Though there are many themes presented in Pleasantville (1998), those that will be explored here are the shadow side of our emotions, the dangers of not dealing with them consciously and the rewards of living in connection with all parts of our ourselves.
The film shows that the cost of living in “black and white” is a life that is flat, bland and two-dimensional. And, for all the mess that living with our full range of emotions can bring, doing so enables us to live a “colorful” life with all of its richness and depth.
Brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) find themselves living in the 1950s TV series Pleasantville (a sitcom much like Father Knows Best). Nostalgic for a simpler time, David has idealized the goodness of the past as represented by the show and is nearly obsessed by it; Jennifer is the opposite, very modern and a self-described “slut.” David ends up playing the role of “Bud” in the show, and Jennifer that of “Mary Sue,” the children of George and Betty Parker (William H. Macy and Joan Allen).
At first the film is in black and white, then parts of the film start appearing in color as the characters begin to change, an important metaphor for personal growth.
In the town of Pleasantville, everything is routine; there is no spontaneity. Nothing ever goes wrong, nothing bad ever happens, and consequently there is no disappointment, no failure, no doubt and no frustration; things like “unpleasant” emotions, crime, sex, bad weather, dirty words, bathroom functions and even fire simply don’t exist. As David explains to Jennifer, “nobody’s homeless in Pleasantville… that’s just not what it’s like.”
Jennifer’s role serves to raise consciousness by challenging the status quo. During basketball practice at the high school, every athlete makes every basket; no one ever misses. When player Skip wants to ask Jennifer out on a date, David suggests that might not be such a good idea. Skip says, “I don’t know what I’d do if she didn’t go out with me.” Due to this first hint of uncertainty and possible disappointment, Skip misses the first basket ever in Pleasantville. David tries to maintain the status quo by convincing Jennifer to go out with Skip, explaining, “If you don’t go out with him, their whole universe will be thrown out of whack.”
When we start to change, our whole universe, too, can feel like it might be at risk, might be thrown out of whack.
Jennifer brings Skip to Lover’s Lane on their date, where in the past the kids have done nothing more than to hold hands. Jennifer initiates Skip (and therefore the community) into sexuality and afterward we see a flower in red, the first time color has ever been seen in Pleasantville.
Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) is the owner of the local soda shop where Bud works after school. One afternoon, Bud is late for work. Mr. Johnson is confused. “You know how when we close up…I close the register, then you lower the blinds…and I turn out the lights and we both lock the doors? Well, you weren’t around this time…so I did the whole thing by myself. And I didn’t even do it in the same order. First I lowered the blinds, then I closed the register.”
When everything is always routine and prescribed, it is difficult to do things in new ways, making autonomy and growth less accessible.
Later, we see Mr. Johnson in what looks like a dark night of the soul, a slump, conversing with Bud. Bud attempts to tell his boss what’s right about the old order and to forget about these disturbing thoughts that might prompt change, much like our Super-Ego does at times.
Johnson: What’s the point, Bud?
Bud: You make hamburgers. That is the point.
Johnson: It’s always the same, you know? Grill the bun, flip the meat, melt the cheese. It never changes. It never gets better or worse. The other night when I closed by myself, that was different.
Bud: Forget about that!
Johnson: I really liked it, though.
Bud: You can’t always like what you do. Sometimes you just gotta do it because it’s your job. And even if you don’t like it, you just gotta do it anyway.
Bud: So they can have their hamburgers!
Our Super-Ego has a tendency to try to talk us into staying safe with what’s familiar, often using the argument of what we ought to do “for the sake of others.”
Their conversation continues:
Johnson: You know what I really like? Christmas time. See, every year on December I get to paint the Christmas decorations in the window…and every year I get to paint a different thing…this morning I was thinking and I realized that I look forward to it all year. And then I thought, “Gee, that seems awfully silly. It seems like a long time to wait for just one moment.” Don’t you think? Well, don’t you?
Bud: I think that you should try not to think about that anymore.
Painting, in this passage, is a metaphor for any kind of creativity, new channels for self-expression and even how we live our lives.
To get out of old patterns, creativity and the freedom to be creative are necessary, to help us “think outside of the box,” the box being our own psychological constrictions.
Little by little, some of the inhabitants of the town get in touch with the hidden parts of themselves (their shadow self). Those characters who evolve are shown all or partially in color. Betty, realizing she is turning into color, judges herself as bad and shameful. “I can’t go out like this,” she says, while trying to cover up with gray make-up.
As we expose our shadow qualities, at first we often have to deal with our vulnerable feelings and shame about them. What we often find is that there is nothing objectively to be ashamed of.
Living within the confines of this version of “goodness” can be limiting and constricting. Once this Pandora’s Box has been opened, what starts to emerge in Pleasantville is creativity, new thinking, wonder, sexuality, as well as music, dancing, art and literature. The townspeople who are not “colored” judge the “others” as ill at first, and then as bad.
What emerges at the same time is jealousy, envy, anger, hatred, fear and sexual aggression. Some of the townspeople put “No Colored” signs in their shop windows, burn books and destroy the artwork that Mr. Johnson has created.
We can’t turn the “on” switch on some emotions, and the “off” switch on others, much as we would like to. And when we don’t deal with the “unpleasant” emotions consciously and skillfully, they tend to surface in destructive and undermining ways.
To be continued in Part II