What are the main themes of Pleasantville, and how does the director convey them to the audience using cinematic techniques? Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross, is the year 2000 comedy with powerful underlying themes. Pleasantville is an inspiring and oddly touching story about two 90’s kids who are thrust into the black and white world of Pleasantville, a cheery and seemingly perfect sitcom complete with picket fences, soda shops and warm cookies. However, when a somewhat unusual remote control transports them from the jaded real world to the TV arena, the two teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are forced to play as Bud and Mary-Sue, the obedient children of George and Betty Parker.
Maguire, an obsessive Pleasantville devotee, understands the need for not toppling the balance of things; Witherspoon, on the other hand, starts shaking the town up, most notably when she takes American football stud, Skip, up to Lover’s Lane, to do exactly what the name suggests. Soon enough, Pleasantville’s teens are discovering sex along with rock and roll, free-thinking and liberating Technicolour. It is filled with delightful and shrewd details about sitcom life, for example, no toilets, no double beds and only two streets in the whole town. Pleasantville is a joy to watch, not only for its comedy but also for its groundbreaking visual effects and astonishing production design as the town gradually transforms from crisp black and white to glorious colour.
In this essay, I will explore the different themes of the film and look at how these themes are conveyed through cinematic techniques. There are many different underlying themes in Pleasantville. For example, liberation, revolution and prejudice. However, many of these themes would not be so apparent if it weren’t for Ross’ excellent cinematic techniques, such as juxtaposition, colour and music. One of the main themes of the movie is liberation. Before the entry of Bud and Mary Sue, the town of Pleasantville is very regulatory and leaves nothing to the imagination. In short, the town is dull, and its lack of colour reflects this – the town is completely black and white. However, after Bud and Mary-Sue have begun to awaken many of the town’s citizens, such as Betty, Mr. Johnson and Skip, the town becomes much more lively, and there is a definite change – the town is now in colour.
There are many foreseeable reasons why the people and the town itself have changed so dramatically. However, one of the main contributing factors is the liberation of the people. As the individual becomes more well-rounded and begins to fulfil their potential, they develop into colour. Therefore, colour plays a huge role in this film as a cinematic device to symbolize liberation and change. This is highlighted in the Lovers Lane scene when Bud and Margaret are driving on their first date. As they travel, coloured pink blossoms fall from the trees above onto their still black and white skin. This is a very striking scene and goes a long way to show how the people of Pleasantville have been liberated as Bud and Margaret laugh and wonder at the petals, as opposed to abstaining from their beauty.
The juxtaposition between black and white here is also significant because it shows how things are changing. However, when they reach the end of their journey and turn into Lovers Lane, a plethora of colour strikes them, and of course, the audience, as incredibly liberated people and surroundings, take the attention of the main characters. This sudden and unrestricted injection of colour is a perfect example of how colour represents liberation and freedom. It is clear that the people of the town change as the film goes on and the characters go on their own personal journeys. For example, who would have expected Betty to change from a perfect stereotype of Pleasantville life to a main star of the revolution? However, the colour goes a long way to highlight this liberation, this sense of belonging.
It is also clear to see this liberation through Ross’ use of characterization and the script work for the characters. For example, Bud has become more well-rounded when he stands up for Betty when she comes under attack from a group of black and white youths, headed by Whitey. This twist in the story also helps to highlight liberation and is similar to Mary-Sue’s journey, as is shown when she begins to read. Other cinematic techniques, such as music, also go a long way to highlight this liberation or freedom. This is apparent through the styles of music throughout the film and how they progress, most notably on the jukebox in the soda shop. For example, when Bud and Mary-Sue are first thrust into the world of Pleasantville, the music that is listened to is ‘Bee-Bop,’ which is pleased, yet the unimaginative form of music, which represents the world of Pleasantville with unerring certainty.
Whereas, further on in the film, during the liberation and the protests, the people progress to blues, jazz and eventually early movements in rock and roll. This is hugely significant. Even today, especially today, music is seen as one of the people defining personality traits and can often categorize or stereotype people. Therefore, it is certainly a way that people use to express themselves, as seen in the Punk era of the 1970s with such bands as the Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd. Therefore, music is very significant in the film, as it symbolizes freedom and liberation, which are two of the main themes in Pleasantville.
