Film Techniques against the Theme of “Change” Essay
How are we made aware of the filmmaker’s attitude towards change? Refer to three specific episodes from the film. (excl. concl. stages)In Pleasantville, the filmmaker, Gary Ross, conveys his attitude towards change through the characters of David and Jennifer who are transported into the 1950s sitcom “Pleasantville”. He doesn’t necessarily demonstrate change to bear a positive result; rather, he addresses that change is essential to the development of society and self and that it is important to understand and accept change. Ross contrasts the ignorance and mindlessness of the unchanged people of Pleasantville with the hunger for knowledge that the changed (or coloured) people possess, communicating to the viewer that change and knowledge go hand in hand.
Ross also portrays and somewhat satirises an unchanged society’s people to be ruled by their own mindlessness, and in their epiphany, translates to the viewer that change can come from within or from outside one’s self but is different for everyone. Dark overtones are used to parallel the Pleasantville to a society under fascist rule. However, in the end, change will always affect everyone and this new understanding will help to overcome the changes encountered in the future that may seek to detriment the society. The three scenes which will be discussed in relation to the filmmaker’s attitude towards change are the breakfast scene, the classroom scene, and the rain scene.
The breakfast scene is the scene where Betty is piling food on other food and topping it off with maple syrup for Mary-Sue’s breakfast. The audience is overwhelmed at the ridiculous amount of food that is being placed on her plate, which is shown by extreme close-up and cuts of the shots of every time another food item is slapped onto the plate, and is accompanied by an upbeat music. The audience knows that the person under the guise of Mary-Sue is Jennifer, stereotypical of an American teenage girl, so she is naturally concerned about her weight and watches the food she eats. The scene is ironic because such a big breakfast is the exact type of meal she would be trying to avoid.
The scene is also hyperbolic as even in the 1950s, it would be considered ridiculous to eat such a variety of foods for just one morning meal. The ‘jumpy’ non-diegetic music timed with the quick shots of food being placed on the plate, and the jump-cuts showing the reactions of a horrified Jennifer when seeing all this food, assist create situational humour. The reason that all these techniques have been used to create humour is to present a sitcom-style situation. In doing this, Gary Ross satirises the mindlessness of the unchanged people and this becomes important as the storyline progresses.
The breakfast scene is also a place which symbolically informs the audience of the current circumstances of Pleasantville. Betty is piling food which would normally be considered tasteful by the audience once in a while and individually: pancakes, salami, bacon and eggs. This is what could be represented in the saying: “Too much of a good thing is never good.” The incongruous mix of foods is intentionally used by the filmmaker to make the audience feel uncomfortable. It is symbolically stating that there are too many good things in Pleasantville. There is also a sense that this is the situation everyday, meaning there is no change.
This can be inferred from the ease and comfort with which Betty is placing the food on Mary-Sue’s plate. It is as if she has been doing this her whole life. The final food item is the syrup being slowly poured onto all the other foods, which is shown for a longer amount of time than the other foods and with the music becoming slower, almost as if poison. This symbolises the ‘sickly sweet’ mannerism which has consumed the people of Pleasantville. Ross is effectively trying to convey the bitterness of a sickly sweet society who has never seen anything other than the norm and has never experienced any change.
This suggestion can be furthered in the discussion of the film’s “black-and-white technique”. The black-and-white technique is not just important in the distinguishing of changed people from unchanged people. It was conventionally used in Noir films to represent the dark overtones of the society. It is used as a motif in Pleasantville for the majority of the beginning of Jennifer and David’s adventure (until things start to change, that is). This is especially significant with all the subtle implications and allusions to a Nazi-style dictatorship. For example, the burning of books is reminiscent of that in 1936 when the German government burnt all books which would oppose its rule, in fear that the society it governed would think of rebelling.
Big Bob is the obvious ruler, as he is almost always seen with a low shot, making him look big and powerful to the audience. Bob’s situation is similar, burning books to stop changes occurring. Books are seen as works of art which are derived from the imagination of thinking people. Bob’s censorship practices extend to the prohibition of Mr Johnson from using colours to paint (that is, from using the full extent of his imagination) in his Code of Conduct. In this way, he is much like the German government in the 30s. However, he wants to continue his rule without any violent opposition; only ‘pleasantness’.
There is irony however, as there is vandalism and disruption when the Milk Bar is broken into and sabotaged because of his encouragement, which is the exact opposite of ‘pleasant’. The fact that people submitted to this way of life (where everything is sickly sweet) without opposition before (before changes were introduced) shows that they were not ruled by Bob, but really by the restrictions they placed on themselves. Bob is only used to embody the fears and restrictions and ignorance that the Pleasantville society possesses. The filmmaker is trying to convey through these situations and allusions that those who resist change are irrational and are ruled by their own ignorance.
The classroom scene when the students are learning about the geography of Pleasantville encapsulates the nature of the whole Pleasantville society. The students are used to learning the same thing everyday (since they already know the answers to the questions). The mise en scene of the students’ positions is incongruous. They are high school students but have their backs straight and behaving as if they are in kindergarten. They seem very comfortable, though, but when Jennifer confronts the teacher with the question “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” they are shocked.
