Thursday, February 23, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Carrie (1976)


Directed
by
Brian De Palma
Written
by
Lawrence D. Cohen
based on a novel by
Stephen King
Cinematography
by
Mario Tosi
Set Decoration
by
Robert Gould
 

There are many films that you watch during your life that you remember more than others.  The better the film is, the more likely the chances are that you’ll remember the circumstances under which you first viewed it.

But that’s not a steadfast rule. You probably remember the circumstances surrounding your viewing of some of the really bad ones as well.

I have no clue as to how many films I have seen in a theater or drive-in, and there is no way that I could remember the where, when, or how of each and every one. But some of these experiences are as fresh in my mind as if they happened yesterday. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I remember seeing the original The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds twice. I saw it once in a packed Columbia Theater in Portsmouth, Ohio.  I saw it with a friend of mine from work.  We would often go for coffee together three or four times a week.  During the summer, we went to Riverfront Stadium to watch the Reds a couple of times.  But this was the only time we went to a movie together, and that is probably  one of the reasons why I remember it so well.  

Experience: Good.



But I also remember taking my first wife to view The Longest Yard at the Scioto Breeze Drive-In Movie Theater ten miles north of town. It was in our first car, and we hadn’t had it very long.  I also remember that not only was it snowing, but it was colder than an icicle hanging from a  witch’s tit.   Those were the days when drive-in movies were still in abundance, some even staying open all winter long courtesy of electric in-car heaters that only managed to delay the frostbite temporarily instead of having it set in immediately after turning off the ignition.
Experience: Bad.


My first viewing of Carrie took place at the Skywalk Cinema in downtown Cincinnati.   It was the second time that  I had seen a film inside that particular theater, the first one having been Jaws the previous summer during a weekend getaway.  The audience for Carrie, such as it was, seemed restless throughout the film. It didn’t help that some of the patrons were lighting up cigarettes    in the auditorium and puffing away which tells you how much the management actually cared about what went on once they had their money in hand. All I know is that it was very distracting but I wasn’t one to become a squealer  because those guys looked like they could have kicked my ass all the way up the Ohio River and back down again.
Experience: Bad.

But there was also something else I remembered about that night. It was something that actually happened in the movie, and if you’ve ever seen the film which I’m sure most of you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It was so memorable that there is now a term to describe it when used in films trying to play copycat It’s called “The Carrie Moment.”

Experience:
It scared the holy crap out of me and all those puffing away on their Marlboro’s.

But I’m putting the cart way before the horse. Although I was kind of indifferent to Carrie for the most part  on that particular evening, (except for the Carrie Moment) I have learned to really appreciate the craftsmanship of Brian DePalma’s film more and more with each subsequent viewing in the 30 years that have elapsed since.

Being perfectly honest, by the time I finally saw Carrie for the first time, there were really no surprises left to be had for someone who had just recently witnessed Little Damian Thorne hang a nanny from a window, impale a priest, and slice the head off of a photographer, watched a shark devour Robert Shaw as the main course; or sat in horror as as a possessed eleven year old girl pissed on the floor, masturbated with a crucifix, turned her head a full 360 degrees, then vomited pea soup like a missile projectile. I mean, after The Exorcist, most horror films seemed tame by comparison, at least until Jason began whacking teenagers up at Crystal Lake, Michael Myers made Jamie Lee Curtis run for her life in Haddonfield, or Freddy sliced and diced up Johnny Depp on Elm Street.

And the theater poster of actress Sissy Spacek drenched in blood, along with the tagline “If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom” pretty much told you that this wasn’t going to be a jolly holiday with Carrie making your world so bright at a Sunday school picnic.

But I do have to say that the second sequence in the film, which is often called the opening sequence but actually comes after a volley ball game that is the real opening sequence but is quickly forgotten because of the following sequence that takes place in a girl’s locker room is always appreciated. You got that?



It was my first journey inside a fully occupied girl’s locker room. Heck, it was probably the first time a lot of guys were inside a fully occupied female locker room filled with half dressed women, completely undressed women, and a few fully dressed women that you’ll barely notice are there. So before I go any further, I want to thank the cast, the cinematographer, and of course Brian DePalma for the experience.


The scene is filmed in a room full of steam as the camera slowly pans across the lockers. Gradually the steam becomes as thick as fog and the camera settles upon a nude Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) slowly bathing herself in the hot shower. But if you feel the whole thing is just a bit too beautiful, lyrical or just plain extra hot and sexy, you’d be right.

We are quickly drawn out of our dreamy stupor as DePalma pans to Carrie’s thigh, where we see the first signs of blood trickling downward. Nope, she isn’t being attacked by Norman Bates even if this particular high school is named after him as a kind of screwed up homage to movie psychopaths.


Carrie has in fact started her first menstrual period. And no, unlike other movies where some teen girls would proclaim that they are now a “truly positive absolutely real grown-up woman” Carrie takes a different approach. She goes totally bonkers, positive that blood spurting out from places it hadn’t ever spurted from before means certain death, and in her panic runs out into the locker room begging the other girls for help. And her classmates, being the helpful teenage shits that they are, lend Carrie a hand by shoving her back into the shower while simultaneously launching an avalanche of Tampons and Kotex at her as if they are throwing rice at a wedding while yelling in unison for her to “plug it up, plug it up, plug it up.”

This bit of calamity is literally brought to a screeching halt by the girls gym coach, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) who shows us her more gentle nature by shoving the taunting girls aside to reach Carrie whom she promptly slaps in the kisser.


