Sunday, April 1, 2012

First Post of 2012 - April Fools! - It's actually an essay!

Roads and Rivers: Navigating the Image and the Real in Pleasantville
In a scene from Pleasantville (1998), a group of young people are gathered in the local soda shop. The subtle five-four rhythm of Take Five plays in the background, though it’s likely that music was added in during the editing process. Actor Tobey Maguire takes a deep breath, pausing slightly before speaking his lines: “There are some places where the road doesn’t go in a circle.” The actors that surround him appear surprised, astonished, intrigued. They lean in closer as Tobey continues: “It just keeps going. It all keeps going. Roads and Rivers.” And so, about 50 minutes into the film, the character David instigates a full-fledged youth revolution propelled by, of all things, classic American Literature.
         The originating image of the 50s sitcom that Pleasantville expresses perhaps never existed; it was projected onto an eager America through TV, but these programs become artifacts unto themselves. The ‘Black and White’ television era is a reference to both its appearing and its appearance: whole, smiling families; full plates of home cooked dinner; a population of obedient and successful (and yes, docile) bodies. But the images in Pleasantville don’t begin there; instead, the film situates itself in the real with David, one half of a set of twins. The image of the real, Baudrillard’s first phase, “the reflection of a profound reality”, is where and when David lives, which we assume from the fashion is the 90s (though, interestingly, these shots are preceded by a title card that reads “Once Upon a Time...”). As Baudrillard might suggest, the real for David truly seems to be a desert: the establishing scene shows him standing alone in front of a vast expanse of concrete that makes up the yard of his high school.
 Once inside the high school, we see lecture after lecture delineating one bleak future after another: Hollywood’s exaggeration of the potential of the 90s. It’s no wonder that David is enamored with the TV show Pleasantville, it serves as a way to mask his inability to interact with females - a twin sister who hates him, a mother who ignores him - these all amount to a feeling of rejection by the Symbolic order of David’s ‘real’ world, and so he turns to the Imaginary, amusing himself by quoting the lines of dialogue of the TV mom while his real mother quibbles over the phone with David’s otherwise absent father. One would imagine that David’s sudden literal immersion into the television show ‘Pleasantville’ would be his dream come true, permission to happily function within his desired Symbolic Order. Instead, David and his twin sister Jennifer are both one phase further removed from the real.
When first thrust into the world of the television show it becomes clear how David is now even more fully invested in living in the Imaginary, David wants to “play along” and demands that his rebellious sister do the same. David seems to take comfort in the Imaginary order of Pleasantville: here he is taken care of, he is part of a whole family, he is a successful and accepted member of the world. But this is also the second phase of the image, which “masks and denatures a profound reality”. Accordingly, Jennifer, despite experiencing what David does, is severely alienated by these events. In a somewhat tragic turn, the Symbolic norms of a mother cooking a hot breakfast and complimenting her outfit are deeply distressing to her. And, as she explores the world further, she simultaneously moves away from the Imaginary order she had set up for herself in the ‘real’ world. In that world, Jennifer cut class to smoke in the yard and hook up with boys. In Pleasantville, when confronted with a geography lesson that is summed up in two streets, Main and Elm, she raises her hand. And, after she is rejoined with the idea that “the end of Main street is just the beginning again,” she desperately seeks to find her way out of the hyper real prison, and ends up in a library. There, she discovers that the books are all blank. The price of pleasantness is lack of knowledge, a motif that the film plays with through various allusions to the biblical Adam and Eve. Jennifer’s desperation even drives her to attempts at destruction, but she’s still thwarted: though she’s somehow managed to find a lighter, nothing burns.
     Of course, it is David who disrupts his own illusion, causing a basketball to miss the net when he attempts to defer a date between his sister and the captain of the basketball team. This is where the image of reality begins to move into its third phase, where the image “masks the absence of a profound reality.” This too is the part of the film that challenges all the characters’ notions of the Symbolic order by introducing glimpses of the Real, and leaving those characters and objects changed. The initial upset, which David unwittingly began by ruining the perfect basketballs, is taken up by Jennifer, whose dalliance with Skip prompts a rose bush to spontaneously bloom in red- Real red. Sex is also the means through which Jennifer and David’s TV Mom traverses her own reality. A symbol of chastity in Pleasantville is the parent’s double beds: a reference to the lack of intimacy that the term pleasant carries with it. In a perversion of the ‘sex talk’, mother and daughter sit at the kitchen table beside the wholesome symbol of milk and cookies and it’s Jennifer who carefully informs her mother how to “enjoy yourself... without Dad.” And Betty does so, in a scene that is extremely uncomfortable to watch with a classroom full of seventeen year-olds. It’s Betty’s first experience with pleasure that brings her and those in the town closer to the Real than ever before in the film; as she orgasms, the world of Pleasantville responds, and the tree on the front lawn bursts into flames. Things do burn in Pleasantville after all: literally, figuratively. Again, it’s David who tries to put out the flames and dampen whatever they represent, but he manages to continue to subvert the town, now symbolically echoing Jennifer’s lessons by showing the hapless firefighters how to use their own equipment.
