I just watched “Pleasantville,” the 23-year-old comedy/drama/ allegory/satire/pseudo-“Twilight Zone” rip-off film produced, written and directed by Gary Ross. I’m not going to write as much about the film now as I will later; instead, I’m going to ask everyone to watch (or re-watch) the film so we can have a rich discussion about it at a future date, maybe in a month, maybe less. It might even be a good topic for the Ethics Alarms Zoom conference I’m planning on having (No, I haven’t forgotten!)
Ross is unusual for Hollywood, thoughtful and interested in ethics. He is more of a screenwriter than a director, and I would categorize most of his work as centered on ethical conflicts, dilemmas and values: “Big,” “Sea Biscuit,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Pleasantville.” He is also a smug liberal who worked for the Presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis and Bill Clinton. The smugness bothered me the first time I saw “Pleasantville” two decades ago, but it is absolutely blinding now.
“Pleasantville” is still an excellent and thought-provoking movie, certainly as compared to most movies today; it’s just that the thoughts it provokes are disingenuously manipulated, and the movie isn’t quite as excellent as it obviously thinks it is. (Full disclosure: I grew up on Pleasant Street in Arlington, Massachusetts.)
To briefly summarize the concept, two contemporary siblings are magically transported into the black-and -white world of the 50’s “Father Knows Best”-ish sitcom “Pleasantville” during a TV “marathon” of its episodes. The culprit is a supernatural TV repair man played by Don Knotts. The teens find themselves in the roles of Bud and Mary Sue Parker on the show, and learn that the town has no readable books, no art, bland music, no access to the outside world (or reality), no bad weather, no minorities and no colors. The fire department only rescues cats from trees. All wives stay at home all day and have dinner ready on the table when Dad returns from work. Everything is perfect, or, rather, “pleasant.”
Little by little, the two transplanted teens infect the sterile town with 1990’s culture, and soon people and the town are transforming from gray to multi-hued. A stereotypical fascist conservative (played by the late, great J.T. Walsh) tries to “save” the town by getting draconian laws passed that outlaw subversive music (the only music that can be played is that of Johnny Mathis, Perry Como and Jack Jones, plus John Phillip Sousa and the Star Spangled Banner), require wives to be always there when their husbands announce “Honey, I’m home!” and direct “No coloreds!” (Get it?) signs to be posted around town.
I could do a year-long philosophy, politics and culture course based on “Pleasantville.” I don’t know if the cable channel that ran it was trying to make a statement or if it was just a programming coincidence, but if the staff was attempting to frame the “Make America Great Again” crowd as the black-and-white villains of the film, they need to watch the movie again. In 2021, it isn’t the backwards Right that is trying to censor speech and art, it’s the increasingly fascist Left. A group of tradition-bound book-burners send “Huckleberry Finn” to the pyre; today it’s the Left that deems that book too “offensive” to teach. In the climactic trial of the 90’s teen (played by “Spiderman” Toby McGuire”) for breaking the conformity laws, he is not allowed the basic rights of the accused, much like the liberal campus kangaroo courts approved by the Obama administration and soon to return under Biden. Promiscuous sex has no downsides (of course abortion isn’t mentioned), and fidelity in marriage is just for fuddy-duddies and Donna Reed. And much more.
In the film, the frozen-in-time citizens talk about maintaining traditional values, and the film’s attitude is that this is absurd. All change, after all, is for the best, or at least to be welcomed. Values are flexible, and a matter of taste. Looked at from the rear-view mirror, the conceit of “Pleasantville” should be a wake-up call for today’s virtue-signalling progressives. Who’s fighting for conformity now? Who is punishing the dissenters? Is freedom of speech, expression, religion and association among those values that are no longer cool?
But I’ll stop now: watch the movie, and by all means, have as many of your smug, progressive, Biden-voting friends watch it too. It will be fun watching them squirm, because what “Pleasantville” is really about is what happens when ideology meets reality.
We can, and will, have a much longer discussion later.