And it’s a good thing Miss Collins showed up. You wouldn’t want Carrie to completely snap because as we find out later, a pissed off Carrie is a very bad Carrie, and in this scene, we find out that a ticked off clueless Carrie is only murder on your light bulb bill. You could be making a lot of trips to Costco with this kid around.
It also doesn’t take long for us to figure out the reason for Carrie’s maniacal outburst and ignorance regarding her women’s trouble. Her mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), has never taken the time to sit down with her daughter and have a heart to heart talk about birds, bees, and the monthly due bill. But once you meet Mrs. White, you’ll understand why.

She has a few fanatical religious screws loose upstairs, not to mention that she’s just completely Looney Tunes with a dash of cracked brain as well.

She seems to make her living going around the neighborhood trying to convert others to her religious cause. You know the drill: Join me or rot in hell.

The neighbors do their part by shoving a few dollars Margaret’s way to get her out of the house as quickly as possible. I suppose that’s easier than hiding in the bathroom or the closet but it  could get very expensive. I don’t think buying Margaret White off comes cheap. 

We find this out when Mrs. Snell (Priscilla Pointer, Amy Irving’s real life mother) quickly raises her own donation ante from five to ten dollars. This buys her some instant relief and a promise that Margaret will pray that she finds Jesus.




But as distraught as Carrie was, the adults involved don’t handle the situation very well either. Miss Collins admits to the principal that she understood how the girls felt because she kind of felt the same way. When the principal calls Carrie into the office, he repeatedly gets her name wrong calling her Cassie and Callie despite being told the correct name by both Miss Collins and Carrie herself.

As for Carrie, besides the fact that she doesn’t much care for people talking about her in the third person, especially when she’s in the same room, she also shows she has little patience for those trying to blow smoke up her ass as she sends an ashtray flying off of the desk.


Shortly thereafter as Carrie is walking home, a boy on a bicycle who looks a lot like Brian DePalma’s son and sounds even more like Betty Buckley taunts her.

“Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie” he squeals. A few screeches of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho notes, and Creepy Carrie sends Creepy DePalma Boy flying off of his Creepy Bike flat on his scrawny creepy little ass. It almost makes one wish for a Carrie in every movie that has an obnoxious kid in the movie……first to go being that brat in the original Poseidon Adventure followed by that kid in Problem Child topped off with…..well I’ll let you fantasize.


What is perfectly clear by this time is that Carrie is not only a loner and a misfit, but she also has been blessed/cursed with the power of telekinesis. It is a power she is just beginning to understand, to experiment with, and is only in the early stages of learning how to control it.

But once Carrie arrives at Happy Acres, also known as her home, her mother receives a phone call from the school. A call which sends Ms. Margaret into a religious frenzy and she immediately takes Carrie to task for being an evil doer.
Carrie: (coming down from upstairs) Mama? Who was that, that called?

Margaret White:
You're a woman now.

Carrie: Why didn't you tell me mama? (Margaret strikes Carrie over the head with the "Woman's Bible”)

Margaret White:
And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it, the raven was called sin.

Carrie: Why didn't you tell me, Mama?

Margaret White
(hitting Carrie in the face): Say it. The raven was called sin.

Carrie:
(Margaret hits her again) No, Mama. And the raven was called sin!

Margaret White: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

Carrie: I didn't sin, Mama. Margaret White (hits her again): Say it. Carrie: I didn't sin, Mama!

Margaret White:
The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

Carrie:
And the first sin was intercourse! Mama, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mama.

Margaret White:
And Eve was weak, say it! (Margaret hits her again)

Carrie:
No!

Margaret White:
Eve was weak! Carrie: No!

Margaret White: Eve was weak, say it woman!

Carrie:
No!

Margaret White:
Say it!

Carrie:
Eve was weak, Eve was weak.

Margaret White:
And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood!

Carrie:
You should have told me, Mama! You should have told me!

Margaret White: (kneels down and grabs Carrie's hand) Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her!
At which point Margaret drags Carrie into a closet and locks her in.   Yep, that Margaret is a real charmer.  She’s sort of a female Rick Santorum type.



Meanwhile, back at Bates High School, one certain girl’s gym class is getting their comeuppance, in the form of an enraged Ms. Collins, who has called the girls together in the gym to read them the riot act, and dole out their punishment. And it isn’t pretty:
Miss Collins:  Now, my idea for this little trick you pulled was three days' suspension and refusal of your prom tickets.
Norma: What? God!

Miss Collins: That'd get you where you live, wouldn't it? And you deserve it. I don't think any of you have any idea of just how nasty what you did really was. But the office has decided you're to have one week's detention. Still, there's one little catch. It's to be my detention. That's fifty minutes every day starting today in the athletic field. Get the picture?

Chris Hargenson: I'm not coming.

Miss Collins:
That's up to you, Chris. That's up to all of you. Punishment for skipping detention is three days' suspension and refusal of your prom tickets. Any other thoughts? Good. Now change up.

Chris Hargenson: Where are you going?

Norma: Come on.

Chris Hargenson:
I'm not coming.

Norma:
You're really not gonna come? You're gonna miss out on the prom?

Chris Hargenson: I'm not coming.

Norma:
Well, I'm not gonna miss the prom.

Chris Hargenson: Fuck

 
Eventually, the calisthenics, the hot sun, and perspiration become a bit much for Chris, whose previous introduction to exercise probably took place in the back seat of her boyfriend Billy Nolan’s (John Travolta) car. She decides to end her detention a bit early, not by walking off the field quietly, but by directly confronting Ms. Collins:
Miss Collins: The period's not up, Hargenson.

Chris Hargenson:
It is for me.

Miss Collins: Keep running! Well, there are ten minutes left.

Chris Hargenson: Stick 'em up your... (A comment which draws Ms. Collins ire and for which she promptly slaps Chris)

Chris Hargenson:
You can't hit us! You'll get canned for this, you bitch!

Miss Collins: One more word out of you, and I'm gonna knock you down! Do you understand me?

Chris Hargenson: She can't get away with this if we all stick together! Norma? Helen? Sue!