By the time the image has made its fourth revolution, “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever”; in Pleasantville, this imagining makes the implausible plausible and makes meaningful allusion out of the ridiculous. The changes in the town manifest in a thunderstorm, and all but David and Jennifer flinch and recoil in fear from the thunder and rainfall. The kids especially, are afraid of the rain at first, eyeing it dubiously as they ask if it is “real rain?” And it’s not real rain, though by then, David has forgotten that. The town divides. Signs pop up in shop windows that read “no coloreds”. Angry citizens gather around Mr. Johnson’s nude of Betty, which is exhibitioned on the soda shop window and eventually destroy it. The ridiculous hyper reality of this violence is underscored in the filming, as a high angle creates the image of a group of dissidents converging on a giant ice cream cone.  As the tension escalates, the traditionalist citizens, who previously had no knowledge of fire, burn books. Finally, the most organized attempt to quell the reading revolution begun by the “changists” of the town results in the creation of “The Pleasantville Code of Conduct” which include such provisions as “there will be no preparation for inclement weather” and “No bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.” When David reads this edict aloud, there is a marked difference between Jennifer’s reaction and that of the other colored youth gathered in the soda shop. She smirks, fully aware of the foolishness of a government sanction of bed frames, where her Pleasantville friends are not.
Her chuckle indicates her rejection of these newly imposed Symbolic rules, where the earnest attentiveness of the other youth ground their placement in Lacan’s Imaginary. In terms of Baudrillard, it's the hyper real. David learns from something in which he has basically no stake - he is never really threatened, not physically or intellectually- though the characters around him are. His own approach to the real comes in the form of violence, when he punches a boy who is threatening Betty, but why does he defend her? Even though David is moving farther and farther away from his true existence, his action without thought – defending and protecting his TV mother – brings him closer to the Real than he has ever been before. And after the conflict of the town has neatly resolved, the town is fully colored, the borders come down and the roads unloop themselves and stretch out into the unknown. Pleasantville has become its own simulacra.
In a most satisfying twist, David then decides to return to his real world, and it’s Jennifer who   stays behind. She seems to finally acknowledge the value of the rules she flaunted for so long, both in terms of school and in terms of the Imaginary order of Pleasantville. In this sense, Jennifer created the simulacra in which she could thrive. When she says to her brother “I did the slut thing,” she’s both rejecting her previous (performative) Imaginary expression and embracing the Symbolic rules of this new world. After questioning, changing and scoffing at the orders of both her real world and this Pleasantville world, she decides to pursue an Academic career, and armed with the knowledge of the two worlds she’s inhabited; it is an act of freedom, not an act of prolonging her subjugation. David’s return to his real world shows his readiness to seek out the Real in his original circumstances, and he is immediately confronted with the opportunity to connect with his ‘real’ mother. Interestingly, he also returns with a physical symbol of the world he left, the letterman’s jacket at once symbolizing his social acceptance and the validity of the simulacra of Pleasantville to part with physical parts of itself, blurring the lines between those two iterations of the Real.  
But that’s not where the movie ends. In its closing moments the film reveals itself and what its true conclusions are: Pleasantville, now fully realized, goes on without its savior or destroyer. It’s ambiguity that has awakened this place to its own reality, and it’s a celebration of this ambiguity that closes the film. We are back in Pleasantville. We see Joan Allen, who plays Betty, seated on a bench beside William H. Macy, who plays her husband George. “Do you know what’s going to happen next?” She wonders aloud. The camera pans over to a close up of William’s face. “No, I don’t.” he replies. They both laugh as the camera pans back to Joan, still laughing, then back again. William H. Macy has been replaced by Jeff Daniels, who adds, “I guess I don’t either.” What phase of image are we watching now, where one character seems to become another? Or perhaps this is no longer part of the narrative, and we are simply watching actors speaking to one another? This is the final expression of Pleasantville as its own complete Real image, not only does it now offer the Betty character an unexpected Real possibility, but that the viewer should be taken aback by this visual inconsistency from a world where objects and people spontaneously change color is remarkable. In both worlds: Pleasantville, David’s and finally, in our own, the roads and rivers flow on into the unknown as the soundtrack plays: “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”

Works Consulted

"Jean Baudrillard - Simulacra and Simulations - I. The Precession of Simulacra Translated by Sheila Faria   Glaser." Jean Baudrillard. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <>.