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Previously in American Graffiti:

"Symptoms of the Culture Wars" (September, 1998), by Scott Stossel
The much-publicized intellectual conflicts of the past decade may have lost their intensity, but they haven't lost their importance. A book like Marjorie Garber's latest reminds us why.

"The View from the Cheap Seats" (March, 1998), by Charles Hutchinson
Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation.

"Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age" (August, 1997), by Sven Birkerts
Birkerts looks at Hunter S. Thompson's The Proud Highway and wonders whatever happened to sex, drugs, and the New Journalism. Plus, a multimedia interview with Hunter S. Thompson, scourge of Presidents, the press, and the politically correct.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

Escape from Pleasantville!
Can we ever get back to the real?

by Sven Birkerts

November 4, 1998

Sometimes I wonder: do the writers and concept people in Hollywood routinely take tea together, or are they all honing in separately on our most latent anxieties? I picture them fanning out with their figurative dowsing equipment, seeking out ground instabilities in the postmodern psyche. In movie after movie they find us out. We buy our tickets, sit in the dark studying the traces of our own emerging profiles. Right now it's a very specific fear they've begun to identify -- a fear about the vanishing of the line between the real and everything else. We feel that the ancient contours of things may be disappearing.

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Gary Ross's Pleasantville

As addicted as we are to our electronic tools and our sophisticated media systems, we nevertheless have a deep subliminal unease about the blurring of the distinctions between medium and message, between technologies and what they were created to serve. Think about it. More and more, reality comes to us not directly via the senses, but via the screen (on monitors at work, on our TVs at home) -- to the point that the interface elements themselves become a significant portion of the reality. Our media, too, are ever more persuasive in delivering the illusion, wrapping around us their high-resolution scenarios and overpowering our senses with digitally generated sound and image; the real world starts to look blanched in comparison. Virtual environments -- theme parks and mega-malls -- keep encroaching. Cause for much excitement and a sense of novelty, this strange amalgamation of realities unnerves many of us.

I had these thoughts after watching Gary Ross's new movie, Pleasantville; they were lurking just behind my more immediate responses. At first I probably reacted very much the way Ross wanted me to. I was amused, then nudged awake. What a benignly simple premise for him to have lobbed into our overcomplicated postmodern midst! Through the intervention of a rumpled magus of a TV repairman (Don Knotts), a teenaged brother and sister are teleported from their angsty present-day suburban life into the wildly campy world of the fictitious 1958 sitcom Pleasantville. Here is the American small town as Eden, unmarred by strife, unagitated by sex (they don't know what it is!), its smooth white surface unpocked by any racial minorities. The books in the town library are blank, and there is no getting out to any elsewhere -- all roads out of town circle right back in. The citizens of Pleasantville live in black and white (literally), and it is Ross's conceit that the inevitable infection -- that is, liberation -- brought in from the future be revealed, bit by bit, through the selective introduction of color. A moment of true feeling can startle a rose into redness.

Of course, all threats to established mores and rituals arouse opposition. Suggestions of sexual awakening or independent thinking upset the age-old way of things. A vigilante group smashes the soda shop when its owner (Jeff Daniels) declares artistic aspirations by painting a nude portrait. But progress is progress, and by movie's end the full color spectrum has prevailed. We are once again grateful, should we have forgotten, for the richness and complexity of the world. The roads out of town really do connect to other places.

Ross's notion works. Pleasantville is a shrewdly staged and variously applicable investigation of the idea of American innocence. Ultimately it questions the myth of the morally unambiguous 1950s, in much the same way that the 1960s counterculture questioned it. But as an eroded presidency and the tabloidization of public life have, in some quarters, made monochrome values appear seductive again, it seems necessary that we brush up on the lessons of history. Pleasantville reminds us -- vividly -- that the repression of the sensuous and unconventional is not what we want.

So much for the frontal view. An inspection from the side will, I believe, disclose another, no less relevant set of preoccupations, but these require a bit of context.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Web Citation: Free Truman Burbank!
For some, television's pernicious influence is no joking matter.

Viewers are sure to remark on the various ways in which Pleasantville resonates with last summer's The Truman Show. Indeed, the movie is like a mate, like the second panel in an imagined diptych. Were the interval between releases any greater we would conclude that Ross was offering a reply to the predecessor. In Truman, the protagonist, the eponymous Truman (Jim Carrey), is, unbeknownst to himself, trapped in a TV world -- as he has been from birth, by design. Everyone he encounters is playing the part of themselves; outside the mammoth studio bubble -- a simulated island -- the rest of the world watches.