Sue Snell: Shut up, Chris. Just shut up.

Chris Hargenson: This isn't over. This isn't over by a long shot!

Miss Collins: You're out of the prom, Hargenson. Okay, the show's over.



By this time we have now learned four things:
 
 1. It might not be a good idea to  piss off Carrie White and send her over the edge because of certain mental capabilities which she harbors inside that screwed up noggin of hers.

2.  Getting on the bad side of spoiled, self centered, egotistical rich bitch useless slut, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) will not be a pleasant experience for anybody whether it’s children, flowers, Carrie White, or any other living things in between. Hell hath no fury like a pissed off Chris.

3.
  That Ms. Collins sure does like to slap students.

4.  When you combine item number one with item number two, the shit is going to hit the fan and God help anyone caught in the middle.

But all is not lost. There are a few high school students who see the error of their ways. Well, there’s at least one, and that would be the aforementioned Sue Snell (Amy Irving) who actually regrets her part in the tampon tornado incident. So how does she decide to atone for her sins?

No, she doesn’t spend a few Sunday prayer sessions with the Rev. Margaret and Carrie. You couldn’t make a 98 minute movie about that and expect fans to fill the theater or buy the DVD.

Instead, not having been privileged to read the same movie posters that we have in regards to terror and asking Carrie to the prom, she asks her steady boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie. And although he is initially unwillingly to do so, Tommy eventually gives in.

And what exactly is Chris’s plan for revenge. It doesn’t take long for us to figure it out after she enlists the help of simple minded boyfriend Billie, who is willingly bought off with a convincing oral argument presented by Chris:
Chris Hargenson: I want you to do something.

Billy Nolen: What?

Chris Hargenson:
Something important. (unzips Billy's pants and performs oral sex on him) Oh, Billy. Billy. Oh, Billy. Oh, Billy. Billy. Oh, Billy. Oh. Oh, Billy. I hate Carrie White.


By the time Chris and company hit a meatpacking plant in the middle of the night during a rainstorm, you can pretty much guess where everything is headed with or without a tell-all movie poster.

There’s a lot to admire about Carrie. First and foremost are the performances. Nobody has ever done religious fanatic this creepy or better than Piper Laurie who was nominated for an Academy Award.

And casting Sissy Spacek, who was nominated for an Oscar as well, would have been a stroke of genius except for the fact that during auditions, Brian DePalma had another actress in mind for the role until Ms. Spacek made a last minute screen test. DePalma never mentions who that other actress was, but I cannot see how any actress could have done better. Not only does she make us feel a great deal of sympathy for Carrie, Spacek manages to arouse the same guilt feelings that Sue Snell experiences.

We are instantly reminded of our own instances of cruelty we may have inflicted on others, or the instances of ridicule inflicted upon us. Carrie is a victim of the most unfortunate set of circumstances possible, caused solely by the her birthright.

And did you say bitch? Nancy Allen as Chris should be given a special place in Webster’s next to that particular  word. Here is a girl that has obviously been given everything she ever needed in life and has worked for absolutely none of it. She is unaccustomed to two things in her life: being told no or not getting her way, and being punished.

Having faced these two issues all in the space of a few hours, it  short circuits what little brain power she has into one single minded goal: Revenge on Carrie White. The thought of what she sees as Carrie’s deserved comeuppance is almost an orgasmic experience for her, whether it’s performing oral sex on boyfriend Billy to make him an accomplice in her plan or the actual thrill of possibly carrying it out. Just like Spacek, Allen won her role as Chris at the last minute as well. Talk about a huge stroke of luck.
It would have been easy for Betty Buckley to make Ms. Collins one of the perfect super teachers we have seen in so many other films. But she plays her as a very flawed teacher, so we get Ms. Collins with warts and all. It is obvious to us that up until the locker room incident, Collins herself had let previous incidents involving Carrie and the other girls just slide by unnoticed.

Instead of getting involved or taking Carrie under her wing when she can make a real difference, she does so only when forced to deal with her own shortcomings after the incident in the locker room. She does not seem to do well under stress which explains why Chris Hargensen can get under her skin so easily. Her disdain and hatred for Chris, is borderline irrational even if it seems warranted.

As for Amy Irving and William Katt, they have a difficult task here as well. They are the only two totally sympathetic characters in the film once Sue begins to atone for her own actions in the torment of Carrie. It is imperative that we believe Sue’s decision to have Tommy ask Carrie to the prom is done with the best of intentions, and that her and Tommy are not a part of Chris’s revenge plan.

It would be easy to think that the two of them are just henchman in Hargensen’s elaborate revenge plan since its success rests entirely on two events: Carrie must go to the prom, and she must be elected prom Queen, two events that are impossible if Tommy fails to ask her.

But both Katt and Irving do a great job of making us believe in their honorable intentions, and we can only surmise that Chris hatches her plan only after she finds out for sure that Carrie will indeed be a prom participant. Why is this important? Because even though we know disaster is afoot, we still want to believe in the fairy tale of Carrie as Cinderella going to the ball. We will always love the glass slipper story, which makes the outcome of the film even more devastating when our Pygmalion tale is tragically brought to a sudden halt.

Carrie may be lacking a bit in the suspense department  but DePalma makes up for it with some highly stylized and memorable scenes. Every shot is perfectly thought out and planned to exact specifications. Whether it’s the opening moments when the camera swoops down from above on the volleyball game to focus on Carrie, the slow motion pan of the locker room, the chilling interiors of the White home (for which the set designers deserve special recognition), or the dizzying dance at the prom between Carrie and Tommy, there’s a lot here to absorb and admire. There is much symbolism as well, as we see in this particular moment where Carrie reveals her intention to go to the prom.


