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  • Writer's pictureShannon Heibler

Pleasantville (1998)

I was really worried about revisiting this one. I looooooved it in my 20s and honestly maybe have not watched it at all in my 30s. I knew there was going to be some cringey stuff I'd have to reckon with. But I'm thrilled to report it mostly holds up. Mostly.

Gonna call out the big shortcoming immediately: the use of the word "coloreds." And the total lack of non-white people. Not a great combo. I get what they were doing but just by using that word, they very nearly (and maybe for some viewers, completely) derail an otherwise lovely allegory about self-discovery and the human need for and fear of change by making it also about racism. Arghhhh. White people, we really need to do better. (I'm also someone who regularly reexamines my relationship with understanding the context or a piece of culture when/where/by whom it was made - I may want to throw the whole thing out later. Who knows? The point is, in all things, people change.) Ben also called attention to the insistence on naming Whitey thusly. (The two lines from this film that live rent free in my brain, even going years without watching it, are: "Those are Whitey's cookies, Bud!" and "We're safe. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley.")

I was always fairly vexed by there not being a concrete reason for people becoming colorful. It's not sex, though it is for some people and not for others. For David it's standing up for his mother (specifically punching a guy), for Jen it's reading Madame Bovary. For Margaret, it's... sleeping in a cuddle puddle after the rain? On this viewing, though, I got it. I can't articulate it but I think it's somewhere in the realm of self-discovery and doing the thing that scares you the most (which, in a lot of ways, is the heart of self-discovery). And that's lovely. Even better is the sense that this brave new world comes with flaws and uncertainty. And a lot of people cannot deal with those things. And they're missing out. What are sunny days without rain?

Visually, this is a stunning movie. The legwork and ingenuity it took to make this in 1998 still staggers me. I watched many making-of features about it in college and I wish that modern movies took as much care to build a consistent world as this did. Those Joan Allen makeup scenes! I know how they did it and it still floors me. Beautiful visual storytelling.

The performances here are also remarkable. Joan Allen, duh/hello. Jeff Daniels is one of my all time favorites and I wish he got more acknowledgement as a heavy hitter because he never misses. Such a lovely, metered, grounded performance! Marley Shelton makes it hard to look at anyone else on screen. Her use of her full body in all of her reactions and even in her stillness is captivating. Reese Witherspoon is a star and rightfully so. But Paul Walker. I am guilty of writing him off because of the types of movies he is typically associated with (hi, hello, Fast & Furious & Family), but his performance in Pleasantville, however small, is nuanced and brilliant. The way he plays his brain breaking across his face as he learns what sex is? We lost him too soon.

Lino print, ink on paper.


-It's wild but aside from it being a self-portrait (and my personal hell of looking at my own face for hours and trying to recreate it truthfully - the success of which will be discussed further down), this was the easiest lino I've done to date. And (accuracy of representation aside) the most successful? Am I learning?? Hooray! Easy transfer, easy carve, easy ink & print. Love that for me. Especially with this stupid ass week I've had.

-Re: face accuracy. It's not terribly accurate BUT it's in lino! And it's pretty damn good for that medium! It's also based on a picture from February 2020 which was actually a lifetime ago. I never aged as quickly as I did March '20 to March '21. And I like how I did the lines. As much as I love working in lino, I have zero confidence in it. The kind of line work I finally achieved here in my hair has always eluded me and this felt like a huge step forward.

-I like how the different colors (pulled from early color televisions) shift the expression ever so slightly. I also like how I got a little off key (lino term for things not lining up) because it kind of reminds me of 1950s advertising and graphic design.

-It turned out almost exactly how I imagined and that is a huge win.

-While I was printing, I did a different layout on a whim. I wish I would have done at least two of them so I could have tried one with a black overlay but ah well. I like this too.

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