The True Man Show

From a literal-but-magical fire, Pleasantville segues confidently to the flames of ideology. Once-solid assumptions and tastes erode: The malt shop's jukebox now plays Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and the basketball team loses a game. Here the whole project threatens to go off track, and things are explained more often than necessary, but essentially we've got a proto-fascist repression on our hands. The "coloreds" (characters gone beyond monochrome) are ostracized; the books that now have words in them are burned; and Bud, Mary Sue, and even Mom are practically fugitives. The Twilight Zone was also capable of this kind of homebaked horror, but Pleasantville notches it up with visual as well as narrative touches. Once the changes are going full tilt, it's an easy but powerful stylistic step from the bland, flat lighting in the foyer where Dad bellows, "Honey! I'm home!" to a more starkly shadowed shot of the same greeting. Suddenly we're in Noirville: Father Knows Least on a Dead-End Street.

Aside from its own pleasures, Pleasantville makes a perfect zeitgeist film. It goes beyond the insights of earlier real/fantasy movies (Zelig, Forrest Gump, Bob Roberts), and the presence of Jeff Daniels, who played the confused actor/real person in The Purple Rose of Cairo, is a polite nod to that tradition. Daniels, Macy, Allen, and the late J.T. Walsh are the only genuine and familiar "stars" in this movie, which is uniformly well-acted but mostly by unfamous faces--which adds to the illusion of the fiction.

The current move afoot among historians and pundits to declare our late-millennium life as a media-created, celebrity-dominated world is essentially sound; but it was new long ago, back when the telegraph first made people aware of the importance of people they'd never meet. Like Truman Burbank, we all live in a world our media have made. But we also remain ourselves, unscripted and riddled with twisty, unpredictable hopes and worries and desires.

Tune in yesterday: the '50s sitcom world of Pleasantville
Tune in yesterday: the '50s sitcom world of Pleasantville

And Pleasantville knows this, however much it may seem to be recycling elements of earlier skits, shows, or movies. Thanks to a sincere and honestly ambiguous attitude, Gary Ross's movie wants to explore what in fact it is that makes things "real"--through the mechanisms of a story, of course. Ross pulls it off, because he realizes that at heart his story is about growing up. The characters/residents of Pleasantville are never more interesting than when they are sad for the first time, and then happy because sadness is a challenge and not an obstacle. They're complete fakes, but their eagerness to be wounded--and survive--is completely real.

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