For me, what occurs in this film is far more horrifying than any ax wielding, meat cleaving, monstrosity rising from the nearest cemetery. It is certainly surreal but it is a bit too real as well. Think about it.
Hasn’t this incident been tragically played out in headlines in another form time and time again over the years. There is the misfit kid who doesn’t fit in at school. He is an outcast, and is often picked on. Perhaps his parents just ignore him and are totally indifferent to him. Perhaps he finds a friend who is facing similar circumstances. And then something goes haywire in their brains.

So they take their revenge. But instead of telekinetic powers, they use pistols, or assault rifles. And, everybody within their path gets taken out. And they finish their mayhem off by taking their own lives. And that’s what makes Carrie really scary. In its own way the film was a prognosticator of events to come in the years ahead, which makes the thought of a misfit kid with telekinetic powers a very frightful notion. If you want an idea as to how bad it would be, read Stephen King’s novel which the film is based on. Carrie’s wrath is far more widespread whereas Palma was limited by his tight movie budget as to how much destruction he could show on the screen.

What DePalma also does, and Stephen King did in his novel, is to make Carrie totally sympathetic. She is as much a victim of those who later become her prey.
But then the rug is pulled out from underneath us and when the innocent are punished along with the guilty by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, our sympathy towards her dissipates, despite the fact that she is the same girl at the end of the film that she was at the beginning.

Does Carrie still deserve our sympathy, or do we ignore the tragic circumstances of her life, and hold her in contempt? Would you extend your sympathy to someone who would do the same thing in the real world using real weapons under the same circumstances? Not many of us would.

But that is a can of worms that I don’t think DePalma was planning to open when he made the film. But even so, its stunning conclusion and the aftermath will stay with you for a long time. And although my initial feelings toward the film may have been lukewarm, I have learned to admire it more and more with each subsequent viewing. And when a film does that I have no choice but to give it an A-.

No wonder Carrie remains one of the most watched films on Halloween.











Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Pleasantville (1998)




starring
Tobey Maguire
Reese Witherspoon
William H. Macy
Joan Allen
Jeff Daniels
J. T. Walsh
Don Knotts
Paul Walker
Original Music Score
by
Randy Newman
Cinematography
by
John Lindley
Written and Directed
by
Gary Ross


When we go to the movies or watch a film on DVD for the first time we do so with certain expectations. These expectations are usually formed and influenced by things we have seen, heard, or read in the media whether it's from teasers, trailers, interviews with the director, producers or stars, or even a tidbit of something we may have read on the internet. Sometimes we have certain expectations because the film is a sequel and having seen the previous incarnation we know what is forthcoming and expect it to either advance the story or to improve upon the previous rendering. Or perhaps the film is based on a novel we have read, and we enter the theater hoping that the film lives up to it’s literary ancestry.


When movies fulfill these expectations, we leave the theater or return the DVD rental taking comfort in the knowledge that it was money well spent. When a film does not give us what we expect of it, or what is on the screen fails to live up to the hype, it leaves not only a sour taste in our mouth, but an unfulfilled emptiness inside. Not to mention that whatever money you spent is now lost forever, along with the time you had invested in it.

I bring up all of these points because there are times when a movie not only lives up to expectations, it also far exceeds them. And although it doesn't happen that often, when it does take place, it is perhaps the best movie going experience that any of us could have or ever want.


The first time when I was about to watch Pleasantville I was sure that it would be nothing more than a high concept combination of fantasy and comedy. The premise of two teenagers from the the 1990’'s who are magically zapped into a fifties sit-com where they experience all the joys of carefree living and uptight morality, had endless possibilities for some genuine fish out of water humor. If Pleasantville had been one of those comedy capers churned out by the Disney Studios in the sixties and seventies, perhaps something like the Misadventures of Merlin Jones in a TV Time Machine, then I'm sure that is the kind of film we may have seen. Not that such a thing would have automatically been bad, it just would have been different, perhaps funny, but undoubtedly predictable.

But Pleasantville
writer, director, and producer Gary Ross had something entirely different in mind when he brought Pleasantville to the screen.  What we get is a film that takes a fantastic fantasy premise and turns it into a an allegory about life, morals, prejudices, and the fact that this world that we live in will always be changing and evolving so we damn well better learn to cope with it.

The early moments of Pleasantville are just about what one would expect. But there are indications right away that you will be getting more than you bargained for.

The film centers around brother and sister David (
Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) who also happen to be twins. As brother, sister, and twins, they are absolutely nothing alike and have absolutely nothing in common.

David, is shy, quiet, a bit mousy, and has never dated. He fantasizes about asking a girl out, but can never quite work up the courage to do so. He is troubled by the world around him. His teachers are full of gloom and doom regarding the future, his parents are divorced, and both he and his sister seem to be nothing more than a burden to their mother who after being a housewife and mother for so many years, yearns for a certain amount of her own freedom once again.


So David escapes from his troubled world by wrapping himself up in an old fifties situation comedy called Pleasantville that airs on TV Time which is supposed to be the equivalent of our
TV Land (or what TV Land was supposed to be before it degenerated into the useless cable crap that it is now) Pleasantville is the perfect world that David imagines being a part of because it is a place where everything is always "pleasant.”  And because the family in  the show, The Parkers, seem to be leading the idyllic life he can only dream about, it becomes David’s daily  escape from reality.


Jennifer has her goals as well. Actually it's one goal which renders itself to a lot of different scenarios: Being the most popular girl in school and dating the most popular guy. She intends to achieve this even if it requires a certain amount of moral  looseness. Having David for a geeky brother doesn't help. Jennifer's world would be a lot better place for her if that fact  didn't exist, so much so that she tries not to even acknowledge that it does.

Jennifer's Friend: (speaking about David) Oh my God! He is like so pathetic! I can't believe you're related to him.
Jennifer:
Only on my parent's side.
Jennifer's Friend: Yeah, but you guys are like twins and stuff. You must be from the cool side of the uterus.


