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Question for Discussion:   Why are the people in 
Pleasantville
black and white?  Is life in the 1950s
really like the black and white 1950s' TV families?

Reading: TV Families of the Fifties ;
Schwartz, "You can trust the Communists to be Communists"; Leave it to Beaver.Org ;
May, "Containment at Home"

Video: Pleasantville (1998) Seeds of the Sixties,
Leave it to Beaver

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Critical Reviews of Pleasantville (1998)

American Society and Culture in the 1950s

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Ordinary Americans as Communists

"Even acute observers, noting the
numerical weakness of the Communists
have taken false hope from this fact.
Such people fail to understand that the
Communists are able to rally into their
service multitudes who are completely
unaware that they are serving the
Communist cause. Our purpose here is
to study those  attitudes which transform
well-meaning, patriotic, Christian
people into the allies of Communism
."

Dr. Fred Schwarz, You Can Trust the
Communists (to be Communists)
 

 

The Body Snatchers of the 1950s
(aka Zombies)


From The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956):
They place two fresh pods in Miles' waiting room next to them, to grow duplicates when they fall asleep.  Dr. Kaufman explains the benefits and advantages to  them:

Less than a month ago, Santa Mira was like any other  town. People with nothing but problems. Then, out of the  sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for
 years took root in a farmer's field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life...Your new bodies are growing in there. They're taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom.
There is no pain. Suddenly, while you're asleep, they'll absorb your minds, your memories and you're reborn into an untroubled world...Tomorrow you'll be one of us...There's no need for love...Love, desire, ambition, faith - without  them life is so simple, believe me.

Determined to escape, wanting no part of it, Miles 
vows to get away, but realizes that there is little
 choice. Becky cries in Miles' arms:

I want to love and be loved. I want your children. I don't want a world without love
or grief or beauty. I'd rather die.


C. Wright Mills on Americans
as Robots

"Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps.  They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct:  What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators.  And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel"
(1959, p. 3).

"What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.  It is this quality, I am going to contend, that journalists and scholars, artists and publics, scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the sociological imagination" (1959, p.3)

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination


"The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power" (1956, p. 3).

   C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite


"In America and in Russia--in differing ways but often with frightening convergence--we now witness the rise of the cheerful robot, the technological idiot, the crackpot realist. All these types embody a common ethos: rationality without reason" (1958, p. 175).

       C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War Three


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1. What is the nature of  late 1990s' America that Pleasantville opens in?  What are the major problems facing Americans in the late 1990s?

2. How does late 1990s' America contrast with the 1950s' Pleasantville America?  Is Pleasantville really the ideal America it pretends to be?

3.  Why do you think that it is the teenagers in Pleasantville who first make the change from black and white to colored?  At what physical locations are colored people first seen?

4. Do you agree with Roger Ebert about one of the larger themes of Pleasantville:

"The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. The movie is like the defeat of the body snatchers: The people in color are like former pod people now freed to move on into the future. We observe that nothing creates fascists like the threat of freedom."

5. Do you agree with Roger Ebert that Pleasantville is a parable about the present and the past, that the present isn't as bad as we often think it is and the past wasn't as good as we often remember it to be:

``Pleasantville'' is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom. I grew up in the '50s. It was a lot more like the world of ``Pleasantville'' than you might imagine. Yes, my house had a picket fence, and dinner was always on the table at a quarter to six, but things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for."

6. Why do you think 1990s David is so fascinated by 1950s Pleasantville?  Is he trying to escape from his troubled life in the late 1990s?

7.  What causes David/Bud to decide to stop trying to prevent Jennifer/Mary Sue from changing the people of  Pleasantville?  Why does David/Bud, like Jennifer/Mary Sue, begin to consciously introduce change into the lives of the people of Pleasantville?

8. Why do you think Pleasantville focuses so much attention on Betty Parker's transformation from black and white to colored?  Is this a not-so-subtle comment on the June Cleavers of 1950s' TV families?

9. Do you agree with  Salon Magazine's Charles Taylor that Pleasantville is a parable about democracy and freedom:

"He's clearly working off the now familiar equation of the present with the conformist '50s. Ross wants to tell us that the rigid controls that religious and political authority figures try to put on us run contrary to both our natures and the meanings of democracy. He wants us to accept that change and uncertainty and even inchoate upheaval are a necessary part of democracy."

10.  What is the significance of Pleasantville teenagers' emerging desire to read books and understand the larger world outside of Pleasantville?  Why do the town fathers later burn these library books?

11.  How is Jennifer/Mary Sue transformed in Pleasantville?  What is the significance of her reading D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover?

12. Do you agree with Salon Magazine's Charles Taylor about the contradictory message presented by Jennifer/Mary Sue deciding to stay in Pleasantville:

"And why does a movie that makes such a stink about authority figures who sit in judgment of other people's behavior wind up having Witherspoon announce that she needs to stop being a slut (the character's words) and hunker down and study -- particularly when her unbridled sexuality is what begins the loosening up in the first place? The message that teens who explore their sexuality are headed for trouble is exactly the same drivel issuing from the cultural ayatollahs Ross is excoriating."

13.  Do you agree with James Berardinelli that "Pleasantville is about the falseness of family values and the need of the individual to break through society's shield of conformity, but, most of all, it's about having fun at the expense of nostalgia."

14.  Why are Pleasantville's black and white
 people so threatened by colored people and
 colors?  Why do they try to outlaw colors?

15. What does the Director Gary Ross imply with his description of David/Bud's character about 1990s' young people:

".For Tobey [David/Bud], it's from disengagement to engagement. He's distanced, he's removed... he's voyeuristic. He looks at life from a kind of distance, which is so much of what cynical kids do today, that... the cynicism is a defense against hope. And so they stay safe by judging, by putting up a cynical veneer. By not showing that kind of vulnerability or that kind of exposure. And the moment that Tobey [David/Bud] turns color in the movie is the moment that he engages, emotionally."


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© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 14 February, 2007
E-mail: cclewis@colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/film/pleasant.htm