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Peter Weir's The Truman Show

In Pleasantville two real-world teens, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), are trapped in the sitcom; in a perfect reversal of Truman, they alone are conscious of not belonging. As Truman's world is entirely sealed off -- he only breaks through at the very end -- so the citizens of Pleasantville are closed off in a "perfect" order, so long as the apple of knowledge has not been consumed. When Jennifer, now become Mary Sue, asks her high school teacher, "What's outside of Pleasantville?" she confronts the incredulous stares of the whole class. Her teacher professes not to understand the question.

The Truman Show and Pleasantville are not the only movies in the past two years to have played with some of these themes. The recent hit Wag the Dog was, as everyone now knows, centered on the premise that the illusory prosecution of a war could be sold to the public by the media -- the same folks who brought us Operation Desert Storm. And in the glitzy paranoid thriller The Game, a power-broker, played by Michael Douglas, finds himself so enmeshed in a sophisticated simulation (a birthday present from his ne'er-do-well brother) that he -- and the viewer -- is stunned to realize at the very end that every hair's-breadth escape, every unlikely encounter, has been scripted by the agents of a top-secret organization. Everything in his life in recent weeks has been staged without his knowing it.

In all four instances, the plot turns significantly on the bleeding together of a media or simulation world with the so-called "real." Sometimes viewers know which is which (Wag the Dog and Pleasantville); in another case (The Truman Show), they find out sometime before the protagonist does. In The Game we think we know, but our assumption has been calculated so that we will be duped all the more.

All of the movies, too, feature some mysterious agency or entity which is seen to control the illusions. In Pleasantville this remains a sort of winking supposition, with the mysterious but ultimately non-threatening Don Knotts character brokering between the realms of television and ordinary life.

What gives? I don't think it's mere chance that we keep running up against these same motifs in our entertainment. As computer and media influences increase, and as the controlling corporations keep merging into monoliths wielding extraordinary power and penetration, people also begin conjuring up the specter of the all-knowing, all-superintending Big Brother, the "It," the nerve center all impulses and emanations originate from. Irrational? Yes, but never mind. The reflex is subliminally powerful: we grant to things electrical a higher order of power, for they are everywhere around us but are controlled from elsewhere -- from a There, by a They.

Finally -- although doubtless there are other features to be traced -- there is the matter of surveillance, the sense we have, more and more, of living in the gaze of something. The steel wall encasing our old privacy is mostly gone. Signals flash, our digits are loose, things are now known. Scanner cards encode our diminished biographies. Currents from the public sphere flow through our lives through every open porthole. The Truman Show enacted the extreme paranoid fantasy of one's whole life being seen and even watched, and the proliferation of real-time cinema vérité Web sites suggests that not everyone finds the idea of incessantly being seen undesirable.

Related link:

The JenniShow
A bi-weekly RealVideo webcast starring a tall redhead named Jenni.

Pleasantville does, it's true, look to other sources -- narrow-mindedness, repression, conformity -- for its villains, but the structural premise of the movie, that these two teens are inhabiting a TV show, gives us, start to finish, the prickly feeling of watching a life that's lived as if to be watched; we never quite forget the gazes of the implicit millions who are watching the show as show.

Perhaps these movies, then, can be seen not only as encoding some of our buried fears and anxieties but also as telling us something about our longings. Consider: in The Truman Show, Truman finally hurls himself at the illusory backdrop of the sky that marks the limit of his world -- he breaks through. In The Game, the complex mechanism of the deceit is finally exposed and the players unmask themselves, becoming the people behind the roles. And in Pleasantville, David, the original starry-eyed viewer-cultist, is freed from the spell of the show; he returns to embrace the problematic reality he left behind.

The message, as I translate it, is I want out! It's as if at the far side -- after the full immersion in virtual waters -- it might be possible to return with renewed love and trust to the merely real. But this is a pipe dream, of course, for the steady diluting and displacing and supplanting of the merely real continues on all sides. There is no wall to crash back through, no picture tube to emerge from, no uncontaminated order of things awaiting us. There is no back there. The desire for a return may be real, but even to point ourselves in that direction we would have to start unmaking the billion-pounded beast circuit by circuit. The lesson of Pleasantville -- as if we didn't know -- is that there is no going back. There's a countering message, too, about the need to snap out of the media trance -- but taking that message in while watching may be just a little bit too postmodern.

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More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound

Sven Birkerts will publish
Readings, his fifth book of essays, in January. He contributes frequently to Atlantic Unbound.

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