And so it is that one Friday night Jennifer is finally able to invite the guy of her dreams over to her house to watch an MTV concert on the very same night that David plans on tuning into a Pleasantville Marathon so that he can win a trivia contest. This also takes place on the evening that their mother (Jane Kaczmarek) is leaving town to be with a younger boyfriend and she departs without nary a word to Jennifer or David.

Before Jennifer's boyfriend can arrive a tug of war ensues over the
remote control  and as their bad luck would have it, the remote ends up being accidentally thrown against the wall and shattered.  Bad news if that is the only way to turn the TV off and on.

But help arrives mysteriously and almost instantly (as it just about has to with a premise such as this) in the form of
Don Knotts as a TV Repairman.


After subtly giving David a quick trivia quiz on Pleasantville, Don the TV Repair Guy gives them a remote that he says "has a little more oomph in it."

David: Oomph?
Don The Repairman: Sure. A big beautiful set like that. You want something that'll put you right in the show.



As soon as Repairman Knotts has left, David uses the ooomphy remote to switch on the TV which promptly results in another remote tug of war with Jennifer at the same time that two of the characters from Pleasantville, Bud and Mary Sue Parker are having their own tug of war over Mary Sue's transistor radio. Add a little lightning, a whole lot of sparks, and David and Jennifer are zapped right into the TV screen replacing Bud and Mary Sue Parker. Well, not exactly.

It seems in fact, that they have become Bud and Mary Sue. Although they look exactly the same to us and to each other, to everybody in Pleasantville they are the characters they have replaced. And oh yeah, they are now in living black and white.

"Look at me! I'm pasty," proclaims Jennifer.

Shortly thereafter Don The TV Repairman appears on the 50's type television attempting to explain everything to David and Jennifer. When they don't seem too appreciative of his efforts, he decides it is best to leave the two teenagers where they are until he (the repairman) isn't too emotional.

Their 50's Pleasantville parents, George (
William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen) don't see anything amiss either, with George even encouraging "Sport" and "Muffin" to hurry or they'll be late for school without batting an eye over the fact that the two teenagers might look a bit different. When Jennifer informs Betty that she isn't hungry in response to a complete breakfast buffet that Betty has cooked up, one  that would probably feed the population of Rhode Island, George and Betty simply laugh it off.

"Nonsense Young, Lady, You're going to start your day off with a hot breakfast," Betty tells her.



For his part, David seems to be able to adapt to being in black and white in Pleasantville quite comfortably. Not so, Jennifer who doesn't have the slightest clue as to why they are going to a 50's high school and lets David know about it in no uncertain terms:

Jennifer: (talking about the breakfast she has just eaten) All that animal fat, I can feel it in my pores. I still don't see why we're doing this.
David: Because we're supposed to be in school.
Jennifer: We're supposed to be at home! We're supposed to be in color!.......You listen to me for just a minute. I don't know what you've done but you better fix it, fast. I had a date with Mark David and I even bought new underwear.
David:
Okay. We have to play along for a little while until that guy shows up again.
Jennifer: Play along!?
David:
Yes, I am Bud Parker and you are Mary Sue.
Jennifer: No. No, I'm not going to do it. If I don't dress like this for mom, I'm sure as hell not going to do it for you.
David: We have no choice, Jen. We are stuck here until that guy shows up again.
Jennifer:
Why can't we just explain it to someone?
David: To who?


A question to which Jennifer has no answer. But there is one thing that does help her come around. A good looking hunk by the name of Skip Martin (Paul Walker) who happens by during their initial trek to school.

Jennifer: Who's that.
David:
Skip Martin, captain of the basketball team.
Jennifer: Does he like me?
David:
As a matter of fact, he does.


Later, David points out Jennifer's friends.

Jennifer: Those are my friends?
David: Peggy Jane, Lisa Anne, Betty Jean
Jennifer:
Can we do any better?
David: I don't think so.

So it is left up to David to keep Jennifer out of trouble and to keep her from making Pleasantville anything less than perfect by convincing her to continue to follow the script. And at first Pleasantville does seem to be a Utopia of sorts.

It is a perfect 72 degrees all the time. There is never any inclement weather. The basketball team makes every basket and wins every game. Nothing ever burns, and the only job the fire department has is to rescue cats out of trees. Nobody ever has a harsh word for anybody else. And everybody knows what they are expected to do and what the end result will be.



But as it is, keeping things perfect turns out to be a full time job for David. For instance, when Skip asks David if it is okay to ask Mary Sue (Jennifer) out on a date, David replies that now might not be the best time to do so, even though he knows he is supposed to reply affirmatively. This prompts Skip to angrily shoot the basketball  he is holding and for the first time in his life it fails to go in. As the other players look on in disbelief and as the ball rolls slowly down the court, the coach tells them to "stand back and don't touch it."

"I'm sure we'll work something out," David quickly recants to Skip.

Later, when David asks her to go out with Skip, Jennifer is not sure.

David: I thought you liked him.
Jennifer:
Yeah, but I don't know
David:  One date Jen, that's all I'm asking. If you don't go out with this guy we could throw their whole universe out of whack.
Jennifer:
It's too weird David, this place gives me the creeps. Did you know the books are blank? I went in the library, they have covers and there is nothing inside of them.
David:
What were you doing in the library?
Jennifer: I got lost.
David:
Jen, listen. I will get us out of here. I really will, but if we don't play along we can alter their whole existence, and then we may never get home.
Jennifer:
Do you really think anybody's going to notice if I don't have a chocolate malt with this guy?



But it doesn't take long to realize that for their perfect existence, the citizens of Pleasantville are paying a price. Other than what exists within the confined borders of their town, nothing else exists for them, and their life is as predictable as well, a TV sitcom.