A panning shot from the point of view of Jennifer shows the reaction of the class, and the silence adds to the tension. After the teacher assures the students that there is nothing outside of Pleasantville, and that the roads begin where they end, a sigh of relief ripples uniformly throughout the class. This reaction illustrates how fearful the students are of change and questioning the norm, since it is unknown and unfamiliar. The fact that the students have no appetite for knowledge is related to their inexperience of change. Thus, Ross is effectually demonstrating that change and knowledge go hand in hand.
Later, in the Milk Bar, when everyone is questioning David about the fire, the same students show a thirst for knowledge. The way they keep pressing David to tell them about places outside Pleasantville is contrasted to the classroom scene. Again, the technique of silence is employed, but this time in a freer atmosphere with curiosity instead of fear and with non-diegetic music which depicts a ‘cheeky’ mood. It depicts the way David is about to break the rules by allowing people to know information that he thinks they shouldn’t because it will “throw their whole universe out of whack.” In this way, Ross illustrates to the audience that change is about development rather than the results produced (whether positive or negative).
The classroom scene creates an interesting contrast to the classroom scene in ‘the real world’. At school, students are assured their futures are crystal clear: both predictable and wonderful. In the real world, David and Jennifer were being constantly reminded of the negative things in the future by the teachers: “Employment will go down thirty percent in the next five years…Greenhouse emissions…” This gave a very bleak outlook of the future, and the zooming and simultaneous cutting of shots of different classrooms added to the feeling of impending doom.
In Pleasantville however, everyone’s futures are predictably wonderful. The characters, without having developed an understanding of change, are at a loss when they find themselves feeling emotions and thinking for themselves. For instance, when Mr Johnson’s artworks are exposed, people become enraged and frightened and consequently violence occurs. This symbolises how these unchanged and undeveloped people don’t know what to do when circumstances change. Ross is trying to show the audience that it is important to develop and understand change, because it will help in the handling of future problems.
The rain scene is the scene where, after the emergence of the storm, it suddenly starts raining and very important events are taking place. One of these events involve the time when David and Margaret are kissing at Lover’s Lane. When rain suddenly starts pouring, David placates everyone’s fears by going out into the rain and holds his arms up to the sky, as if embracing the weather. The scene is a cinematic homage to the film Shawshank Redemption, depicting the part after Andy Dufresne has escaped from the prison and is now a free man. It is definitely a turning point in the film Pleasantville and is seen as a revelation. The allusion is symbolic because, just like Andy Dufresne, the kids at Lover’s Lane have escaped the grey walls that once held their thoughts and are now free to think and feel emotions. The next morning they all wake up coloured (except for David). Ross here is suggesting that change sets people free, and resistance to change is resistance to thought and passion.
This assertion is further developed near the end of the movie in the courtroom scene. Gary Ross assumes the voice of David to speak to the audience. Here, the technique of monologue/speech is cleverly used: “It’s all inside you…And you can’t stop something that’s inside of you!” Ross is saying that these people restricted themselves from thinking and feeling emotions but they have always had the potential to be different, feel passionately and think independently. He directly states that change comes from within; Jennifer and David were merely triggering the changes to happen.
Ross also implies that change is different for everyone. The aftermath of the storm shows David is still in monochrome. The shot of his reflection in the lake up to him contrasts to the coloured environment. The reflection is symbolic in that it shows David’s silent desperation while searching deep within himself to find a change. Jennifer experiences a similar problem. The dialogue between her and David is important. “I’ve had like ten times as much sex as these girls and I’m still [in black and white].” David’s reply is that maybe it is not about sex. The audience later finds that Jennifer finally changes colour when she starts reading books and puts on her glasses. The symbolism of the glasses is that her perception of the world changes and hence she changes.
A panning shot around her room shows the new colour, and finally a photograph of her alter ego, Mary-Sue, is in colour, meaning she has changed. David’s physical and individual transformation is completed when he finally starts standing up for what’s right and takes actions against what’s wrong. When he punched Whitey, he took action to fight for Betty, and the audience witnessed the first drop of blood in the whole film, showing David’s furious passion. Soft music depicting a ‘revelation’ accompanies this shot, demonstrating that he has found what he was seeking: change in himself. The over-the-shoulder shot of his back and the mirror is reminiscent of the lake scene and symbolic: not only has he found himself; but he has left his other self behind him. Ross here asserts that people change for different reasons and that change inevitably affects everyone so they can have a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.
In conclusion, the filmmaker Gary Ross conveys his attitude towards change through David and Jennifer and the effect of their presence on the town. He stresses that change is essential to understanding the world, but most of all, understanding and accepting ourselves. Ross uses various allusions to show the control the citizens of Pleasantville were once under, and then to show that they have broken free, and that in the end, everyone is inevitably affected by change. He employs satire to compel the audience to have a negative view of those who are resistant to change, and to take a liking to the characters who embrace change. Ross asserts that everyone must change in order to live their lives to the fullest extent.
“Pleasantville” (1998) directed by Gary Ross
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