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Pleasantville Case Study

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“We accept the verdict of the past until the need for change cries out loudly enough to force upon us a choice between the comforts of inertia and the irksomeness of action,” – Learned Hand. During the 50s Hand was seen a defender of civil rights when subversion, the downfall or corruption of something, was on the verge of dividing the nation, also known as the Red Scare. So, this quote is relevant to the film, Pleasantville, directed and written by Gary Ross because not only was it from the same time period as the film, but it describes the choices that the public has when change presents itself. In Pleasantville, Gary Ross is trying to convey the theme that a figure of authority or a government cannot suppress or prevent changes in a society when it begins to take root. The archetype, wise fool, is used in Pleasantville to help communicate the political theme. The definition of the wise fool is the character in a story that pretends that he/she doesn’t know what is going on but really does, and in Pleasantville, that character is the TV Repairman, though he is somewhat of a minor character.

This man comes at a time when David and Jenifer are arguing and don’t really understand each other at all, and with the intention to bring them together, pretends that he just happened to be around when the remote breaks. Throughout the story the viewer is made to believe that the TV Repairman only wants someone to appreciate Pleasantville like he does, when it wasn’t about the town at all, but about making the two siblings understand each other. Though the mayor is seen as the fist of authority in the film, on a grander scale, it is the TV Repairman who holds the most power, in that he ultimately has the ability to control the town’s and the sibling’s reality. As the TV Repairman continues to talk to David throughout the film, he demands that David and Jenifer leave Pleasantville because of all of the changes that they had made in the town. In these scenes, Ross makes a point of David refusing and turning his back to the TV Repairman, to show that once change takes root, it’s not easily ignored.

At the very end of the movie, the TV Repairman is shown smiling, this is where it is most obvious that he is the Wise Fool, but it also significant in that is demonstrates that once accepted, change is a good thing. Over all, Ross successfully uses the wise fool archetype to support the political theme, yet he also uses symbols as well. In the film, Pleasantville, Ross successfully uses the symbol of the changing color to develop the political theme. When David and Jenifer’s influence began to alter Pleasantville’s citizens, color began to slowly creep its way into the utopia. Yet the color only affects the few that let whatever they had been suppressing rise to the surface. This inevitable changing of color symbolizes the acknowledgment of things that were seen as wrongs or unnecessary, which is important in a town where bad or unexpected things never happen. Eventually this then innocent and blissful community begins to turn on itself, as the color continues to spread. In this part of the film, Ross alludes to the segregation between the “colored” and the “whites”, even going as far as using the same words and events.

When the “whites” become afraid of the changes that the color brings, they begin to segregate and harass the “colored” and eventually create rules that suppress the changes, an allusion to the Jim Crow Laws. This fear of the inevitable change is further expressed in the courtroom scene, when David is pleading his and Bill Johnson’s case to Big Bob, the mayor. Big Bob believes that he is at a higher standard than the other citizens, and that he must control the change, and punish the violators of the new rules. Yet, David explains that the change cannot be hindered because it is something that is inside all of them. He is even successful in changing the color of the mayor by using Big Bob’s hidden anger and frustration. All things considered, the symbolism of the changing colors is used by Ross to develop the theme, yet the changing of color is not the only symbol he uses. Lastly, Ross expresses the theme further with the symbolism of books in Pleasantville. Throughout literature and other art forms, books have become the symbol of knowledge, and Pleasantville is no exception. In the beginning of the film, the saying “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind, because the citizens of Pleasantville know nothing about any place farther than their town, and honestly don’t think about it much because they believe that they are happy.

But as Pleasantville begins to change, so do the citizen’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and eventually the books that were once empty and blank begin to fill with stories that are not coincidental. The books Ross chose to add to the film are books such as Huckleberry Finn and Catcher and the Rye, and all of the literature that was added has something to do about disregard of authority and about change, which is one of the points in the film. When the people of Pleasantville who are not colored begin to become afraid of the change and attempt to regain control, Ross alludes to the historical event of the Nazi’s burning all books that they did not approve of; in the case of the non-colored citizens this is all books in general.

Ross intends to leave the viewer with the appreciation for the freedom of knowledge that is accessible and ultimately unappreciated in today’s society, and he does this with all of the symbols and archetypes he uses to convey the theme. Ross is proving that change is something that is inevitable for a healthy society, and a person of authority or a government cannot suppress or change it once it takes root among the citizens in Pleasantville. When change is not accepted by the authority, things such as segregation and the Nazi’s are possible outcomes. Some may say that sometimes change isn’t such a good thing, which is true, yet that’s not something that can be helped. Gary Ross demonstrates this idea quite effectively and clearly with the film Pleasantville. Everything has a good side and a bad one, yet it is something that needs to happen for anyone to move forward. Pleasantville begs the question, is it worth being stuck in the past for the sake of the comfort?

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