In geography class, the students are taught that Main Street begins where
Elm Street ends. When Jennifer asks the teacher what is at the end of Main Street, everybody looks at her as if she had just uttered the first curse word ever heard. 

"At the end of Main Street is the beginning of
Main Street," the Teacher explains.


The days of the citizens of Pleasantville are made up of the same dull and deadly scripted daily routine, such as Bridge on Tuesday, Meatloaf on Wednesday, Chicken on Sunday. The men all leave for work at the same time, and they all come home precisely on schedule every day. They each enter the house in the same way, through the same kind of  gate, and the same kind of door, with the expectations that their spouses will have a fully cooked meal on the table. Their wives are here for nothing more than to take care of the house, look after the kids when necessary (which isn't much since nothing bad ever takes place), and have those extravagant home cooked  dinners on the table at the proper time. 

When they bowl, nobody gets less than a spare. The malt shop sells only one type of food: cheeseburgers and fries. Their existence remains constant from day to day, never changing, never experiencing sadness, hurt, or anger. Nobody is born, nobody dies, so there is no need for a hospital.

The married couples all sleep in
twin beds, so there is no joy of sex. It is a land of Stepford People in a sense, not because the citizens of Pleasantville are robotic emotionally, but because they only know the confined world in which they exist, nothing more nothing less. They are hamsters running constantly on the same caged wheel.

They have the same emotions available to them as you or I do, but with no
disasters, threat of death, or unpleasantness to trigger any emotional extremes, and absolutely nothing to stir their curiosity, they remain a constantly happy, smiling, bunch. They are the ultimate lemmings.


But just as David accidentally upset the grand Pleasantville master plan when he told Skip that Mary Sue (Jennifer) might not go out with him, the same thing happens when David is late for work. His boss at the malt shop, Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), is unable to cope with this one tiny deviation from the pattern that he has followed for all of his existence.

David: What's wrong?
Bill: Well, I always wipe down the counter, and then you set out the napkins and the glasses, and then I make the French Fries. But you didn't come so I just kept wiping. (At this point both we and David see that he has wiped the finish completely off of the counter)
David:
I'm sorry. You know, if this ever happens again, you can make the fries even if I haven't put out the napkins yet.
Bill: Oh! Thank you!
Later, after Bud has left early, Bill shows up at their home.

Bill: Bud, you know how when we close up I close the register and then you lower the blinds and I turn out the lights and we both lock the doors? Well you weren't around this time so I did the whole thing by myself.
David:
Wow!
Bill: And I didn't even do it in the same order. First I lowered the blinds and then I closed the register.
And while all of this may seem insignificant to some, these first baby steps Bill has taken will open the shackles of his existence that he has been bound to for an eternity. And when Betty suddenly appears in the doorway, there is an instant hint of attraction between them as if somebody had suddenly lit up their pheromones with a gasoline torch. And just as it doesn't escape our notice, it doesn't go unnoticed by David either.


Not one to be tied down to the morals of the 50's, it doesn't take long for Jennifer to do her own thing despite David's warnings. On her very first date with Skip,  Jennifer seduces him at Lovers Lane.


Later, when Skip drives away after having dropped Jennifer at her home, we see Pleasantville's first splash of color in a single rose and it almost comes as a shock. By this time we have become so accustomed to the stark black and white world of Pleasantville, it's as if the rose is there as a sign that things are indeed changing.


The next day Skip relates his experience of the previous night to the basketball team who stand and listen in awe. Sort of a kiss and tell section. But don't blame Skip. He didn't know any better. Afterwards the basketball team is unable to make a single  basket. When David tries to admonish Jennifer for what she has done, it is Jennifer who becomes the voice of reason:

David: You can't do this Jennifer, I warned you.
Jennifer: So what's the big deal? Oh, Ok. They're not good at basketball anymore. Oh my God, what a tragedy!
David: You don't understand. You're messing with their whole goddamn universe.
Jennifer: Maybe it needs to be messed with, David. Did that ever occur to you?
P.J. (calling from the end of the hall):
Hey M.S., how are you doing?
Jennifer:
Cool, P.J. How you doing?
P.J.: Cool, Cool.
Jennifer: Cool
David: COOL! COOL? What are you doing to these people? You can't do this to them.
Jennifer:
If I don't do it, who will?
David:
But they're happy like this.
Jennifer:
No. David, nobody is happy in a poodle skirt and a sweater set. You really like this don't you? No, it's not like you think it's funny or dorky or anything. You really like it.
David: No, you have it all wrong.
Jennifer: Stop. I am personally mortified to be your sister.
David: You have no right to do this to them.
Jennifer:
David, listen to me for just a minute. People don't want to be geeks. They want to be attractive. They have a lot of potential. They just don't know any better.


David:
They don't have that kind of potential.
Jennifer: Oh yeah, look at that.
(At which point Jennifer points out a girl blowing bubbles, bubbles that are in living color.)

 

And it isn't long before Jennifer and Skip aren't the only ones making out at Lover's Lane. At one point it seems as if every teenager in town is parked there. And as the townspeople have new worlds and ideas open up to them, color begins slowly creeping into their lives.

When Betty is playing cards with her friends, the conversation turns to a green car parked in front of Bill Johnson's Malt shop. We see the effect the very mention of Bill Johnson has on her, and when she opens up her cards, they too are in color.

While doing dishes one night, Betty finally asks Jennifer what is it the kids do at
Lover's Lane.

"Do  they hold hands?" Betty asks.
"Well, yes," Jennifer answers.
"Is that all?" Betty asks again.

At first Jennifer is hesitant to answer but she does.
"Well, there's also sex," she tells her quietly.
Betty mulls it over for just a second. "What's sex?" she asks
And Jennifer explains it to her just as a mother would explain to her daughter.

