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Film Review: Character Development, Smiling Existentialism, and Pleasantville

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This past weekend I had the immense pleasure of rewatching a seminal piece of cinema, Gary Ross's Pleasantville. While I rather enjoyed the film the first time I saw it, about eighteen months ago, upon this viewing, I was struck by powerful emotional and intellectual revelations, to the point where I would say that Pleasantville may be one of my greatest films of all time, joining such noted luminaries as It's a Wonderful Life, Elizabethtown, and RoboCop. Allow me to tell you some of the reasons why.

Hic abundant spoilers. You have been warned.

Pleasantville is the story of two teenaged siblings, Tobey Maguire (Tropic Thunder) and Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde), who get sucked into the world of a cheesy 1950s sitcom by a meddling television repairman played by Don Knotts (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken). Inside of the world of this television show, the two are forced to confront the darker side of the escapist fantasy portrayed within their television.

Basically, everything in Pleasantville (the town, the show, the universe), is, well, pleasant. The basketball team never misses a basket, even when trying to miss. Everyone is polite and well-behaved. Dinner is always on the table at six-thirty when dad gets home from work. Oh, and everything is in black-and-white. But when these meddling Gen Xers are introduced into this perfectly closed environment (there are literally no roads leading out of town), they mess it all up by not following the script. Tobey "MTV's Best Kiss Winner" Maguire's character does his best to keep the show going "right", but Reese Witherspoon's is eager to take advantage of the poor naive lads of Pleasantville for her own pleasure. And that is all that is going to be said about that.

In the process of introducing sexuality and free will to the people of Pleasantville, they undergo a startling transformation, changing from being portrayed in black and white to full vibrant color. It is quite the visually impressive feat, let me tell you what. This leads into a growing conflict between the free-thinking and experimenting "coloreds" who want to paint and read and kiss and those townspeople who are still in black and white and see these changes as a threat to the established order and its surface "pleasantness" that is actually stifling a lot of folks.

This weekend, I was struck at the beauty and poignancy of the use of colorizing people as a metaphor for character development and growth. As a writer, well, someone who writes, it helped boil down into a single concept a struggle that I have been having with: developing characters over time. Pleasantville gave me a concept that I can use to try and pinpoint where exactly in the narrative that the biggest, most monumental change happens and extrapolate from there. Colorizing serves a marker of the peak of a character arc, and that can be the arc over the entire story or over a series of chapters, because the great thing in Pleasantville is that not everyone comes into color all at once, some people change bit by bit, and even try to hide it. It seems like a rather simple concept in retrospect, but for me personally, it was like manna from heaven.

The other aspect of this movie that stuck with me this time was a deeper underlying message, one beyond "reading is cool" (which it is) and "a lot of movies with courtroom scenes are great" (which they are). That takeaway could be summed up as a kind of "smiling existentialism".

Let me backtrack a bit.

In Pleasantville, the town, before the wonder twins throw everything topsy-turvy, everyone has an incredibly strict routine that they follow without any variation. For example, when Tobey Maguire shows up fifteen minutes late for a job at the diner, his boss was stuck wiping down the same part of the counter because he did not know that he could choose to do something else, or that he could put the silverware away before closing the blinds instead of having to do all of his tasks in a specific order. In other words, the pleasantness of this world is built on its people having a purpose, but no meaning. They know that they have to work a job, play homemaker, go to school, et cetera, but they do not have the deeper reasoning for why they must do it. In other words, they follow their patterns not religiously, which might imply a deeper understanding of what their actions mean in a larger context, but ritualistically. In this way they are the opposite of Nietzsche's Übermenschen because they have subscribed entirely to a slave mentality, with their entire course of life being dictated solely by the expectations that others have of them rather than their own desires and strengths.

By the end of the movie, (and if you are still reading this far without having seen the movie, you made your choices) the entire world is brought into color by a phenomenal speech given by Maguire's character affirming an utter emptiness and meaningless to the townspeople's existence. But, and he stresses this point most excellently, if they have no purpose or set meaning, then that means they get to choose for themselves what life's purpose is and their role in it. This message is not about interpreting life's lack of meaning as a black hole of despair, but rather as a blank canvas that can be turned into a work of art as beautiful as you are willing to work to make it. Without everyone living in their black and white world, there will be less of a surface harmony, yes, and there will be greater opportunities for heartbreak and tragedy. But, as the late great Theodore Roosevelt said, "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

In other words, a comfortable existence might be a nice one, but our lives, for better or worse, are defined by their peaks and valleys. Is it worth upsetting the apple cart to pursue your own higher meaning? "Do I dare disturb the universe?" as Mr. Eliot asked.

Something worth pondering, I wager.

Stay beautiful, folks,

KFT

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