Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Pleasantville

The best films not only give us great stories conveyed through imagery and dialogue, but they evoke thought and feeling, even making us question ourselves and our surroundings. That is why I love Pleasantville – a delightfully subversive comedy-drama with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macey and Joan Allen.

The film begins in the present day, where twins David and Jennifer (he withdrawn into television, she a shallow social butterfly) are fighting over control of the TV remote, which they break as a result. Enter an elderly and enigmatic repairman, who gives them a strange-looking replacement remote. The twins resume their fight over the new device, only to wind up transported into the black-and-white world of the 1950’s sitcom “Pleasantville” – David is now Bud Parker, and Jennifer assumes the role of Bud’s sister Mary Sue.

While David warns Jennifer not to interfere with the way things are ordered in their new setting, Jennifer pays no heed, introducing sex to the denizens of Pleasantville – first Mary Sue’s boyfriend, then the TV mom Betty Parker. Slowly, the town begins to change as bursts of color appear in various areas, then on the people. Books that once had blank pages now show words and pictures as the twins begin to recall stories and images from their real-world lives. And as all of this happens, the characters go off-script and begin to explore their emotions and desires.

The town’s leading citizens – all male, and led by their mayor “Big Bob” – are deeply concerned over how things have disrupted; it’s bad enough that colors are appearing and rain is falling, but now their wives aren’t making them dinner! So they begin to institute restrictions against anything that goes against the previously “pleasant” order of things, censoring books and music, even (yes, it’s on-the-nose) segregating and attacking the newly “colored” people. When David/Bud and the owner of the local burger joint are put on trial for painting a provocative mural, David begins to show that the changes they are experiencing are not some outward influence, but rooted in their own true selves:

Roger Ebert considered this one of the best films he’d ever seen – not just for the stunning cinematography and acting, but as “a social commentary of surprising power.”
The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. … Pleasantville is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom.
Unitarian Universalists are not immune to this desire to keep things as they are, or to hide their discomfort through a grayscale mask of outwardly pleasant behavior. Yet the values of our faith call us to question and challenge one another, to strive to understand the new and embrace what is good about it, not try to keep things as they are simply because “it’s always been that way.” One of the most paradoxical examples is the ambivalent attitude towards polyamory, with a number of ministers whispering behind the scenes that any discussion of it would somehow jeopardize efforts towards marriage equality. As someone who helped start this effort in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, I remember hearing such arguments back then. Holding off on discussing the subject was expedient at that time, but two decades later, it makes no sense now. The movement for marriage equality has gained its own momentum so that even those who oppose it have all but conceded defeat, and media coverage on polyamory has not only increased but prompted people to ask why we should worry if such arrangements seem to work best for some.

Ultimately, the real question for UUs is what kind of world we wish to live in, and to leave to our children and their children. How do our principles fit with the desperate efforts of Big Bob and his followers to keep things the same? Or perhaps, as the young people of Pleasantville discovered, our faith might – and should – offer something more wondrously liberating …

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. A favorite film, a good lesson, and fine cometary.