I was wondering when my first post or even film review of 2019 would be making it’s way to be shared with you all. Along with what would be the first film to be watched off the year, that title goes to an OK film noir, however my attention was consumed by Pleasantville (1998);a film that I was only aware of during the second half of last year. It was a combination of the technical wizardry and the concepts discussed in the film. You can’t quite call it science fiction or even a coming of age film. It a combination of the two with a nice dose of comedy. The lines between reality and fantasy are truly blurred here as two teenagers David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are transported to a classic TV show from the 1950’s – Pleasantville where everything is just cosy, safe and predictable, the very opposite of life even when it was produced in the realm of the film.
My first thoughts was a segment in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror IX when Bart and Lisa are transported into the television (courtesy of a piece of uranium in place of the battery in the remote) sees them moving from channel to channel. Spending most of their time in the violent world of Itchy and Scratchy. Before the film even begins we are introduced to a channel dedicated to classic TV series, much like Talking Pictures TV here in the UK where I find a lot of great films to watch. A clip of the fictional show is even played before we enter the colour world of reality. The aesthetic is now a little dated but you get the feel of a different time being only a channel away of taking you back to a simpler time. It’s pure nostalgia really, able to take a look at a different era of TV or film, an escape from the present day or for me a chance to explore an untapped reserve of films that I have yet to watch.
In that respect you could say I’m like David except I did choose to escape to the past with my TV viewing, instead it was more likely an incarnation Star Trek to get me through my adolescent years. He knows the world of Pleasantville like the back of his hand, it’s his own personal world where everything makes sense, allowing him to shut off from the world outside. Unlike his sister Jennifer who is more extrovert shall we say, wanting to explore and take chances. Her increase in popularity has enabled her to get a date with the most popular boy – standard American high school nonsense really and she’s going with it. Unlike her introverted shy brother who can’t even talk to a girl.
They only enter Pleasantville after an argument that results in a broken remote being fixed by an old-timer TV repair guy Don Knotts who supplies with them a 50’s space age remote that transports them into the black and white world of Pleasantville where they assume the characters of the main families children. In order to escape, David believes they must play along and take his lead using his knowledge of the world to survive without effecting things. Like an away team in Star Trek trying not to interfere with the natural order or future of another race – the Prime Directive. However it’s not really that situation, it’s a constructed world by a television production company, with actors delivering lines by writers, completely a product of its time now with two massive changes from the future.
At first the interactions are harmless, we see how perfect this world is, luring David in for a time to stay, here he can shoot a basket ball in the net with little skill, presumable before he couldn’t. He can’t play along forever, we notice him telling his boss Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) that he can do more than one thing in Bud (David’s role in Pleasantville). He inadvertently teaches Bill that he has free will, a concept that goes beyond the writing of a family TV serial that didn’t promote such a value. He’s the first of a few characters to slowly change and embrace of world of colour.
Now here’s where things really get interesting. The changing of colour from monotone shades to full blown technicolor. The first people to change are a number of teenagers who are naturally and biologically more prone to change, first undergoing a sexual awakening that liberates them from the constraints of the monotone world. More open to learning and understanding more from both David and Jennifer who share their experiences. They have been beyond the two roads that make up this world, they know of their job prospects, the threat of global warming, unlike the teenagers here who know far less, they are children in comparison to these god-like beings from the future and colour. The only other adult to undergo this change is the mother – Joan (Joan Allen) who at first is ashamed and unsure about exploring what are ultimately very human and universal experience that you shouldn’t be ashamed to have. Placing her almost in the same world of Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) in Far from Heaven (2002) in a world bathed in colour where a private life of of a housewife explodes in front of her in a respectful homage to Douglas Sirk. Where her emotions have to be bottled up and restrained against a backdrop of conformity.
Traditionally when colour and black and white photography are both used in a film, it’s a method of determining a different reality, one of the real and the fantasy. Never have the two really been combined like this. Filmed photochemically, each frame that shared both colour and monotone images had to be retouched by hand, a painstaking task, that today could easily being executed on a computer. The effect here is seamless as the images become more complex as the narrative progresses to a point where we are brought to a point where segregation in a white neighbourhood. Lead by Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) who wants to maintain the norm, escape the rain and have things just as they once were. The idea of change scares him, like a number of the white male neighbourhood who at first are curious but soon turns to fear and uncertainty. Their responses are laughable, a shirt that was burned on the iron due to human error, whilst another came home to have no dinner in the oven or on the table. The expectations of routine and stability are threatened by late 20th century progress that encourages everything they haven’t even thought of. They are a product of a very different time that’s only separated by only 40 years at the time of the film’s release.
