Gary Ross’s film Pleasantville (1998) tells a similar time-travelling story, although there are some crucial differences. The 1950s past to which the characters return is not one they themselves have experienced, but rather something they know from television re-runs. Unlike Peggy Sue, they do have the ability to change the future, which they do in spectacular style. Pleasantville does not present a flattering picture of the present day; but unlike Coppola’s movie, there is little that can be called nostalgic about its portrayal of the past.
The two leading characters, twins David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are magically taken back to the world of Pleasantville, a black-and-white 1950s sitcom shown on a ‘retro’ TV channel – a show of which David is a particularly knowledgeable fan. After a quarrel over the remote control and a visit from a mysterious repairman, they are transported into their TV set, and find themselves in the living room of the idyllic Pleasantville family, the Parkers. David and Jennifer now have to act the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, while retaining their modern-day attitudes and personalities. The socially awkward David is initially pleased to become the normal, popular Bud, and by his acquisition of a girlfriend; although Jennifer – whose interests mainly extend to sex and her peer group – is dismayed by the constraints of Pleasantville. Bud urges her not to disrupt the fictional world he knows so well, but eventually the twins begin exposing the inhabitants of the town, not just to sex, but also to other personal freedoms, and to art and literature. As they do so, Pleasantville starts to change, as previously black-and-white objects and people burst into rich and vibrant colours.
The teenagers’ fictional mother Betty changes into colour as she begins a passionate affair with Bill Johnson, who employs Bud at the local soda shop. Meanwhile, Bill himself discovers a new talent as a painter. Their father George, and the other male leaders of the community, see the changes as eating away at the town’s moral values, and remain in black-and-white. Incited by a colourful nude painting of Betty on the window of Bill’s soda shop, they begin a reactionary campaign: the window is smashed and the soda shop is destroyed, vigilantes patrol the town, books are burned, and anyone who is ‘coloured’ is harassed in the streets. The Mayor introduces a new set of town rules that, among other things, ban the use of coloured paint, and enforce the teaching of a ‘non-changeist’ view of history. Bud and Bill are arrested and tried for using forbidden colours, but ultimately everyone in the courtroom changes colour and the Mayor leaves in horror when he is exposed as having changed as well. Eventually, the entire town becomes coloured, and the people of Pleasantville are finally introduced to the rest of the world. Televisions in the shop windows now display full-colour images of various scenic vistas, and Main Street, which had previously been a circuit that led back to its beginning again, now leads away to other towns and cities.
Enjoying his new role, David had initially resisted the mysterious repairman’s attempts to get him to return home; but he finally does so at the end of the film. Jennifer, having discovered a new interest in literature via the work of D.H. Lawrence (he’s ‘kinda sexy’) chooses to stay behind and attend college in a nearby town. In the final scene, their fictional parents, along with Bill, are seen sitting on a park bench in the sunshine, happily admitting that they don’t know what is going to happen next.
Pleasantville tells a highly optimistic story of social change, as the black-and-white conformism and repression of the 1950s gives way to the colourful diversity and self-expression of the 1960s. However, its critique is directed more at representations of the 1950s than at the actual reality. The sitcom of the title appears to be an amalgam of the popular family sitcoms of the period – the likes of Father Knows Best (1954-63), Leave it to Beaver (1957-63) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-66). Focusing on the lives of white, suburban, middle-class families, these shows presented what the trailers on David’s favourite retro TV channel describe as ‘kindler, gentler times’. This is a sanitized world without sex and violence, where political and social conflict – and indeed conflict of any kind – are entirely absent. Gender roles are not questioned, domestic life is safe and predictable, and the characters are entirely conformist and conventional. As David and Jennifer quickly discover, there is no world outside Pleasantville. It never rains, the high-school basketball team always wins, and the fire brigade is only capable of rescuing cats from trees, because no fires ever break out. Its residents sleep in single beds, there are no toilets, and the books have only blank pages.
In the opening scene of the film, the contrast between this imaginary world and that of contemporary America is drawn in highly polarized – and quite stereotypical – terms. David and Jennifer’s parents are separated: their father fails to take responsibility for child-care, and their mother is about to leave them alone to spend the weekend with her younger boyfriend. While David is something of a social misfit, Jennifer is preoccupied with the prospect of having sex with one of the most popular ‘jocks’ in the school. To underline the contrast, there are short sequences where their teachers are shown informing them about economic decline, the spread of HIV and the impact of global climate change.
