Semiology telling a deeper tale… Pleasantville may not be so pleasant after all In the film Pleasantville, David is obsessed with the 50’s sitcom Pleasantville. He uses this show as an excuse to escape from the harsh reality he is forced to deal with everyday. In relevance to society… if Pleasantville acted as a religious allusion, could humanity be turning to religion to provide them with a light in the dark when the going gets tough? Just as David looks to this unrealistic TV show to escape from the darkness surrounding his family, high school and teenage years?
How is it that elements of a plot such as symbolism and allusions can hide the fact that Pleasantville may not be so pleasant after all? The main element in the structuralist criticism is semiology; the film Pleasantville has many subtle themes and meanings camouflaged by allusions and signifiers.
This film takes many elements of religion, controversy and censorship into consideration; the film demonstrates these themes with symbols and allusions directly related to historical events that have been learned about for generations.
In the upcoming paragraphs, these symbols, themes and meanings will be thoroughly discussed.
The idea of religion, mainly Christianity was present throughout the film. The aspect of Christianity was supported by references to historical events and biblical ideas. For instance, when we are introduced to Pleasantville, the town seems to be perfect, as if nothing could go wrong: wrong is unheard of. An example from the film would be when the Pleasantville basketball team simply couldn’t miss a shot, it just wasn’t possible; or when the Pleasantville firefighters are called to rescue cats from trees, because that is ‘in the town’s reality’, one of the only problems needing attention from emergency personnel.
Right from the beginning the viewer feels the unsettling religious connection from the bible stories he or she may remember as an innocent child. This place, Pleasantville was in theory the Garden of Eden. This phenomenon becomes quite clear to the viewer when he or she recognise the first colour change within Pleasantville, something as simple as a flower, triggered by change, knowledge of good and evil, emotion and freewill, or in theory sin. Mary sue demonstrates sexual freedom, which she is unaware that ‘hooking up with boys’ is not allowed in this town.
From this act of showing emotion, and changing the so-called ‘normal’ or ‘unharmed’ way of life is Pleasantville, Mary sue begins the cycle of change and/ or sin; which will continue as a constant theme in the film. Throughout the beginning of the film David tires to contain Pleasantville’s innocence by encouraging his sister Jennifer, and everyone around him to be naive to reality, and to avoid thinking outside the box; David does not want the only pleasant place left in his own life to be spoiled by reality. David’s approach begins to change at a crucial moment in the film.
When David (Bud) takes Jennifer on a date, she offers him an apple; this poses as the driving force of evil (or otherwise freewill and knowledge). Bud acknowledges this moment and realizes it is time to accept the change in Pleasantville, and maybe being naive to reality isn’t such a pleasant thing after all. Could change really be that evil? As we can clearly see towards the middle of the film, the characters in Pleasantville are becoming oddly familiar, as if they are also from out childhood bible stories. At this point it becomes quite obvious that we have assigned biblical figures to certain characters in the film.
First of all, Mary sue is seemingly the most recognizable comparison. Mary Sue invites sin into Pleasantville as she visits blank at lovers blank. This compares to Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden and committing the first sin among humanity, therefore beginning the cycle of knowledge of good and evil and temptation mankind has faced ever since. It is obvious that David is Adam and he eventually stops trying to hold Mary sue back and gives into temptation, just as Adam and eve did in the bible. The next character could potentially be difficult to make a connection with.
Bill Johnson who owns the diner is a huge force of change in the film. He is has the biggest influence on Pleasantville next to Jennifer and David. Bill paints the Christmas mural every year in Pleasantville, and has the opportunity to tap into his thoughts and beliefs. This could be what triggers him to be such an influence on the community during the time of drastic change. Bill is the first man open to change, he learns how to handle the diner by himself, and he embraces it. This triggers his trapped freewill to be released.
