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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Roads to rebellion

September 1st, 2003

BY DAVID MACLAINE

When I jot down the names of films that move me deeply despite their absence from Greatest Films lists, I can see at a glance what they have in common. Holiday, Auntie Mame, A Thousand Clowns, The Horse’s Mouth, hell, even Harvey and Woodstock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: all share some version of the theme that non-conformity is the road to bliss.

These films played their part in my drift toward an almost crankishly non-mainstream manner of life, but their currents only pushed me along after I had crossed the main watershed on my own. I had already learned to prize the non-conformist path at an early age, when I began to compare the tedious obedience of the elementary school classroom, and the insipid vision of “wholesome” American life then found on television, with the rich and multifaceted worlds I discovered in books, and in the amazing pictures reproduced in the encyclopedia. In fact the most recent addition to my list of such films, producer, writer and director Gary Ross’ 1998 masterpiece Pleasantville, moves me so deeply precisely because it deals directly with those forces that once struggled for my psyche.

Pleasantville’s joys are not easily shared with friends. Despite critical acclaim, its run in theaters was not a long one, and its full impact depends on digital cinematography, which is diminished, less brilliant, on the TV screen. The improved clarity and intensity of disk as opposed to video tape help a bit, but not quite enough. Another obstacle is that Pleasantville also asks that the viewer do what these columns attempt, which is to move fruitfully back and forth between popular culture and the realm of high art. Like the two films for which Gary Ross was previously best known (as a writer) Big and Dave, Pleasantville is a fable, a story about two contemporary teenagers who magically replace their counterparts at the heart of a family comedy called, naturally, Pleasantville, entering the wholesome, idealized world of a black-and-white television show from 1958 along the lines of Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver.

The intruding teens (played by Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire) bring free will and passion into the sit-com Eden — a metaphor made explicit before the film is through, complete with symbolic apple bite — but their “corruption” of Pleasantville comes across almost from the first as what theologians call a Fortunate Fall, because its most visible result is the introduction of color into a heretofore black-and-white world. One by one the town’s fictional citizens uncover wellsprings of individual passion and free themselves from the roles that have reduced them to plot devices in an artificial world. William H. Macy, Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels shine as Pleasantville natives who begin as almost vacant, sit-com clichés but are slowly transformed into individuals as each finds and follows his bliss. Once that happens each of the characters takes on the glow of full, living color.

It is at this point that the film moves beyond comic commentary on the foibles of the old family shows and becomes a fable about how conformity and obedience yield to imagination, passion and the urge to explore. Pleasantville’s emotional power depends on the viewer’s affinity for this theme but also requires response at a deep level to meanings conveyed almost entirely through color’s direct impact, the sort that makes it possible to stand enraptured before a Turner, a Monet, or a Cezanne. The first teen sex in Lovers Lane yields the ravishing red of that world’s first real rose, and a sheltered housewife’s first orgasm makes a tree burst into vivid yellow flame. A soda jerk becomes an artist after he gazes awestruck upon a volume of full-color reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt and Titian, Picasso and Van Gogh.

Passions of the mind transform the world as well; the books of this TV paradise are blank until the disrupting teens start telling their classmates the stories, at which point the texts of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye blossom on the page. A slutty sister attains her own breakthrough into full color when she stays away from her boyfriend in order to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Similar transformations occur when the characters step forward to fight intolerance or acknowledge the depth of their love, or even express a hidden hatred.

High art snobs may have trouble taking seriously a film in which the analog of the Genesis Jehovah is played (with fitting crankiness) by Don Knotts. Fables aim at our simple, irony-free selves, and this one speaks to a level where my own love of art and literature is so direct and unapologetic that I can be moved to tears by a mural that shows books destroyed in a public book-burning winging their way to heaven.

Films started to stir me after I’d already decided that the quest for sexual discovery, a love for worlds revealed in books, and the intensity of artistic expression all matter more than living what people call a “normal” life, but no film I know expresses those themes more artfully than Pleasantville. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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