Images of America

A Social and Historical Look
at America Through the Movies


Study Guide - Pleasantville (1998)

Director : Gary Ross

Stars :
Tobey Maguire .... David
Reese Witherspoon .... Jennifer
William H. Macy .... George Parker
Joan Allen .... Betty Parker
Jeff Daniels .... Mr. Johnson
Don Knotts .... TV Repairman

Preparation :
Read the movie reviews by James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert

Historical/Social Significance :
The town is a TV facsimile of the '50s, which means it's a world with no knowledge of sex, toilets or colors--but the jokes cut deep, eventually assailing the fascist, racist undercurrents that would govern a "black-and-white" town like Pleasantville.

Synopsis :
David and Jennifer are magically transported back in time into Pleasantville to live in a simpler time as Bud and Mary Sue.

Guided Questions for Viewing :

Assessment questions will be based on the following :

  • Which society do you think the movie shows in a better light, 1950's America or 1990's. Give examples from the film to support your answer.
  • Roger Ebert said : "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. The movie is like the defeat of the body snatchers: The people in color are like former pod people now freed to move on into the future. We observe that nothing creates fascists like the threat of freedom."
    Comment on this statement with reference to the film.
  • Talk about the transformations that Bud and Jennifer go through. Are they changed for the better by going back? Does that mean the movie likes that society better?
  • Discuss the portrayal of a society which is inhibiting its people from reading. What is the movie saying about that society?
  • Pleasantville can be viewed as a "Women's Lib" movie. Discuss this with reference to the movie.
  • "Part of what the film says is that individual repression gives rise to social repression and we repress the things that we are scared of in ourselves on a social level and it becomes our own need to enforce a kind of stability or to drown out noise or to drown out doubt or to drown out uncertainty or really is born of a fear of change or a fear of uncertainty. When really embracing that uncertainty is the only thing that will fully let us engage our social structure, the society around us, and live a more fruitful, full and fulfilled life." Gary Ross (writer, director, producer of Pleasantville from the DVD commentary on Pleasantville)
    Comment on what the above means with reference to the movie.
  • The writer/director's father, screenwriter Arthur Ross, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Comment, with reference to the movie, on how you think this may have influenced Pleasantville.


Sources:
  • Ebert, Roger Pleasantville. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981001/REVIEWS/810010301/1023
  • America History and Film. http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/film/pleasant.htm
  • Pleasantville DVD with audio commentary



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