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Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Few Elements of Science Fiction - A Pleasantville Retrospective

Pleasantville. The 1998 American fantasy comedy-drama chronicling the wild adventure of two teenage siblings who are suddenly transported into the TV Universe. In a crazy series of events no more then 10 minutes into the film our two protagonists David and Jennifer are beamed into a black and white 1958 sitcom entitled Pleasantville. The sitcom follows the everyday lives of the Parkers, a traditional American family with a working father, stay at home mom, and two kids.

David and his twin sister Jennifer lead two drastically different High School social lives. David is a classic introvert while Jennifer is shallow and extroverted. I'm not usually a fan of the cliché character archetypes. I consider it lazy writing on behalf of the screenwriter. Though when you get a film like Pleasantville whose morale premise centers around breaking down social stereotypes, Pleasantville gives off a Breakfast Club zeal rather a Mean Girls vibe.

Once David is transported into Pleasantville he takes on the life of the sitcom son, Bud. Bud is the elder sibling in the Parker family. The All-American boy. He has charisma, athletic skills and he's popular at his local High School. All qualities that David lacked in the real world. But David's knowledge of “life outside of Pleasantville” engrosses the interest of many of his peers at his High School including Margaret Henderson (our hot blonde love interest).

Margaret pursues David with lustful ambition though David (with the full knowledge that he will be escape from Pleasantville the first chance he gets) is resistant to her at first. But as David gives up any hope of ever returning to his real life he decides to accept Margaret's advances and the two love birds share a picnic at Lover's Lane, a secluded place where Pleasantville's teen couples go to hang out. On their picnic date Margaret picks a red apple off of a tree and hands it to David. A Biblical reference that calls back to the story of when Eve picked an apple from the tree of knowledge and they were cast out from the paradise Eden.

Though Pleasantville has very few elements of science fiction in it, this may actually be one of them.
In many sci-fi films the people of the Dystopia live in a state of equilibrium where emotions are suppressed in order to avoid the horrors of war, crime and injustice. But by taking away peoples ability to feel love or passion the Dystopia has burned artwork, repressed sexuality and quelled religion to weed out anything that makes us unique as individuals.

The apple represents the emergence of knowledge into the Pleasantville Universe and so begins a rise in sexuality and artwork across the once temperate town. Gossip about Jennifer's (now playing the role of sitcom daughter Mary Sue) sexual activities with her boyfriend at Lover's Lane begin to spread like wildfire across the town, leading to a rise in sexual activity at her High School.

Aside from being a sexual martyr amongst the teen populace, Jennifer teaches her sitcom mother Betty Parker (played by Jude Allen) that she doesn't need a man to find sexual gratification. Thus leading Betty on a rode to self discovery of her own body. Funnily enough while Jennifer's sexual tutelage spreads across Pleasantville, she learns the value of modesty. By the film's end Jennifer has decided to stay in Pleasantville where she'll pursue a college education. Quite a turnaround for a self-obsessed shallow teen girl whose only goal in life at the beginning of the film was to bed Mark Jacob, the most popular boy in school.

Though Pleasantville does fall short in some regards. In my opinion a film with truly deep character development doesn't necessarily change who our protagonists are as people but rather gives us as the audience a new understanding of why they do what they do. Instead Jennifer and David end up completely different characters by the end of the film. Unlike screenplays, life doesn't follow a formula and the algebraical manner in which the dominoes fall into place at the end of every movie we watch often degrades their credibility.

Pleasantville may find clever ways to use the story arc to give David and Jennifer a new perception on life that fundamentally changes who they are as people but that still doesn't make up for their lack of three-dimensionality in some obvious aspects. Because ashamedly our characters at the beginning of this 2h 4m journey are in a sense 'walking stereotypes.' For a film that obviously considers itself very clever and high brow, it would lack sophistication in some major areas if David was just a nerd boy who gets the girl with no Biblical metaphors worked in. And for a film that obviously considers itself a desservant social commentator on American Culture it would lack inventive writing prowess if Jennifer was just another ditzy blonde turned academician without any Feminist allegories meshed into the pie. All in all Pleasantville is worth the price of the ticket.