Linking to characterization, the characters of Pleasantville also help to illustrate liberation as a form of change. This is particularly apparent, for example, in the actions of Bob, the Chamber of Commerce. He opposes the changes and the new people of colour. This proves that liberation or a revolution is happening. For example, when speaking in front of the people of the town, he says, “It’s a question of whether we want to hold on to the values that made this place great.” This quote clearly shows that things are changing in the town as he opposes the freedom shown by the opposition.
Liberation can also come under the headings of fulfilling potential, self-realization, expression, and, as explored, freedom. These are all important aspects of Pleasantville, which as aforementioned, are highlighted through cinematic techniques such as characterization, colour, journeys, juxtaposition and music. Similarly, another significant theme in the movie is women’s liberation and equality. Throughout the film, women are striving for a better existence. This is largely prompted by Mary-Sue, who is used to the political correctness of the real world, who begins to show the men of Pleasantville how the balance should be readdressed. This is proven when she rather takes charge of Skip and even dares to deny him for a book when she explains she will not go out with him one evening: ‘I can’t, I’m studying.’
Parallels can soon be drawn between Mary-Sue and Betty, as the latter decides to leave her husband, George, to fend for himself for a while, something completely unheard of in Pleasantville. Betty leaves her home and spends the night with Bill Johnson at the soda shop because he appreciates her for who she is, not what she offers, which is hugely significant. The fact that Betty leaves her husband is a huge step in the liberation of the women. This is because it is unheard of for a wife even to leave the house, let alone leave the husband, in Pleasantville. This emancipation leaves George in complete disarray as he returns from work and inquires: ‘Where’s my dinner?’
This acquittal of women is also seen in other characters, such as Margaret, when they become coloured. However, this can lead to unfortunate occurrences, for example, the disapprobation of Margaret by Whitey etc., simply because of the colour of her skin. However, the deliverance of women is still apparent, and this is highlighted by the use of colour, characters and camera angles. This is most notable when Bill Johnson first becomes aware of the true colour of Betty’s skin and begins to remove her make-up. In this scene, the camera angles vary from long-range shots to close-up zoomed pictures to stress that Betty has been freed from the precept of women in Pleasantville.
The emancipation of women in Pleasantville causes much insecurity in the male population, which results in severe prejudices against these women and the things they stand for, such as equality and colour, which links irrevocably to the suffragettes in England of the Second World War and 1950s. Prejudice, and in particular racism, is also a main theme in the movie. Prejudice, as explored, affects women, particularly, and there are strong racial divides set up by the black and white fundamentalists of the town against the ‘coloureds’. Many of the main characters are involved in racism, either as an offender or a recipient—for example, Betty Parker. Betty soon realizes her potential and subsequently becomes coloured. This, at first, is much to her dismay; however, after being consulted by Bill Johnson, she realizes that the change afforded to her is not necessarily a bad thing. However, nor it is certainly a good thing; it’s just how she is. This new belief encourages her to stand up to her traditionalist husband, George, who suggests she ‘cover it up’.
Betty becomes riled and begins to argue with her husband, which is unheard of in the town and is another sign of women’s liberation. Betty counters by proclaiming: ‘I don’t want to cover it up’. After this, there is no foreseeable way back for Betty and George, as George sees the changes in Betty as a threat to his everyday life and stature as the ruler of the house. This provokes George to join with Bob and the other men against the changes and Betty to join with Mr. Johnson, who appreciates her. Unfortunately, the two people do not realize how their actions have affected the whole community, as the way the two react leads to a commotion between the rapidly developing sides – black and white vs. colour.