"Are you okay?" Jennifer asks when she is finished.


 
Afterwards, Betty tells Jennifer that her father would never do anything that she has described.

"Well, you know mom, there are other ways," Jennifer tells her.

So later, when Betty gives herself an
orgasm of cataclysmic proportions, some sort of built up energy force is released causing the tree in their yard to burst into flames by spontaneous combustion.

It is also the first fire Pleasantville has ever seen as evidenced by the fact  that when David goes to the Fire Department and yells "Fire" nobody moves. When he yells "cat" they all head for the fire truck and head to the fire. But upon arrival their only question is, "
Where's the cat?"



In one particular episode of the TV series Pleasantville, Margaret Henderson (Marley Shelton) had baked oatmeal cookies for a guy named Whitey (David Tom) who then drover her out to lover's lane. But it is Bud (David) she has a crush on now after he has become a local hero.

Although at first insisting that the cookies are Whitey's, Bud ends up  finally succumbing to what is becoming inevitable
.



Later, at the Malt Shop, the other kids along with Jennifer are waiting for David as Dave Brubeck's Take Five plays in the background. By now, parts of the diner and a several of the students are in living color. They would  like to know how David knew how to put out the tree  fire:

Jennifer (quietly): Hey
David (Looking around puzzled):
Hey. What's going on?
Jennifer: I'm not sure. They want to ask you a question I didn't really know how to handle it.
David: Okay
David (speaking to the students):
You wanted to ask me something?
Student:
How'd you know about the fire?
David:
What?
Student:
How'd you know how to put it out?
David: Oh. Well, where I used to live that's just what firemen did.
Student:
And where's that?

David is unsure if he should answer but it is obvious that everyone in the soda shop including Bill, who is behind the counter listening attentively, not only wants an explanation, but that they won't be satisfied until they get one.

David: Outside of Pleasantville. (The students are amazed that such a thing is even possible.)
Student:
What's outside of Pleasantville?
David  (trying to put the genie back in the bottle):
It doesn't matter it's not important.

But it is too late. Once you achieve a thirst for knowledge there’s no shutting it down. And as if David needed anymore convincing, Margaret steps out of the crowd.



Margaret: What's outside of Pleasantville?
David: There are some places that the road doesn't go in a circle. There are some places where the road keeps going.
Students in unison in a whisper:
Keeps going!?"
Female Student: Keeps Going?
David:
Yeah it just keeps going. It all keeps going, rivers and roads.
Another Student:
Like the mighty Mississippi?
David (surprised that he even knows about the Mississippi):
What?

The student hands David a copy of Huckleberry Finn. Inside, half of the book has words and pictures on what used to be blank pages.

David: I thought the books were blank?
Student:
They were.
Jennifer: Okay. This was not my fault. When they asked me what it was about, I didn't remember because I read it back in the tenth grade. When I told them what I did remember, that's when the pages filled in.
David:
The pages filled in?
Jennifer:
Um....hmm...but only up until the part with the raft. 'Cause that's as far as I read.
Student: Do you know how it ends?
David:
Yeah, I do.
Margaret: So, how does it end?
David:
Well, Ok. Let's see they were running away, Huck and the slave, They were trying to get up the river, trying to get free. And in trying to get free they see that they are sort of free already

.

And at that moment the rest of the words and pictures magically fill the pages.

Before long there is a line of students waiting to get into the library. More and more students begin to appear in color as the doors of knowledge have now been sprung open and their world expanded beyond the confines of Pleasantville.

And it is at this point that the film begins to steer away from its comedic tone to take on one of a more ominous nature. Because when there is change, there will always be those who view it as a threat.

In Pleasantville there are citizens who can't deal with the fact that some of their friends are buying
double beds when they've always slept in twin beds or that the basketball team could possibly lose a game, or even that a girl might wear a provocatively tight red sweater.

The husbands want their dinner on the table when they come home and the house to be taken care of properly. The very idea of sleeping in a double bed is horrendous to them. They would rather find a way to not only impede change, but to revert things back to the way of life they had always known, because for them it worked just fine that way.

But this is not just a product of Pleasantville. This idea that change or progress is always unwanted exists in our own societies,  now more  then ever, and when change does come there are those who resent it just as as much as they do in Pleasantville. Worse, we now have those that would love to do nothing more than turn back the hands of time, and eradicate thirty or more years of progress.  And with resentment of that change comes hatred, and ridicule, and prejudice against those things that they cannot understand, nor attempt to understand.  Everything and anybody suddenly becomes a threat, an invader in their safe cocoon.



 
And just as the citizens of Pleasantville learn from David and Jennifer, the two of them learn as well. For the first time Jennifer begins to discover that there is more to life beyond being the most popular girl in school and "doing the slut thing.”

Seeing the sudden thirst for knowledge and the longing to expand their horizons causes Jennifer to do something she would never have done had she not been zapped into Pleasantville. For the first time in her life she reads a book, from beginning to end and she begins to see all things she had always thrown by the wayside or had no use for previously.

Jennifer: What's wrong?
David (stepping into her room and seeing that she is reading): Listen....you're reading?
Jennifer:
I can't believe you started such a dorky fad. It's D.H. Lawrence. You ever heard of him?
David: Yes.
Jennifer: Yeah I read a couple of pages. Seemed kind of sexy.
David: It is
Jennifer: Can I ask you a question?
David: Sure.
Jennifer: How come I'm still in black and white?
David:
What?
Jennifer: I've had 10 times as much sex as the rest of these girls and I still look like this. I mean they spend like an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden they're in Technicolor!
David:
I don't know. Maybe it's not just the sex.

And just by reading one book, Jennifer discovers for herself that it is not just the sex. Only when sex begins to mean something does it take it to a higher level. And because that book has open new worlds of her own, it becomes the most precious thing she could own. It is the first book she has ever read from cover to cover.


