‘Pleasantville’ is a 1998 film directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire as David (Bud) and Reese Witherspoon as Jennifer (Mary-Sue), two teenagers from the 90’s that get transported into David’s favourite TV show ‘Pleasantville’, a 50’s sitcom. The film questions the social constructs of the era as the two visitors alter the course of the narration by not conforming to the norms of society. Mise-en-scene originally was a term for theatre, but overlaps into film with aspects like “setting, lighting, costume and makeup, and staging and performance” (Bordwell, 2017) however scholars such as Dix suggest that “if the spectator goes on to acknowledge other information offered to the eye” (Dix, 2016) such as camera shots and angles it will relate more to film as a specific medium. Using Dix’s and Bordwell’s ideologies I will discuss how mise-en-scene operates as part of the narration in this film.
In the opening scene of Pleasantville, lots of aspects of mise-en-scene are used. Colour and lighting are some of them, even though the fictional tv channel “TV Time” only broadcasts shows in black and white, the promotion for the Pleasantville marathon is crowded with an array of colours in order to catch the attention of both the on-screen audience such as David and the off-screen audience watching the film. The shift from colour to black and white helps drive the narrative as we are instantly placed the world of Pleasantville, conforming to their traditional values and 1950’s lifestyle of a classic white suburb in the era. The setting of the town sets the narrative course for the film, no crime, poverty or injustice is present, foreshadowing that this system might slowly begin to crack and decay towards the climax of the story when characters from a more culturally diverse and female empowered generation are transported into the alternate universe. The town is within its own bubble, no one leaves or enters, nothing changes because it follows the structure of an episodic format, so the character’s lives and decisions are already depicted for them. The world is perfect but equally as fragile, because it is so traditional in regards to 1950’s lifestyle any aspects of change threaten to destroy it all.
The huge house in the opening scene sets our narrative expectations that the story will revolve around a wealthy 1950’s nuclear family and the performance confirms that. A staple phrase in the media to represent a family in the 50’s was “honey, I’m home”, pointed out by the old Hollywood narrator in the opening scene. This was a signal to wives that their husband had returned from work and they were expecting a warm welcome upon arrival, George Parker (William H. Macy) exclaims this to his wife Betty (Joan Allen) who greets him with a margarita and cooked dinner. It presents to the audience how she is currently viewed in society as simply a housewife and this makes her transformation into ‘colour’ one of the more drastic as it’s symbolic to her freedom and independence as a woman in society at the time. A contrast in costumes is prominent in the opening scene, the citizens of Pleasantville condone to the fashion of the era, men wear suits, suspenders and hats which allowed them to be respected by others and highlighted their social status. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be feminine to attract male attention, however, it was also very respectable, Betty is seen in a floor length dress and apron, with light makeup and curled hair, making an effort for her husband even though she had simply been taking care of the house. This projecting the expectations of women in the story, helping to drive narration forward as once the town begins to change she is no longer waiting at the door for him. Cohen’s third theses Monster Culture (Seven Theses) explores social construct in society, within Pleasantville men have a clear dominance of power over women, however when Betty is absent from home when George arrives she “threatens to smash distinctions” (Cohen, 2011) as the narrative shows the changes and breakdown of their traditional roles.
Towards the climax of the film Bob (J.T. Walsh) and George are discussing the “changes” that are occurring around the town, the lighting is classic old Hollywood, soft three point lighting. This creates a calm atmosphere as Bob tries to hide his concern at the issues his town is facing by making light-hearted jokes, but due to the low level of the lighting it “may induce feelings of anxiety, even terror” (Dix, 21) portraying that in actual fact he is worried at what the future holds for his community. The lighting shifts when David is consoling his crying mother who is ashamed of turning coloured, it is harsh to highlight both the distressed look of Betty and the shocked expression of David in seeing how quickly his fantasy world is affecting those closest to him. Moreover top lighting on Betty is implemented which demonstrates her beauty in colour and how she shouldn’t have to hide behind makeup in an attempt to fit in to society. Make up is an important factor in this scene, it is used as both a prop and as a form of narration so Betty can continue living her ‘normal’ life without judgement. The makeup is a disguise so she can continue to blend into society, her son David applies the makeup for her, revealing his caring nature even though he is still black and white and conforming with the ‘pleasant’ nature of this reality. On the other hand it could show an underlying meaning that he feels she needs makeup to be acceptable, it can represent the divide between masculinity and femininity that troubled the era. Gaines described this sort of costume as an “‘eye-catcher’ that dangerously distracts the spectator from the key task of the following narrative line” (Gaines, 1991) but instead of the spectator being distracted it’s the characters in the film due to the drastic alterations disrupting their social norms. George’s repetition of “Betty” further highlights this as she is more concerned about society’s view on her differing looks than the needs or wants of her husband.