As George goes to Bob, Bob begins to disagree with the goings-on and airs his followers’ opinions in the bowling alley. Soon, the group have decided to tackle the ‘problem.’ The first sign of trouble is in the bowling alley, where Bob makes his first speech. Here, essentially racism is highlighted using cinematic techniques as Bob makes his speech. For example, the audience is aware that Bob is an important man because of the camera’s angle. Therefore, this coupled with the things he is saying, for example: ‘Separate the things that are pleasant the things that are unpleasant’ and ‘It’s a question of whether we want to hold onto the things that made this place great,’ highlight the racist aspects of his speech.
The low angled shot used in this scene certainly creates an image of a significant man and, at the same time, a very sinister figure. This is because the shot looks directly up at Bob, and almost everything else is obscured because of his head looming large. Racism is also apparent in many other areas of the films. For example, Bud and Margaret come under abuse by Whitey and his henchman because of Margaret’s skin colour and the relationship between the two. This links many of today’s racial issues, such as the debate over cross-race children and their labelling as “half-castes.” Here, Ross uses cinematic techniques, such as tracking shots once more to concentrate on one theme.
Less subtly, racism is highlighted when a sign reading ‘no coloureds’ is hung in a shop window. Again, this can be linked to 1960’s Southern America. This sign highlights racism without the need for any particular cinematic techniques. Another theme that is apparent in the movie is the quest for knowledge. As previously explored, the people of Pleasantville have been severely denied the right to understand the world outside of Pleasantville’s boundaries. This is shown when Mary-Sue asks her teacher: ‘What’s outside of Pleasantville?’ The reaction is one of astonishment and the reaction of the patrons of the soda shop when Bud explains that: “There are some places where the road just keeps going.” Also, the shots of every person either reading or being read to at Lovers Lane as Bud and Margaret arrive for their first date show how involved the people are in their search for explanations.
However, the deprivation of knowledge does not deter the citizens of Pleasantville from finding out about the world, literature and all the things they have been safeguarded from. For example, Mr. Johnson is stupefied when presented with the art book by Bud, and the school children are amazed when the books have words and pictures and not just blank pages. This characterization used by Ross helps to convey the thirst for knowledge harboured by many of the people of the town. Another cinematic technique used to convey the quest for knowledge is, once again, camera angles. Ross uses a tracking shot to zoom out from the public library, which had once been derelict. Still, when the camera zooms out, it is clear that the library is now brimming with excited and anticipatory customers.
This shot also helps to highlight the colour that has been injected into the scene. Once again, colour is used to show that people are becoming more well-rounded, and this highlights that knowledge is a very worthwhile, and in most peoples’ eyes, a welcomed quality. The audience can also tell that people are thirsty for knowledge through the movie sequence of events that lead up to and continue through the protests. The trigger cause of the protests is the Rembrandt-like painting of Betty by Mr. Johnson on the front of his soda shop. The painting sparks riots due to its apparently ‘adult’ content, i.e. it is a nude. Here, Ross again uses different camera angles to focus on the painting and nothing else, thus leaving no doubt in the audience’s mind that this is an important moment. The riots show that people do not agree with the acquirement of knowledge shown or the expression used by Mr. Johnson.
After the raid on the soda shop, more symbols of liberation are destroyed, notably the books. Like the Kristallnacht of Nazi Germany, books and other reading material are brought into the streets and burnt, violently in full view. The quest for knowledge is highlighted here by Mary-Sue as she struggles with Skip over ‘the only book she has ever read’ to prevent the black and white Skip from destroying one of Mary-Sue’s proudest moments. The riots are particularly significant in the course of the movie. They show the struggle between the races and the objection to change harboured by the traditionalists. Therefore, there are a plethora of cinematic devices used by Ross in these scenes. As aforementioned, tracking shots are used. However, more importantly, slow-motion shots are the main feature of these scenes.
For example, while the soda shop is overturned, slow-motion shots highlight the importance and drama of this twist in the story. These shots are particularly effective in leaving no doubt in the audience’s mind that the riots are extremely substantial within the movie and will lead to many different means of consequence. Also, during the riot scenes, handheld cameras are used to highlight the people’s franticness. These handheld cameras often provide jagged and imperfect shots, which was required for such a scene. The nature of the shots reflects the sentiments of the citizens of the town irrevocably. They are not sure what is happening, and everything is not straightforward and slow-moving like the previous camera angles and devices used.
