Pleasantville vs. The Truman Show

It seems that Pleasantville was a Republican suburb until two proselyte Democrats came to town.

Well, isn’t this just swell?! Two nostalgic TV-wasteland pictures in one year. The first out of the starting box was of course The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir. Peter was responsible for the very fine Dead Poets Society and Witness (which set the stage for all future good-cop-hiding-in-Amish-community-from-corrupt-legal-system plot lines). Truman was written by Andrew Niccol who also wrote Gattaca, the sleeper sci-fi superb of this year.

Pleasantville was written, directed and produced by one Gary Ross. Mr. Ross did similar biathlon theatrics with Dave and Big, both writing and producing.

Broad Similarities

  1. people trapped in TV land
  2. God-complex characters
  3. humanitarian and/or philosophical themes

Both Truman and Pleasantville are very similar in theme. Innocent and not-so-innocent people become trapped inside the picturesque towns of television. The former doesn’t know it, while the latter are trying to get out of it. By the way, you can forget about implausibilities; both films are escapist which is forgivable. The genre is part fantasy, part comedy.

Interestingly, both films have their respective God-like characters that control the events of each story. In Pleasantville, a mysterious TV Repairman first introduces our two heroes to this black-and-white town. Meanwhile, the TV Producer Christof in Truman commands the environment around the solitary hero stuck unknowingly in the make believe world that is the Truman Show.

While Truman leaves us with a reaffirming sense of the human condition, Pleasantville serves to smash traditional conventions and conservative ideals. You might have to look for the differences; they’re subtle.

Subtle Differences

  1. Truman – celebration of the human spirit, while satirizing media manipulation
  2. Pleasantville – clash of worldviews, as 50’s family values meets 90’s liberal ideology

The real qualitative difference in the two movies is the moral. The moral of Truman is this: “You can’t cage the human spirit.” Any attempt to control it and pipe it onto television for the consuming masses to digest like the grandest soap opera of all time will fail. Pleasantville‘s moral is slightly different: “You don’t have the right to inhibit human happiness.” Any attempt to stifle the personal gratifications of citizens trapped in a mundane life is ultimately close-minded and bigoted.

The focus is starkly different too. In Truman, we (the theatre) are focused entirely on one man, participants with the watchers of the TV show in the film. So in that sense, we too are guilty of entrapping this man in our selfish insatiable desire for entertainment. In essence, the focus is from the inside out, as the selfless sincerity of the one man spreads outward, liberating us all. With Pleasantville, the opposite is true with the focus ending on each individual. We watch the brother-and-sister duo “liberate” the citizens of Pleasantville with the notion that their way of life is choking their creativity.

J.T. Walsh’s character Big Bob, who is obviously the antagonist of the film, represents the moral opposition to all this change. In the safe haven of the local bowling alley, he assures his comrades, “This is a matter of values… It’s about protecting what made this town great.” It seems that Pleasantville was apparently a Republican suburb until our two proselyte Democrats came to town.

The before-and-after scenes are quite stark. Before the cultural saviors (David, aka Bud, and Jennifer, aka Mary Sue) arrive, the citizens in Pleasantville are mindless, lacking any originality or independent thought. Introduced to any change in the routine, however, results in some strange happenings. Mr. Johnson, the soda shop owner, wipes the veneer off the bar counter, waiting for Bud to arrive late to work. Mary Sue introduces her Pleasantville mother to sex. And of course the mother’s experimentation “liberates” her from her fidelity to her husband.

With this liberation comes pigmentation. Up until now, the entire town is black and white, including the townsfolk. Soon, the town becomes divided, with those that have color (enlightenment) and those without. Those without (the moral majority) have isolated the “coloreds” into the soda shop, ridiculing them with the hatred of an unruly mob. They destroy the painter’s art and burn the readers’ books. Big Bob then congregates the citizens in the town hall to discuss what to do with the coloreds. “The way I see it, to make this town pleasant again we need to remove what is unpleasant.” It’s conservatism represented as fascism.

Pleasantville‘s attack isn’t so much on the lifestyle of the 50’s. It’s more an assault on moderate behavior. Constancy is viewed as a vice, traditional values as travesty. Point number eight in the “Code of Conduct” drafted by the townspeople read, “The high school curriculum shall consist of an unchanging view of history, emphasizing continuity over alteration.” This certainly sounds close-minded, doesn’t it? At least we’re made to think so.

Despite being offended by Pleasantville, I was nevertheless entertained. Overall, the two films were both highly watchable. I found myself utterly intrigued by both story lines. Both were very, very well written and highly entertaining. Put to a contest however, I was ultimately more satisfied with Truman. As Pleasantville stooped to 90’s pop-morality revisionism, Truman was bold with its reinforcing view of the future.

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  1. hmm. pleasantville is one of my favorite movies. we had to watch it in one of my grad school classes and analyze it for postmodern theory.

    i can appreciate your review and interpretation- really, i can. for sure i can accept the idea that pleasantville can be interpreted as a criticism of traditional values.

    in addition, though, what i like about the film is that it also defies maintaining tradition just for tradition’s sake. it allows for multiple perspectives and complex existence. one “right” way does not have to prevail.

    with six years distance do you still feel the same way about it as you did in this review?

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