Pondering the Purpose of Pleasantville’s Aesthetic Modes

Watching Pleasantville, I was again reminded of how loosely art aligns itself with the tenets of classical theory. This film reminded me that I’m a real sucker for Tobey Maguire, and the quiet moment before the credits rolled taught me even more. Between the two of us, those fleeting few seconds before the credits had me feeling pretty smug—and why not? Pleasantville had been lined with reference and allusion, parody and pastiche, and as it often goes, I was certain that I had picked out each and every one. Yet for the auspicious purposes of class discussion, I decided it would be best to choose a few of my favourite moments—you know, in case somebody asked.

I waited for inspiration to strike. If I had been called on immediately after the film ended, I’d have asked for another minute to come up with aesthetic mode. I was a little overwhelmed. How was I expected to choose just one aesthetic mode, anyway? I gave myself a minute to think.

When one views Pleasantville in aggregate, it becomes easy to see merely a clever moment over the depth that Hutcheon intended with her elements of the postmodern. As I took my time reviewing the scenes I could recall,

As for Pleasantville? Well, I was starting to have serious doubts whether it was still that deep, soul-searching journey I had fallen in love with. Focusing on the homage paid to the civil rights movement and horrors of the nazi regime suddenly felt hollow and self-absorbed. It was as if these key moments in history were invoked merely for the shock-value they entertained. Engrossed as I was in intertextuality, I had bought into them for all they were worth.

Yet I was also not one to give up so easily. I backtracked—what of the colourization process that seemingly tied the entire plot together? That had to be a promising goose to chase. At the time, I was certain that there was some overarching strand that came together as the plot naturally drew itself to a tidy conclusion. And yet, as I sat and conversed in a classroom of bright, talented, young minds, the best we could strap together was a vague recognition of character development. What does that have to do with modernization, or the embodiment of an era, or any of it?

Certainly there were high points—moments I’d glimpse Hutcheon using dramatic irony beyond the theory of the classroom. I’m talking about books and sex and routines and artwork, certain truths about life that were lost on the citizens of Pleasantville. It was an irony that spoke of simpler times and the loss of innocence. But those moments failed to reveal to me a grander purpose.

I could have told you that racism and sexism were outdated long before I ever started watching; after one hundredth references to it, it all became noise.

Jameson would say the director had lost the battle between history and postmodernism. My dad would say the director just liked to hear himself talk. As for myself, I like to think that Hutcheon has far more sense than either would give him credit.

Perhaps there is a lesson to take from his false pretense of grandeur: the aesthetic modes have value, though that is not to say that all aesthetic modes have value. We must not allows ourselves to be dazzled by the barest of references, as it takes some substance and a great deal more scrutiny to truly connect the past with our present. That, I would suggest, is what the moments to follow Pleasantville really taught me.

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