Aside from camera angles, other cinematic techniques are used to highlight the dramatic nature of the scenes. For example, music once again is used during the riots. For a fairly substantial period of time, during the slow-motion scenes, the sound of the riots are faded almost to silence, with only large crashes, such as the bench being propelled through the soda shop window and the jukebox being destroyed, being audible. Over the top of these crashes, a slow, dramatic and depressing tune filters over the scenes of chaos. This music offers a stark contrast to the melodic Bee-Bop, and the full of prospect Rock and Roll used earlier in the film. This music also helps in registering to the audience that this is a sad and altering situation that cannot be overridden – things will not be the same again.
This quest for knowledge is linked to the strive for happiness shown by Pleasantville’s people, particularly the younger generations and the ones who are prepared to change. Culture often associates happiness with knowledge, in that people will be happier if they fulfil their capacity for knowledge. This also links to the Pleasantville theme of fulfilling potential. The riots can be associated with the sense of perfect vs. imperfect worlds in Pleasantville. Before Bud and Mary-sue were introduced to Pleasantville, the town was seemingly perfect in that there was no crime, no fire and even no rain. Nobody was ever unhappy. However, can this really be considered a perfect world? After the injection of Bud and Mary-Sue, the colour soon becomes apparent, which previously explored produces many mixed reactions. Soon the world becomes imperfect, with riots, violence and arguments.
This sense of imperfect vs. perfect is highlighted throughout the film with many different cinematic techniques. For example, juxtaposition is often used to highlight the difference between two scenes. Juxtaposition is used once, in particular. When Bud and Margaret are at Lovers Lane and everything is in colour, and the sun is shining brightly – everything is happy and safe, whilst still having an air of excitement and possibility. However, the shot then cuts to Betty. Betty is staring into a flower shop window, and staring back at her is her own concealed black and white face that she wishes could be seen for what it really is – glorious Technicolour. In the shop window, black and white flowers, displayed with an inch-perfect precision, loom uninterestingly and stir up no emotion or vigour. The picture could not be one of more desolation or longing – it is a very inhibited scene.
This juxtaposition highlights the difference between the exciting and liberated coloured world and the mundane and regulatory black and white world. Therefore, the juxtaposition highlights the fight between the imperfect world and the perfect world. The differences between the perfect world and the imperfect world are also shown much earlier in the film. The modern-day world of David and Jen is seen to be imperfect, and Bud and Mary-Sue’s world in Pleasantville is seen to be perfect. Juxtaposition is used here, too, when David is watching Pleasantville and his mother conversing with his father on the telephone. The TV show portrays perfect family life, where everything is just ‘swell.’ In contrast, David’s mother is fighting vigorously with his father over who is forced to look after David and Jen over the following weekend.
Juxtaposition is a cinematic technique used to good effect by Ross, highlighting the differences between two things, for example, the real world and Pleasantville. This battle between perfection and imperfection links to the gratefulness of the people of Pleasantville and the ungratefulness of the people of the real world. The liberated people of Pleasantville will never take anything for granted due to what they are just finding out about themselves and the world around them. However, people in the real world take simple things, such as colour, for granted to a great extent.
This is highlighted by Mr. Johnson’s astonishment at the book Bud hands him. When receiving the book and flicking through the first few pages, he remarks: ‘You’ve got to be awful lucky to see colours like that, I bet they don’t know how lucky they are.’ This quote is particularly poignant because it makes the audience think, like so many films do, about how lucky they are, or as the case may be, are not. The quote shows how deprived the people of Pleasantville have also been. However, the quote could also show, as an alternative interpretation, how blinkered the people of the real world are. It may be used to make Bud, in particular, think about what he must not take for granted whilst he is in the Pleasantville world.
The quote also includes dramatic pauses; this is a cinematic technique used to show that something being said is important and should not be overlooked. Other cinematic devices are being used here, such as the cuts between scenes that show the characters in different positions within the soda shop. For example, at first, Mr. Johnson and Bud have the book spread out over the soda shop bar, but upon realizing the book’s significance, Mr. Johnson moves over to a separate booth and takes time to ponder over the book. This change in position also conveys to the audience how important this book is in the grand scheme of things, in that it is one of the starting points of the revolution.
