A year ago I published a list of my 30 films to watch before you die. I mentioned that I had already compiled a list of my favourite 50 films, a list which would include some other films that I regretted not including in the first list. This is one of the near misses, and an essential inclusion in any longer list. I just checked my list. It's actually a list of 100 films, and this is number 54. Oops! I need to rearrange the list. "Pleasantville" can't miss the cut a second time.
There have been disagreements about what "Pleasantville" is about. It's obvious why. The film quite deliberately touches on many different issues. If you ask five people what the film is about and they give five different answers, none of them are wrong. What's important is what you can take out of it for yourself.
The film is about racism.
The film is about the subjugation of women.
The film is about the role of science in society.
The film is about the beauty of art and literature.
The film is about the struggles between the old and the young.
Today I'll just pick on the religious themes. Pleasantville is a perfect world. It's the Garden of Eden. The people are innocent. God lives among them, in the guise of a television repair man called Norm. Since it's a perfect world the televisions never break down, so nobody ever sees Norm. His shop is in the middle of the town, but the most anyone does is look through the window. There's no reason to go inside.
Norm allows David, a teenager from 1998, to enter the world of Pleasantville, which is forever stuck in 1958. David appreciates Pleasantville and wants it to stay the way it is, but his sister Janet accompanies him. Janet brings temptation into the pure and innocent world by taking on the identity of a schoolgirl called Mary Sue. She has oral sex with the captain of the school basketball team, and she teaches older women how to masturbate. In traditional Christian thought these are terrible sins.
Even David falls into temptation. He sees the changes all around him, wrought by his sister, and he enjoys them. Not just that, he begins to argue with Norm. Norm wants to put things back the way they were, but David claims that the new ways are better.
There's a burning bush outside David's home. Could the Biblical allusions be any more obvious?
Of course, there are many other things that could be written about the film. I feel overwhelmed, unable to write an adequate description of "Pleasantville" and its themes unless I spent days writing about it.
David (Tobey Maguire) wishes he had a coloured girlfriend.
David finally finds himself a coloured girlfriend.
"Pleasantville" was highly praised by critics, but it was a box office flop. At the risk of sounding arrogant, the public wasn't smart enough to appreciate it. It's a very deep film that requires the viewer to think about it. I watched it repeatedly when it was new, I forget how many times. In the last few years it's been less often, only twice since 2010. So many films, so little time.....
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