville, Daddy-o. He has opened Pandora’s box with a crowbar and is ready to party. The very next day the fresh-faced swains and maids are all abuzz about Skip’s date, and that evening, in the requisite parked sedans, they leave their innocence behind.
In Pleasantville, Ross takes the myth of Genesis and turns it upside down. Here he joins a long line of rebels who have refigured Satan and Eve as enlightened Promethean heroes, liberating the world from its killjoy Creator by disobeying him. Self-expression is at the core of this rebellion — think of Byron and the Romantic idea of the artist: we aren’t sinful, but innocent, and therefore must express our inner light.
What distinguishes twentieth-century versions of this myth is their emphasis on specifically sexual self-expression — a theme not entirely missing from earlier versions but one that has received full expression only in the Age of Freud. On this point the prophets of the orgasm will brook no contradiction: the sexual urge is the ne plus ultra of human existence. It follows then, that suppressing the libido is the paradigmatic sin against the self, and releasing its pent-up force the ultimate virtue.
Margaret Sanger, the early birth-control advocate, forcefully preached this message, actually believing that science “proved” it was unhealthy not to have sex. The idea caught on as the century progressed, and the sexual revolution of the sixties, with rock ‘n’ roll acting as a kind of Dionysian midwife to our sexual longings, finally allowed us to get our collective ya-yas out. And we aren’t in Pleasantville anymore, Toto.
Since sex is the key that unlocks everything good, in Pleasantville all passion, color, and life are repressed until Mary Sue clues the natives in. Notice that actual sex between persons isn’t the point. This is most obvious in the movie when Mary Sue decides to spread Kinsey’s gospel to mousy old Mom.
In a grotesque parody of mother telling daughter about the birds and the bees, our trashy hell-spawn-from-the-future introduces her mother to the concept of masturbation. When in the bathtub Mom at last shakes Onan’s hirsute paw, a tree outside her bedroom immediately explodes into orange flames. The firemen show up to put it out (get it? color, fire, sex), but so innocent is this naìve world that they’ve never seen “fire” before. When their never-before-used hoses (wink, wink) douse the flames, they exclaim, “Oh! So that’s what that’s for!” (Nudge, nudge, yawn, yawn.)
The movie makes a pretense of being about more than sex. Reading and intellectual ferment, it seems, are also important. But what book is it that leads the suddenly bookish Mary Sue to burst into color? Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence.
From here on in the metaphors come at you like grapeshot. Mom, having discovered life’s meaning à la Lady Chatterly, leaves clueless Dad and takes up with the local soda jerk, a sensitive simpleton with a yen to paint. Bud has already shown him a book of paintings — in color, naturally. Of course the first one we lay eyes on isn’t a still life or seascape. It’s of a nude couple — surprise! And not just any nude couple, but old Adam and Eve themselves.
Liberated by adultery, the soda jerk experiences an acrylic tsunami of creativity, and before you can say “Picasso Stinks,” he has painted a colorful Cubist Kris Kringle in the front window. For his next masterpiece, also to be displayed in the soda shop, he creates a painfully realistic mural of Bud’s naked Mom, reclining on a couch.
With the town’s burgeoning sexual activity come more and more daubs of color on the screen, visually stunning in contrast to the still predominant black-and-white. This cinematic tour de force brings to mind that heavenly scene in Funny Face where Audrey Hepburn is running with her huge colored scarves fluttering in homage to the Winged Nike of Samothrace right behind her. But this exquisite beauty only makes the movie all the more heartbreaking.
By the time most of the newly naughty teenagers are in technicolor, the town’s founding fathers are beginning to bug out, knowing something’s afoot. Naturally these brushcut rubes are conservative bigots intent on keeping their women from booklearning and orgasms. They won’t have any of this newfangled foolishness in their town! The nude lady in the soda-shop window puts them over the edge, and they quickly institute a Draconian set of rules by which all the townspeople must henceforth abide. The rules are posted all over town — looking suspiciously Decalogue-like, no? — and what with a little book burning, some heroic Leni Riefenstahlesque shots of angry white men, and some signs that say “No Coloreds” — get it? — you have a ham-fisted attempt to demonize cultural conservatives.
When nearly everything and everyone has turned to color, Bud approaches the mayor and tells him that he can’t stop what’s happening. “What do you want to do with me right now?” Bud asks, tauntingly. “It’s inside you, too!” In other words, you have been more successful at repressing your passion than any of us — until now — but it’s in there, and you know you wanna let it out! Go ahead, burst! Finally the mayor does explode with anger, turning, I believe, purple. It’s all so depressing. Barney Fife, Goober, where are you? Andy??
This article originally appeared in Books & Culture, which you may visit online at booksandculture.com.