Saturday, 20 March 2010

Philosophical Films - Pleasantville Director: Gary Ross, 1998.

This film attempts to make sense of the factors involved in the passage from modernity in the US - seen as a highly ordered, gendered, conventional and hierarchical society - to its postmodern variant, that it depicts as driven by more individualistic and aesthetic ideals. It begins with a rather pessimistic view of life in postmodern America: a place of emptiness and despair, where life is seen as ‘media saturated’, competitive and possibly on the verge of ecological catastrophe. TV offers the only escape from this ‘hell’ and the film uses this idea to try to account for the ‘fall’ of America from its moral zenith in the 1950s.

The story goes like this: David and his lustful sister Jennifer live in late 1990s California. They come from a single parent family; and David, in particular, manages to deal with his feelings of alienation from the American dream by becoming obsessed with a sitcom - ‘Pleasantville’ – that depicts life in 1950s America as everything that life in the 1990s isn’t: ordered, stable, familial and communitarian.

David’s TV remote control is broken in a fight with his sister. A TV repairman – who plays the role of God in the film – inexplicably turns up and offers them a new one…only this one transports them into the sitcom as brother and sister - Bud and Mary Sue. David and Jennifer quickly realise that life in Pleasantville is very different from the world they lived in at home. Here, it is assumed that they know their place (and the only person with the freedom to speak freely and openly is the deeply patriarchal and Masonic local Mayor).

At first it is David – the knowledgeable fan – who gets on best with this world. Jennifer simply sees this as an opportunity to satisfy her lust (Jennifer takes on the biblical role of Eve in the story and, more generally, the biblical story of creation and the fall is used allegorically to frame the historical narrative). But Mary Sue’s behaviour has some dramatic and far-reaching social and cultural consequences for the inhabitants of Pleasantville. In effect, her actions trigger off all the phenomena that we now associate with the dawning of postmodern consciousness: youth culture, feminism, a new popular appreciation of avant-garde art and, more over, a new ‘expressivist’ personal ethic. This transformation – in a reference to the Wizard of Oz – is explored through a cinematic device: the transformation from black and white to colour. In this way the social conflicts of the 1960s are translated into a conflict between ‘monochromes’ and ‘coloureds’(of course civil rights is also an implicit reference here).

In general terms, the film explores the meaning of postmodern nostalgic longings to return to the secuority of pre 1960s world by exposing it as a postmodern fantasy: a fantasy that only takes you back into another fantasy. In this the sense the film explores the how in postmodern culture our sense of the past weighs heavily on our minds but we have no clear/objective way of understanding what the past really signifies. The film shows how all roads out of the ‘postmodern condition’ only lead back to it: but in the encounter with the past something can be recovered or reclaimed.

Neil Turnbull


  1. The film can also be decoded in terms of ocular perception--not only does the monochrome/colour dichotomy suggest political connotations but also different ways of 'seeing' the world, which in turn raises questions about the lens through which our senses interpret the world, and how reliable they are? At the same time, it reminds us of the essential artificiality of the film-world, suggesting that colour, with its greater realistic properties, is able to blur the boundaries between illusion and "reality", to the extent that, in present times, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish special effects from representations of reality. Technological innovations can only increase this confusion, presumably to the point where we will no longer be able to distinguish "real" actors from their digitally created counterparts. In this way, Baudrillard's fourth phase of the image, 'whereby the image bears no relation to reality whatsoever, but is its own pure simulacrum' is fully realised.
    Viewed in this way, the film is useful when considering scepticism also..
    Ruth Griffin

  2. Interesting that you view this film as an exploration of 'the virtual'.

    Couldn't it also be viewed as an exploration of the longing to return to the more innocent and carefree world that existed 'before' (as children, or more historically when our parents were children)?

    The question for me here is the question of nostalgia and its relationship to the political possibilites of the present. As we know, for Freud this desire to return was essentially a desire for death ; the death drive.

    Might this be the best way to understand the culture of today: a Thanatic culture that can only repeat and not create?

    Neil Turnbull

  3. There is certainly nostalgia going on in this film, I agree--harking back to an imagined past where simplicity was supposedly the order of the day and everybody knew their place (dad in the garden, mum at the sink in a Janet and John division of gender roles) in contrast with the supposed fragmented uncertainties of today's society.

    Whether we agree that postmodernism is accurate in its depiction of endlessly circulating images and technological determinism which have somehow staunched creative flow into a creative stasis is another matter.
    Perhaps we need a greater sense of historical perspective on contemporary culture before we can make an informed judgment that it is in repeat mode.
    Personally, I would take the view that there is still creativity in contemporary culture despite, or perhaps because, of increased self-reflexivity, fragmentation and ironic detachment. I don't fully embrace the post-modernist critique, though I do think it has a great deal of critical purchase on contemporary culture.