Film Screening: “Pleasantville”

In this lesson we are going to examine Garry Ross’ 1998 Film, Pleasantville. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.

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Writer & Director: Gary Ross
Cinematography: John Lindley
Film Editing: William Goldenberg
ProducersAllen AlsobrookRobin BissellAndy Borowitz,Michael De LucaBob DegusJon KilikEdward LynnMary ParentGary RossSteven SoderberghSusan StevensonAllison Thomas
Original Music: Randy Newman

Pleasantville is a 1998 American fantasy comedy-drama film written, produced, and directed by Gary Ross. The film stars Tobey Maguire,Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh, and Reese Witherspoon, with Don Knotts, Paul Walker, and Jane Kaczmarek in supporting roles. The film was released in the United States by New Line Cinema through Warner Bros. on October 23, 1998.


Don Knotts Pleasantville

David (Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) lead different high-school social lives. Jennifer is shallow and extroverted; David is introverted and spends most of his time watching television. One evening while their mother (Kaczmarek) is away, they fight over the TV. Jennifer wants a concert, but David wants to watch a marathon of Pleasantville, a black and white 1958 sitcom about the idyllic Parker family. During the fight, the remote control breaks, but the TV cannot be turned on manually.

A mysterious TV repairman (Knotts) shows up, quizzes David about Pleasantville, then gives him a strange remote control. The repairman leaves, and David and Jennifer resume fighting. However, they are transported into the Parkers’ black and white Pleasantville living room. David tries to reason with the repairman (with whom he communicates through the Parkers’ television), but he succeeds only in chasing him away. David and Jennifer must now pretend they are Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the son and daughter on the show.

David and Jennifer witness the wholesome nature of the town, such as a group of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. David tells Jennifer they must stay in character and not disrupt the lives of the town’s citizens, who do not notice any difference between Bud and Mary Sue, and David and Jennifer. To keep the show’s plot, Jennifer dates a boy from high school but has sex with him, a concept unknown to him and everyone else in town.

Slowly, Pleasantville begins changing from black and white to color, including flowers and the faces of people who have experienced bursts of emotion. David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson (Daniels), owner of the cheeseburger joint/soda fountain, and introduces him to colorful modern art via a book from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting. Johnson and Betty Parker (Allen) fall in love, causing her to leave home, throwing George Parker (Macy), Bud and Mary Sue’s father, into confusion. The only people who remain unchanged are the town fathers, led by the mayor, Big Bob (Walsh), who sees the changes eating at the values of Pleasantville. They resolve to do something about their increasingly independent wives and rebellious children.

As the townsfolk become more colorful, a ban on “colored” people is initiated in public venues. Eventually, a riot is touched off by a nude painting of Betty (painted by Johnson) on the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain. The soda fountain is destroyed, books are burned, and people who are “colored” are harassed in the street. As a reaction, the town fathers announce rules preventing people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using paint other than black, white, or gray. In protest, David and Mr. Johnson paint a colorful mural on a brick wall, depicting their world, but they are arrested. Brought to trial in front of the town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, arousing enough anger and indignation in Big Bob that the mayor becomes colored as well.

Having seen Pleasantville change irrevocably, Jennifer stays to finish her education, but David uses the remote control to return to the real world.


Pleasantville Rice Crispies

This was the first time the majority of a new feature film was scanned, processed, and recorded digitally. The black-and-white meets color world portrayed in the movie was filmed entirely in color and selectively desaturated and contrast adjusted digitally. The work was done in Los Angeles by Cinesite utilizing a Spirit DataCine for scanning at 2K resolution.

Gary Ross hired visual effects supervisor Chris Watts and color effects Michael Southard to spot colorize the 163,000 frames of 35mm film for Pleasantville. This was an ironic twist for Southard as he got his start in the movie business at Colo Systems Technology which worked on colorizing black-and-white movies for Ted Turner.

The Live action shots where filmed with Eastman 5248 and 5298 color negative films, partly to maintain the sharpness that Ross wanted to keep Pleasantville looking like a normal world. The creative team decided to shoot with color film for later black and white treatment also to avoid mismatching of grain if they were intercutting between black and white and color film. The film was scanned at 1920×1440 resolution and resulted in files that were 11 megabytes per frame.

For the sequence where Bud is applying the gray makeup to his mother, the color of the makeup was actually green. When they had to “black-and-white” the scene, the shades of green came out the best for the appropriate shades of her “gray” make-up. Conversely, when Betty first visits the soda shop, she is in full gray makeup which meant that Joan Allen was shot wearing full green make-up that is subsequently removed by Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels).

On set, cinematographer John Lindley utilized a 40mm lens that research discovered was a typical choice for 1950. As the Pleasantville modernized, he added more contemporary looks by subtly adding more aggressive camera movements and longer lenses.

Even after the film was completed digitally the post-production team face a technological hurdle getting the movie back onto film. When printing black-and-white back onto color film, even the slightest mismatch on the optical printer can lead to unwanted overtones in the black and white image.

Critical reception

Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 86% of 83 sampled critics gave the film positive reviews and that it received a average rating of 7.5 out of 10.Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars calling it “one of the best and most original films of the year”.Janet Maslin wrote that its “ingenious fantasy” has “seriously belabored its once-gentle metaphor and light comic spirit.” Peter M. Nichols, judging the film for its child-viewing worthiness, jokingly wrote in The New York Times that the town of Pleasantville “makes Father Knows Best look like Dallas“.

Entertainment Weekly wrote a mixed review: “Pleasantville is ultramodern and beautiful. But technical elegance and fine performances mask the shallowness of a story as simpleminded as the ’50s TV to which it condescends; certainly it’s got none of the depth, poignance, and brilliance of The Truman Show, the recent TV-is-stifling drama that immediately comes to mind.”


"Pleasantville" Quiz