Ultimately the town of Pleasantville is an extension of David’s fears in the real world to get stuck in and experience the life that his sister has done. OK not to same extremes but with more willingness to be in touch with your emotions, take chances and see where they take you. The black and white world here offers a security he once had as a child that no longer exists. They become a third parent to him, spending so much time with them that he can recite dialogue, recall facts about the show without knowing what’s going on around him. A final thought to all of those films and TV shows from the past and attack them or see them as products of their time. They may no longer have the same values be them political or sexual. If we were to go back and correct or censor then we would learn nothing from them. There would be no way to track our progress of how we got to where we are today, how times change from the dawn of these popular forms of culture that reflect out times. Another danger as David discovered is that you can’t take all your values from the past, you have to make your own mind up in the present.
Admittedly my first reading of this film was more about the surface of American Psycho (2000) which still has a very strong surface level which is still valid to how you read the film. However as I found out just recently after another viewing I have come away seeing this turn of the century film more as a dark comedy. I say that heavily as it’s not just about the comedy as I found out.
We still have the vain characters, I originally said that the yuppies were metro sexual, that label really can’t be applied anymore as they are more about indulgence than just taking better care of themselves. When we first meet Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) he’s basically acting as an advert for a way of life that we associate with women’s products for different cleansing processes which I personally laugh at. Not saying I’m a smelly guy, just not so concerned I spend half an hour getting ready in the morning. Bateman has a routine that’s dictated by consumerism no longer an individual. That’s just one strand of the film that really is more rewarding on the second watch.
I admit that I was laughing more than I originally remember, seeing what I was missing, going along for the ride instead if exploring something new. The comedy’s needed to balance out the horror that I will come to later in my reading of the film. The absurdity of the materialistic lifestyle of both the men and women who don’t do any work. The world of finance doesn’t just have to be about making money, you have to spend it obviously. With lunches, dinners and clubbing, sounds like a good life if only the conversation was more intelligent.
The men compete with each other like stereotypical women. A key thing is the business cards that replace shoes or handbags. A male translation is the “mines bigger than yours” without actually saying anything. The reliance on these items of identification and need for social validation shows how much they need each other and don’t. The stock-market stereotypes cranked up.
Moving onto the horror which I could hardly remember beyond Huey Lewis being played before the first murder. We’re removed from the satire into a completely different genre. Bateman delivers a critique of the album, well all of the popular music played, lulling his victims into an intellectual conversations. They just sit, think and wait to be killed. Its part of a methodology that he not only has outside of work, its pathological how he plans out these killings. The animal inside’s unleashed as if it has been held back by the culture he has decided to conform to is breaking him. The primal urges are breaking out within a culture that’s caged him in a suit and cologne.
I have known about this film for a few years now, ever since I was at uni really, thinking no more of it. Just a friends favourite, knowing very little about American Psycho (2000). Reading over the years very little, expect that it was on the extreme side with a cult following, about time to see what all the fuss is about then, and return some video tapes. Looking further we see a culture that seemingly turns a blind eye to all of this violence. The audience at first believes they’re being fooled into what could be his own reality. He says he wants to kill a barmaid, she ignores this venting completely. either we are only aware of this thought or the culture he lives in is deaf to violence until its acted upon.
The second viewing of the violence has admittedly lost some of its edge, becoming comical, maybe that’s me becoming desensitized to violence. Maybe it’s more Bateman’s expression derangement that gets me, he enjoys the killing, he gets a kick from it. When we see him during the day these urges start to slip over, we begin to question what is going on as other ignore him until it’s too late. When his conscience has catches up with him everything starts to fall inwards and not making much sense, leaving him and the audiences confused. This is probably not helped by private detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) who’s been searching for Paul Allen (Jared Leto). Is this reality trying to wake Bateman up morally or just there to spur him on to kill more, knowing that he can and does throughout the film.
I must touch on the treatment of women in the film, not so much Bateman’s fiance Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon) who plays up the dim blonde stereotype. I’m more concerned about the prostitute Christie (Cara Seymour) who is basically live bait that’s reeled in to be killed. It’s horrible to see how she’s treated as less than human, more a trained monkey. You could argue this is the role she has chosen in life. She does state that she’s not supposed to get into cars, being too dangerous, knowing her own boundaries. However moneys seen as a fair reason to get in the limo for a profitable night. Psycho redeems itself for when Christie becomes aware of the trap she is actually in.
The ending is as a disturbing as Stanley Kubrick‘s rewriting of A Clockwork Orange (1971) when Alex is “Cured”. The violence seems to have no end, going on beyond the limits of the film into our own thoughts, what will he do now that society has corrected the mistake has inflicted upon him. Whereas Bateman realises that he has a get out of jail card almost, able to satisfy his urge of violence with no real consequence. Mirroring the financial world where crazy deals for silly monies made with no concept of reality for the effect they may have on others.
I can safely say that I have come out of my second viewing with a richer experience, more complete and rounded, another viewing can only being me more.