The Blog


How the 1950s Looked in the 1960s

11:00 PM, Nov 8, 1998 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Welcome to Pleasantville, the town portrayed in the satirical allegory now playing in theaters, the first feature film directed by Gary Ross, who wrote the movies Big and Dave.

It never rains in Pleasantville, the high-school basketball team never loses, there are no toilets in the stalls. It's meatloaf for dinner and cholesterol for breakfast: pancakes and waffles swimming in syrup, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, and -- why not? -- a ham steak, too. The girls wear poodle skirts and sweater sets and have two first names, the fire department rescues cats from trees, and married couples sleep in twin beds.

Familiar? It's supposed to be. It's the gray-scale world of the 1950s family sitcom, the idealized picture Ike's America had of itself, as represented in such escapist television fluff as Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best.

Pleasantville is also sexually and emotionally repressed, intellectually and aesthetically barren. Parents are invincibly ignorant, their children precociously wise. It's lily white and male-dominated: Challenge the town fathers, and you'll discover the brown shirts beneath the white collars. What this crypto-fascist town needs is some sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

That too should sound familiar. It's the 1960s counterculture's idealized view of itself as the brave guerrilla fighters of America's domestic liberation movement.

In Pleasantville, this old heroic myth of the counterculture is recycled by teleporting two 1990s teenagers, David (played by Tobey Maguire) and sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), from their frayed, single-parent home into Pleasantville, the setting for the reassuring 1950s sitcom David watches devotedly on a cable channel.

They land in the home of series parents George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen) Parker and assume the roles of their teenage children, Bud and Mary Sue. Their 1990s individualism proves contagious to the conformist town. And as the sitcom characters begin thinking and feeling for themselves, the gray scale comes alive with color -- and Lover's Lane becomes People's Park, Gene Vincent rocks the juke box, Mom learns to masturbate, and the bowling league (Robert Putnam's famous metaphor for a more civic-minded culture) becomes the incubator for a counter-revolutionary Kulturkampf.

The movie, number one at the box office in its opening weekend, has won critical superlatives, for both its technical ingenuity and "complex" philosophical message. The critics are right about its visual delights: The eruption of a black and white tree into orange flames and the application of black and white make-up to the sexually awakened mom's newly colorized skin are worth seeing.

But those same critics are wrong about the message. Subtle it's not. While some will maintain that the film's allegory is universal and timeless -- about the lapse from innocence or the dangers of totalitarianism -- I suspect the film-makers aimed at a narrower and more immediate political warning against those 1990s social conservatives who would turn the clock back to a postwar American Golden Age that never was.

The movie's Pleasantville seems intended primarily as a metaphor for life in the 1950s: American life, the old story goes, used to be as predictable in its rhythms and as aesthetically bland as the sitcoms of the time. Suburban horizons were as narrowly bounded as the limited sets of these low-budget entertainments. And above all, the people of the era were sitcom characters -- devoid of free will, playing to type, as incapable of imaginatively creating lives for themselves as the stock suburbanites manufactured by the limited imaginations of Burbank hacks writing under restrictive production codes.

Pleasantville is in fact satirical. But satire is typically not complex, and it's not philosophical or interrogatory. On the contrary, it is usually doctrinaire. "Satire is thesis art," as novelist Milan Kundera put it. "Sure of its own truth, it ridicules what it determines to combat."

In accepting the idealized sitcom world as representative of American life in the period, Ross makes the same mistake as those from whom he would preserve us: the real or imagined folks nostalgic for old-fashioned values manifest in the 1950s television version of the suburbs.

America during its imagined suburban idyll was not in fact very suburban. About a third of Americans lived in suburbs then, while more than half do today.