When bill becomes more comfortable with his newfound sense of freedom, he begins to pain in color releasing new emotions and in turn, Bill lets himself fall in love. Bills character could represent the progress humanity makes to set themselves free from their belief system and thinking outside the box; Bill encourages this. It is ironic how such a quiet man’s thoughts could cause such a huge impact, as well as symbolize a step forward for mankind. The last character allusion that would most likely not be picked up on just by watching the film for enjoyment is the repairman.
The repairmen could doubtlessly play the role of a higher power in Pleasantville; an omniscient force who could be compared to god himself. The repairmen is the one who sent Jennifer and David to Pleasantville in the first place, just as god put Adam and eve on earth to live, and abide by his rules. David and Jennifer indubitably disobeyed the repairman’s orders, after the repairman trusted David to be in his paradise because of David’s excessive knowledge of Pleasantville and how things work around there.
The repairman continued to show up on televisions in Pleasantville telling David and Jennifer basically to smarten up, just as god warned Adam and eve to repent from in, as explained in the bible. Although characters helped the viewer relate to the theme of the film, there were also very prominent allusions to renowned historical events and controversial literature. Along with religion, controversial literature and events in history were involved to help release freewill and open minds in Pleasantville. This film shows somewhat the progress of humanity through history from the time Adam and eve first introduced sin into the world.
Many of the conflicts in the film came from this idea. To begin, towards the end of the film as freewill and color spread quickly through Pleasantville, there remained a group of stubborn people who could not comprehend the idea of change (as there always is in history). These people in Pleasantville began to burn coloured books filled with information that encouraged freewill and open-minded thinking. This scene in the film is identical to a situation that took place in history when religious people were desperately trying to contain purity and innocence by abstaining to read about things that were not in the interest of god.
This shows us that if everyone is history had have been as open to change as bud and bill Johnson had been. Certain conflicts wouldn’t have arisen. Another allusion to history is the famous courtroom scene that is shockingly similar to the trial that took place in ‘the kill a mocking bird’ by Harper Lee. This scene in Pleasantville demonstrates how the idea of freewill and diversity was being oppressed by stubborn people who were absolutely oppose to change.
In ‘to kill a mocking bird’ we see history moving forward with the help of Atticus finch defending a black man. This same theme applies here as David and Bill Johnson, as well as other coloured Pleasantville citizens encourage change for the better. One of the Last allusions in the film was very broad and has occurred in history repeatedly. This idea was that painting and artistic expression was being oppressed in Pleasantville just as it was in the western world for countless years for the same reason as the burning books and the courtroom trial.
It is human nature for people to become anxious and unsettled when it comes to change; citizens of Pleasantville became upset when artwork appeared around the city because seeing something so controversial was extremely nerve wracking. The small mentions of other controversial literature such as Moby dick, of mice and men and lord of the flies painted into the artwork also gave viewers the sense history repeating itself. Ultimately, the signifiers in this film were very clear however as an analyst of the structuralist perspective it was much more difficult to find the meaning of each allusion in the film.
Structuralism’s main analytical element is semiology. Pleasantville’s many hidden themes and meanings can be revealed through symbolism and historical, religious allusions. After all, the viewer could combine the semiology to form a theme interpreted as so…Jennifer and David played the role of Adam and eve in the Garden of Eden; they are placed on the flawless earth (Pleasantville) with the knowledge of good and evil and the gift of freewill. In the bible, Adam and eve take advantage of this and commit sin against god by doing wrong in Eden. Many Christians believe this is the reasoning for all evil on earth.
However in Pleasantville this could be considered a step forward for humanity, discovering things. The real question after watching this film, is religion holding us back? Is religion the phenomenon that could be causing humanity to continue repeating history and constantly making the same mistakes? The film Pleasantville really makes you question humanity and how it interferes and intertwines with religion and a higher power. Will history keep repeating itself until mankind finally gets it right? Or will we continue to learn from our repetitive sins and always end up in the same spot history seems to keep throwing us into, Pleasantville.