Pleasantville (US, 1998)

Postmodernism with meaning

This is an audacious film that melds the comedy of laughing at the myth of the American ’50s to social commentary on discrimination. Siblings David and Jennifer find themselves in a ’50s black and white TV programme but, particularly through her behaviour, they soon literally bring colour to the characters’ lives.

Jennifer is sexually predatory whilst David is the virginal nerd who knows everything about the TV show. So it’s Jennifer who initiates the youngsters of the hyperreal world of Pleasantville to the pleasures of the flesh. Add the fact that there’s no sense that Jennifer is doing ‘wrong’ then we have an usually positive representation of female sexuality from Hollywood (though it’s a pseudo-indie film made by Warners’ division New Line).

However as David (‘Bud’ in Pleasantville) notes it’s more than sex that brings colour into people’s lives (though his onscreen mother’s self sexual awakening brings a coup de cinema when a tree explodes into flames). Previously anti-book Jennifer starts reading the classics, DH Lawrence of course to start with, and finds the world of books even more enticing than sex. Here the film’s ideologies clash: on the one hand, the conservatism of (mythic) small town America is mocked; on the other, canonic literature is good for you.

The film’s postmodern playfulness is, as in the same year’s The Truman Show, deployed to meaningful effect. Art is portrayed as a subversive and enriching activity which challenges the patriarchy of the television programme in which the characters ‘live’. The book burning sequence, and the ‘no coloreds allowed’, are chilling reminders of the real world of suppression of ideas and discrimination.

Postmodernism usefully flattened the distinctions between high and low culture in a democratic move. However, the ‘anything goes’ destruction of the meta narrative of the canon reduced the common cultural  inheritance that we experience. Indeed, the invention of Literature as a subject was intended (see Matthew Arnold) to cement social values in the face of the decline of religion in 19th century Britain. So while the anti-elitism inherent in destroying the canon is good (who chose the canon in the first place? we didn’t) the common points of reference in contemporary society seem primarily to rest upon celebrity. Such that we can’t be presented with a documentary of street kids in India (and this is after Slumdog Millionnaire!) without it being Lindsay Lohan’s India. I’m not arguing for the return of the canon, which Pleasantville is, but it was better than what we’ve got now.

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