[This essay originally appeared in my newsgroup on Feb. 25, 2007. I'm uploading it here because I'm about to post an essay on Rick Nelson, whose early life appeared on a sitcom.
Note: the first couple of times I began this essay, it dissolved into failure, mostly because I was attempting to synopsize portions of the movie. Big mistake. Movies are experiential, Pleasantville even more than most; if you haven’t seen it, you should might want to skip this essay, not so much because of “spoilers” but simply because what I’m saying may not make much sense. If you have seen it, but need some reminders, there is a pretty good synopsis on the Wikipedia.
Also, Roger Ebert wrote a decent review.
My take differs, of course.]
Old black-and-white sitcoms do tend to blur together in memory. I can locate the episode of “Father Knows Best” where Mr. Anderson gives Bud a $10 a week allowance (quite a sum in those days) with the stipulation that Bud can only spend the money on himself. He soon finds that it alienates him from all his friends, so he goes back to doing chores for a smaller allowance that has no strings. It was an interesting little parable on the downside of wealth, among other things, and I pinched the seed of the idea for my story “Heart’s Desire/Anything You Want.”
I remember the next one also as being “Father Knows Best,” but it could have been “My Three Sons.” The teenage son (Bud? Chip?) is experimenting with ham radio and talking to his friends, when a mysterious (and sultry) female voice shows up, teasing them etc. They rig up a direction finder and track her down—discovering that she’s the shy girl they all know with the bad stammer. She’s mortified, and can’t talk in person without the stutter—until they ask her about her radio rig, and suddenly the speech impediment disappears. Yet another bit of proto-nerd chic.
I can easily remember a dozen 50s-early 60s sitcom plots that could never have appeared on the imaginary Pleasantville. But that’s because Pleasantville isn’t about 1950s sitcoms, any more than it’s really about suburbia, or the 1950s generally, or even about childhood and adolescence. It’s about memory, memory and its bastard cousin, nostalgia.
Current nostalgia for the suburban 1950s targets the memories of boomers such as myself, but it depends upon the coincidence of those memories with the more general phenomenon of childhood memories. “Those were simpler times,” is how it is often put, but they were simpler only to children, because children are simpler beings. In truth, the 50s were no more simple to those who had to struggle for their lives and livelihoods than any other era. It’s simpler only if you had no responsibilities to bear.
Moreover, the suburbs themselves reflected a sort of nostalgic longing for something that never existed: the idealized remembrance of small town, rural America. Some suburbanites came directly from the rural towns and tried to reproduce their own histories in that way. Others came from the cities, fleeing modern life, with all its temptations, temptations they themselves had already sampled, but, well, best to protect the kids from them. Kids do all sorts of crazy things.
As indeed we did, as we were bored beyond imagining, hoping to get the hell out of there so our lives could “begin.” Jean Shepherd used to start up his college gigs by asking his audience, “How many of you out there believe that your life hasn’t started yet?” He mocked the raised hands as being naïve, or worse. Life is life; if you haven’t figured out that it’s already begun, then you’re doomed to be waiting for a long, long time.
So the outsiders show up in Pleasantville and things begin to change. Jennifer/Mary Sue is rebellious from the start, introducing her first date, Skip, to sex, and bringing the first bit of color to the scenery (a single red rose). Skip misses a basket during basketball practice and everyone treats the ball as if it were radioactive; no one had ever missed a basket before, nor had they ever lost a game. But sex spreads and saps the energy from the hitherto perfectly sublimated athletes, and they lose a game, again, a first.
Then Mary Sue teaches her Mother about sex (a deliberately ironic role reversal), including how to masturbate, which turns Mom technicolored and lights the tree outside afire.
But it’s David/Bud who turns out to be the real subversive, despite his love of the television show, though maybe because he likes the characters. He introduces his soda fountain boss to Art, and the boss’s artistic tendencies blossom. Bud has read the books that have previously been blank, and as he recounts the stories, the pages fill in with text. He shows the fire department how to put out the fire that his Mother has caused (yeah, yeah, “burning bush” joke) and in doing so, becomes a town hero and gets the cookies that Margaret was supposed to bake for another boy. He he helps his mother cover up her color change with makeup. Bud is the really dangerous one.
The color change is the central visual conceit of the movie, and various notions have been argued for what causes it. “Epiphany” is offered. “Change” is another theory. “Strong emotion,” yet one more.
Mary Sue changes color not when she has sex, she’s done that plenty of times in the “real world.” She changes when she dons her Pleasantville glasses and begins to read (D. H. Lawrence, it’s true). She breaks stereotype. Bud changes color when he slugs Whitey (who then bleeds a bit of red blood). Again, when he acts against type.
It’s not just the violence or strong emotion. The crowd that throws rocks through the painted window of the soda shop doesn’t change color; the scene is taken from news footage of civil right riots. It may not be “pleasant,” but it’s entirely within the character of those character types in the 1950s. The book burners are also in black and white; the scene has been compared to 1930s Germany, but burning Beatle albums are just as good a comparison.
The Mayor never gets angry; when he does, he loses his shades of gray, and loses control of the town as well.
As they lean about sex, the soundtrack spouts rock-and-roll. When Bud explains that there are places where the roads don’t just run in a circle, “Take Five” begins, a late night radio piece that promises a road to the Great Beyond. They’re all looking for a way out, and they finally find it, in sex, in art, in the act of becoming more than what they are supposed to be.
So we were children and our world was small, narrowly circumscribed. Then it became larger as we grew. It was several concerted accidents of history that made it all seem of-a-piece. In fact, everyone has that journey offered to them; each of us takes it to varying degrees. Pleasantville should be a reminder of that journey. I hope it has resonance for a broader group than us aging Boomers. It seems more universal than that.
But I do so wish, given the wry ironies about Bud’s “colored girlfriend,” and the use of images that obviously emanate from civil rights marches and sit-ins, that there had been some actual black people in Pleasantville at the end. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t think of a way to do that without it seeming forced. There were no black families living in Donelson when I was young. It was only my thrice weekly trips to downtown Nashville that let me view the world in black and white, and not just white.