David has his own voyage of discovery. He learns that you cannot escape that which is around you. You cannot hide or lose yourself in order not to cope with those afflictions that occur in your daily life.

And in their own moment of self discovery, David and Jennifer find not only themselves, but begin to look upon each other as something other than a nuisance brought about by their circumstances of birth.

As we also find out, being free, being able to choose, does have a price. But it is a price that we pay for those freedoms. Things may work out and they may not. Life can be messy sometimes, and just as David discovers, it is better to deal with it than to hide your head in the sand or pretend it doesn't exist.

This is a wonderfully conceived film. Even after giving you a synopsis that takes you about halfway through the film I'm tempted to do more. But printed words can never do it justice, as the visuals in it are every bit  as important as the dialog.  

And worse, if you’ve never seen the film, you would never forgive me for depriving you of discovering everything else the film holds in store for you. Each scene is cleverly written, crafted and pieced together by Gary Ross. You can watch this film over and over again, and there will always be new discoveries.

When the teenagers are in the classroom, the teachers desk is lined perfectly with
all the apples that each student has brought. When Mayor Big Bob (J.T. Walsh in his last role) stands in front of the bowling screens as if they were the US flag (a scene in which Ross says he was paying homage to Patton), every frame is either a spare or a strike. When all the men of the house arrive home at the same time it is like a well choreographed ballet. And David and Margaret’s trip to Lover’s Lane with the late  Etta James singing At Last, is unforgettably beautiful

The acting is outstanding on all fronts. After having seen Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon prior to this film, it becomes obvious that her great performance as Dani Trent was no fluke.   She never overplays Jennifer to a point where she becomes unlikable, even in her toying  seduction of Skip. And her transformation isn't one that hits you over the head. It's obvious, yet subtle, and so gradual that it just kind of creeps up on you.

Tobey Maguire is a discovery here before he went on to spin his
Spidey web. When his real life mother leaves home for the rendezvous, and you can almost feel his need to be recognized by her. Without saying a word, his attraction towards Margaret becomes the driving force in his own reincarnation. Whether it's explaining books in the soda shop, or rendezvousing with Margaret at Lover’s Lane he gets it right and every scene is as unforgettable as the previous ones.

As Betty Parker, Joan Allen not only matches Maguire and Witherspoon every step of the way, but even surpasses them in a truly remarkable performance that should have been acknowledged more than it was at the time. The scene in which Toby goes to the kitchen to see what is keeping her from bringing Big Bob his pineapple kabobs is priceless, as are her many scenes with both Jeff Daniels and William H. Macy. She is moving, touching, and graceful. She’ll make your heart break.

 
It would be really easy to totally dislike the character of Macy’s George, but we don't. He has lived all his life by the rules of the same dull routine day after day. He is unable to deal with any little thing out of the ordinary that doesn't fit the script. One telling moment expertly played by Macy, happens when he returns home from work to find the gate open. It has never been left open before. He swings the gate trying to figure out or better yet, trying to understand how it such a thing could possibly be. When he goes into the house he puts his hat on the coat rack, sets down his luggage, and yells, "Honey, I'm Home." Just as he has done countless times before. But when there is no response, his first reaction is that he did something out of order, so he replays everything he has done to make sure he got it exactly right.

There is not one bad performance in this film, not one wasted scene, and not one wasted sentence of dialog. And it is all complemented by what I consider one of Randy Newman’s best scores.  (using the YouTube embedding below, the soundtrack selections will play continuously)


I don't know what propelled Ross to use Dave Brubeck's Take Five for the Soda Shop enlightenment scene, but it works and the music piece has become a favorite of mine since the first time I saw this film just because of that scene alone.     Every time I watch the particular beautifully photographed scene where David drives into Lover’s Lane with Margaret and we  hear Etta James’s magnificent vocal I just want to replay it again and again and again.

There is no doubt that Gary Ross's film was a labor of love. I don't think that audiences gave it the recognition it deserved upon its release, nor did it receive much in the way of accolades from the major awards. But it should have.

The film grossed an estimated $40 million on a $40 million dollar budget. But although some critics such as Roger Ebert loved it as did the late Gene Siskel (both critics placed the film in their top ten for 1998 with Siskel placing it at number 3 and Ebert placing it at a lofty number 2 ), there were other critics who for some strange reason tried to apply logic in a world that does not play by the rules they are used to. They don’t understand that the film was never meant to play by any set of rules known to us. It is as Roger Ebert called it, “a parable.” Thus the ideas behind the film completely escape them.

Many of them perceive the film as simply a criticism of sanitized television broadcast in the 50's and an exaggerated look at the sit coms of the 50's and early 60's TV. I don't think Ross ever meant for the town of Pleasantville to be exactly like those depicted in shows such as
Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, or Ozzie and Harriet.



Pleasantville is in fact an over the top facsimile of those towns for reasons that are always readily apparent.

It is depicted that  way to bring home a message, a message that life is ever changing, sometimes for the good, and sometimes not so good. But if we don't evolve as times change, and when we don't use those freedoms given to us or stand up for our beliefs, or when we fall into a pattern of unified conformity as so often is the case these days to satisfy our thirst for instant gratification (in a way, much like Jennifer’s goal of instant popularity), then we are no different and no better than the townspeople of Pleasantville.

As much as we would like for things always to remain constant, change cannot and will not be held back, nor should it be feared. More importantly, especially in the times in which we live now, where people are quickly denigrated for opinions and thoughts beyond that of the masses, one should be able to express new ideas and different opinions without fear, without malice, and without contempt.

It doesn't really matter to me how other critics may view the film. It's one of those rare films that touches me no matter how often I view it. And when a film does that I have no choice but to render it a grade of A+.