Also, once again, music is used to symbolize how important a scene is. Here, uplifting and passionate orchestral music is being used. This kind of music is dramatic and shows how important this scene is one of the starting points of the revolution. There are many starting points to the revolution. New beginnings are also a theme of Pleasantville. As aforementioned, when the books ‘come to life’ is seen as a new beginning for many people, especially Mr. Johnson when he reads all about the different stages of art in the book donated to him by Bud.
However, a much more obvious new beginning is once again part of the Lovers Lane scene. When at Lovers Lane, Margaret leaves Bud momentarily to pick some berries. When she returns, Bud is amazed at their colour and asks Margaret where they came from, to which she replies: ‘I picked them myself.’ Soon after, Margaret runs to an apple tree and picks an apple. This scene is tremendously substantial. The scene has powerful links with the first book of the Bible – Genesis. Adam and Eve pick an apple from the tree in Genesis, much like Margaret do in Pleasantville. Almost immediately, trouble begins for Adam and Eve as God kicks them out of Eden. Similarly, trouble begins for Margaret as the rain comes, which astonishes the citizens of the town, who have never experienced rain before.
As soon as Margaret picks the apple, the full moon shines through the gap that the missing apple has vacated. This has an almost eerie quality. This is another, the less definitive cinematic technique shown by Ross, which lets the audience know that this is important, but they are unsure why. Also, here Ross instructs his cameras to zoom in on the tree and moon, thus emphasizing that this is an important moment in the movie. However, the main link between this scene and Genesis is that Genesis was the beginning of everything. This is irrevocably similar to the picking of the apple in Pleasantville in that it too is the start of everything – when the rain comes, so do the protests by Bob – the chamber of commerce.
Other starting points include the expression showed by Mr. Johnson in his artwork and the violence brought into Pleasantville by Bud when he protects Betty. All these starting points are critical in the course of the film, and therefore, they are all highlighted by the usage of a cinematic technique in one form or another. For example, when Bud protects Betty, he turns into colour – an injection of colour shows that the scene is important. These starting points are similar to another theme that is within Pleasantville – new beginnings. Throughout the film, there are new beginnings for certain characters. This leads to the end of the film when the entire town realizes that the changes that have affected them are not necessarily for the worst. Everyone has a new beginning because everyone and everything is in colour.
For example, David and Jen have the chance of a new beginning when they enter the town. Jen makes fantastic use of this in particular. Once again, she becomes more of a well-rounded person in that she becomes less superficial while still retaining her fundamental beliefs. Jen’s new beginning comes under the scrutiny of Ross when he uses cinematic techniques to convey to the audience that Jen has changed in large part of Mary-Sue when he uses juxtaposition. Ross uses juxtaposition when Jen/Mary-Sue is sat at her desk, reading. Jen spots a pair of glasses on the table and puts them on to make her reading easier. Immediately after this, Ross uses a tracking shot to cut from Jen to a picture of Mary-Sue, with the glasses on, who, of course, Jen resembles indisputably.
A new beginning is also marked for Betty. Mr. Johnson convinces Betty that she should not cover up the colour of her skin and indeed washes it off. Here, Ross uses colour to convey the theme of new beginnings. Another of the main themes of Pleasantville is unity. Unity is seen as something that cannot be gone without during the revolutions. For example, the liberated minority are very willing to stick together whilst the revolutions are occurring. This is highlighted in the court scene when everyone is cheering on Bud as he argues with Bob. Moreover, unity is highlighted in the bowling alley. Here, George brings some more of the changes to Bob’s attention, and here the men decide to do something about the ‘problems’ facing their town. In this scene, there are many cinematic techniques used to show unity. For example, towards the end of the scene, the men begin to chant ‘together, together, together….’