Nevertheless, the changes that David and Jennifer precipitate in the black-and-white world of Pleasantville are seen in uniformly positive terms, while those who oppose them are presented as bigots and (in their opposition to the ‘coloureds’) as racists. The scenes of book burning and the courtroom implicitly recall fascism and McCarthyism. At first, it seems that the change into colour is caused by sex, as Mary Sue seduces one of the boys at ‘Lovers Lane’, and the other young people discover its delights. To some extent, it appears to be specifically about the impact of female sexual desire: their mother Betty is transformed when (on Mary Sue’s suggestion) she masturbates in the bath, causing her to see in colour, and a tree outside to spontaneously combust. In general, the men are slower to change than the women; and it they who seek to defend the established order when their wives refuse to perform their allotted household tasks. ‘Something is happening,’ the Mayor says, ‘and we can all see where it’s coming from’. Ultimately, however, it is passion of whatever kind that appears to precipitate the change: Bud eventually changes when he defends his mother against an attack by the vigilantes, and it is the Mayor’s anger at Bill and Bud during the courtroom scene that does the same. It is not sex that changes Mary Sue into colour, but her reading, which she eventually comes to prefer to going out with boys and (as she puts it) being a ‘slut’.
However, the gradual colourisation of Pleasantville is actually a metaphor for much wider social and cultural changes that began to appear as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s. The residents turn to colour as they discover literary classics (from Mark Twain to D.H. Lawrence) and the history of Western art (and particularly the modernist expressionism of Bill’s paintings). Significant moments of change are also signaled by the use of black music on the soundtrack: as Bud tells the other young people the story of Huckleberry Finn, the white pseudo-classicism of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ gives way to the more open African-American modal jazz of Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’; and Bud himself later turns to colour to the accompaniment of Etta James singing ‘At Last’. The residents of Pleasantville remain white (albeit now in colour), but the advances of the civil rights movement of the 1960s are implicitly (and perhaps rather coyly) acknowledged.
There is also an element of role reversal here in terms of age. The adult characters are effectively infantilized, and they find any disruption of the world of Pleasantville profoundly unsettling. When Bill’s working routines at the soda shop are disturbed, Bud has to explain very carefully what he should do; and it is also Bud who inducts him into the world of art. Meanwhile, Mary Sue has to explain to her mother about sex; and when Betty exclaims in horror that ‘your father would never do anything like that’, her daughter also inducts her into the fact that there are ‘other ways to enjoy yourself’. Their father, meanwhile, is utterly helpless once Betty abandons him.
At the end of the film, a resolution of sorts is achieved. Jennifer has discovered a new identity as a literature student (complete with spectacles), while David returns to the present to find that his mother has decided not to go off with her inappropriate boyfriend. David tells his mother to set aside ideas about how things are ‘supposed to be’, and she seems surprised by his new-found wisdom. As the final credits play, the Beatles song ‘Across the Universe’ – with its refrain ‘nothing’s gonna change my world’ – is heard. As Robb McDaniel suggests, this ending might be considered ‘maddeningly sit-com’. These final exchanges are just as sententious and trite as those of the 1950s sitcoms that the film parodies: a lesson is learned, an old order is restored, and life carries on. Yet, as in Peggy Sue Got Married, there is a kind of resignation, even a degree of fatalism, here: nothing, it seems, will ever be as perfect as we are led to imagine it should be, and it’s by no means clear that all will turn out for the best.
Like Peggy Sue, Pleasantville does indulge in some of the pleasures of nostalgia. Yet ultimately, it is a critique, not so much of the 1950s suburban family itself, but of the nostalgic idealization of it. As Douglas Muzzio and Thomas Halper suggest, the film has much in common with other dystopian movies about suburbia made during the same period, such as American Beauty (1999), The Ice Storm (1997) and The Truman Show (1998). However, like the latter film, the target of Pleasantville is not so much the reality but its representation: the world shown in the 1950s family sitcom was, it implies, fundamentally false. As such, the film is not so much a pastiche (in Fredric Jameson’s terms) as a parody, or even a satire. Rather than merely recycling previous representations and attempting to pass them off as reality (as Jameson implies is the case in American Graffiti), it draws attention to the ways in which such representations are fabricated, and to the gaps between representation and reality.
Ultimately, Pleasantville provides an optimistic, gently liberal account of social change that reflects the period in which it was made. There is a risk of being unduly schematic about this, but to some extent we can see this in terms of succeeding decades – or perhaps more accurately, of the values that different decades are often seen to embody and represent. From the perspective of the 1990s – of Bill Clinton’s America, and the ‘culture wars’ of the time – the film critiques the nostalgia of the 1980s, and Reagan’s return to ‘family values’ (a charge that, as we have seen, was made against Peggy Sue). It provides a revisionist account of the 1950s, not as a decade of utopia and harmony, but of repression and conformism; and it regards the changes of the 1960s and 1970s not as a matter of social decline but as an opening to new and empowering possibilities. (It’s worth noting here that the film’s director Gary Ross had been a Democratic speechwriter before moving into the film industry.) Pleasantville ends at the point at which the 1960s begin; and as such, it avoids having to address the contradictions and the limitations of the various forms of ‘liberation’ that ensued. In the world of Donald Trump’s America, this itself might be seen as escapist and even sentimental. It may be a false or oversimplified account of history; but it is one that runs against the grain of many contemporary accounts of social change – and as such, it may be one that we currently need.