Betty’s mirror is introduced in this scene and continues as a motif for social change throughout the film. In this instance it is used as a safety barrier for Betty, as she wants to remain colourless and is nervous to see her reflection as it could reveal her true nature. When she sees herself i black and white she is overcome with relief as she won’t be shunned by her society. Her mirror is a prop that “performs an informational role in narrative cinema” (Dix, 2016) because it focuses on the attitudes towards diversity both in the film and in the era of the 1950’s. Close up shots of the mirror indicate it’s an important feature and means great value to Betty, it allows her to see her true self as a free woman going against society’s set constructs. The mirror is then used again in a later scene to reveal to David he has also turned to colour, this time the reaction is more positive as he has accepted his diversity and is no longer holding onto his fantasy values of what Pleasantville should be.
In this scene a riot commences due to the black and white people hating how the colour in the town is changing the attitudes of the residents. Before the riot, David and Margaret (Marley Shelton) share an innocent kiss outside of David’s house, a black and white local drives up to them asking the still uncoloured David why he’s not at the town meeting discussing how to stop the town changing. When David refuses to attend the local calls his date the “coloured girlfriend” degrading both him and Margaret’s relationship based solely on her colour. This highlights the tension between interracial couples in the 1950’s as white people were seen as superior, in ‘Pleasantville’ the same idea is constructed through the narrative in order to segregate the colours from the colourless and portray how distant the town has come with all the abnormalities David and Jennifer have provoked by changing the course of the citizens narrative line. After the town meeting, the audience is taken to the diner where Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) is scraping his colourful abstract artwork off of his window due to the pressures of his town to be colourless and non expressive. Over the road stands Betty, whom we now know is utterly infatuated with Bill even though she is married. This was unusual in the period as “there were few divorces among couples married in the 50’s” (website) which further suggests drastic changes in the town as Betty is leaving the safety and security of her marriage for happiness with another man, a man who sees her true beauty in colour. A long shot of her from across the street carrying a bag indicates this move is permanent, the lighting replicas the earlier scene when she was afraid to be coloured, top-lit by a street light accentuates her beauty, but also her confidence and ability to make her own decisions, disregarding her predetermined narrative course.
A decision is passed in the town hall meeting to segregate the colours and the colourless, the impact of this is instantly displayed on a sign in a store window reading “no coloureds”. Next to that sign however is an old sign from before the world was altered that reads “service is our 1st consideration”, these two props show how the narrative has altered from the beginning of the film, when there was no injustice or separation between the people of Pleasantville. The riot is initiated when a naked portrait of Betty is painted on the diner window by her new lover Bill, it causes an uproar to the colourless as it both embraces sexuality and violates the new rules set in place at the town meeting. The vibrant colours used in the mural create an interplay between setting and actors, the painting takes the focus off the black and white rioters and places it onto the window, indicating to the audience what is important in the scene. This is also the case when the vandals are destroying the diner as it is laced with colour and they are trying to destroy every aspect of the town that doesn’t conform with their idea of a ‘pleasant’ lifestyle. The setting of the diner is very stylised in order to match to the era, even when not in colour the attention to detail on posters and furnishings allow the audience to be transported into the world with David and Jennifer. But the lack of colour indicates a lack of realism, which is why it is much more painful to watch the antagonists destroy the restaurant in colour because it feels more authentic and believable.
To conclude most aspects of mise-en-scene help drive the narration of ‘Pleasantville’. The use of lighting, makeup and costume create an old Hollywood atmosphere and the performance of the actors helps carry the story. The narration shows how colour segregated affected the 1950’s, but also how diverse and liberating the world was becoming in that period as people became more accepting and open to new aspects of life.
Bordwell, D,. Thompson, K., Smith, J. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction. (11th Edition). New York. McGraw-Hill Education.
Cherlin, A. (1981, 18 November) The 50’s Family and Today’s. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/18/opinion/the-50-s-family-and-today-s.html
Cohen, J. (2011). Monster Culture (Seven Theses). Christine Farris (Ed.), Readings for Analytical Writing (pp. 68–86). New York: Indiana University.
Dix, A. (2016). Beginning Film Studies. (2nd Edition). Manchester. Manchester University Press.
Gaines, J. (1991). Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman’s Story. Jane Gaines & Charlotte Herzog (Eds.), Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. (pp. 203-211). London: Routledge.