After Bob’s question: “Are we in this thing alone, or are we in it together.” This quote alone shows unity. Words like ‘together’ and ‘we’ convey a picture of a united front. However, the cinematic techniques come into play as the men begin to chant. When the chant first goes up, the men are relatively quiet, with not everyone participating, and the shot is always of one or two people, be it George, Bob or another of the fundamentalists. However, as the chant wears on, every man is participating. The sound gets louder and louder. The shot is now predominantly of everyone, in between shots of George and Bob, respectively. These cinematic techniques highlight the unity of the men against the changes that are taking over the town. The shot of all the men together is critical in that it shows everyone is together – nobody is left out. The rise in the volume of the men highlights the ferocity and forcefulness that they harbour for the town’s changes.
There are other scenes of unity, such as the unity between Betty and Mr. Johnson after they have slept together in the soda shop and are lying next to each other. Here, the director once again uses a tracking shot across the two. However, the theme that governs and overrides all others in Pleasantville is changing. Change surrounds the film and is apparent in many instances. For example, the sequence sees George return home from work to find ‘no wife and no dinner.’ This is scene number 28 in the movie, and it’s particularly significant as it includes a wealth of cinematic techniques employed by Gary Ross.
The previous scene had been one of high colour. However, scene 28 begins in complete black and white. At the beginning of the scene, the camera is high above Georges’s house. It is very dark outside, and the streets are tranquil. As George approaches his home, the camera smoothly moves down to an eye-level shot. George then walks through his gate, which he is amazed to find open. Already, the scene has great significance. The tracking camera angle from a high level to an eye-level shot conveys to the audience that something is about to happen. When George steps through his front gate and realizes that it is already open, the audience becomes aware that something is awry. George is confused by having to shut the gate. This shows that something has changed. George resents change, and the audience is made aware of this when he frowns at the gate.
Next, George makes his way to his house and opens the door. As he does every day on returning from workplaces, George down his briefcase and then hangs up his jacket before crying: ‘Honey, I’m home!’ Upon saying this, an essential cinematic device is used. Lightning crashes, symbolizing that something sinister has happened and something is not right. This is a use of sound as a cinematic technique. Here, it is also very noticeable that it is very dark in the house. This is a very subtle but equally brilliant cinematic technique used by Ross: When David watched a trailer for the ‘Pleasantville Marathon’ back in the real world, this same scene was shown. However, the light in the room was so much brighter. This contrasts how things have changed in the town; in the trailer, everything was safe and happy, now everything is seemingly dark and sinister. If the audience notices this, they will instantly register that all is not well.
Next, George repeats himself, and again there is a crash of lightning. Here, it is also noticeable that George has a huge shadow that looms large and sinister behind him, very impressively yet very evilly. Once again, this shadow was not there on previous occasions. This is another cinematic technique shown by Ross, symbolizing change. Finally, the scene shifts to a colour scene, which is another example of juxtaposition between black and white and colour, which again symbolizes change. After this sequence of events, it is clear that things will never be the same again for George. A few scenes later, George is seen stumbling into the bowling alley, hair out of place and a look of distant confusion and bewilderment on his face. It is now that the fundamentalists form their party, and essentially the riots begin.
This is just one example of how important change is within the movie. However, change is the crux of the production; the whole movie regards – change and adjustment. The cinematic techniques used to symbolize a change in this scene alone, such as the thunder and lightning and the sinister shadows, are astonishing and convey precisely what was intended to the audience. Overall, there are many themes to Pleasantville. Such as the quest for knowledge, the strive for happiness, the freedom of expression, the need for self-confidence, racism, prejudices, appreciation, becoming more well rounded, liberation, unity, revolution, new beginnings, acceptance, freedom, the loosening of stereotypes, fulfilling potential and the juxtaposition between perfect and imperfect worlds.
However, the main theme of Pleasantville is changing and how it is dealt with. The director, Gary Ross, uses many cinematic techniques, such as characterization, the use of colour and black and white, the exploration of journeys, camera angles, tracking and low angled shots, juxtaposition, and the use of music. These techniques are all used to convey the main themes and are done so at certain stages, such as scene 28 masterfully without falter.