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NewCityNet Color Bind

Welcome to "Pleasantville"

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  "Pleasantville" starts from the simplest of photographic contrasts: black and white versus color.

But writer-director Gary Ross' often-exhilarating first feature, playful and earnest, simple and yet dauntingly, effortlessly complex, returns the high to "high concept." Dorothy's journey in "The Wizard of Oz" is an obvious touchstone, and there are a few euphoric scenes that are as magical as some in that familiar film. Twin siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are a pair of typical 1990s teens who are propelled into the sterile, repetitious black-and-white world of a 1958 sitcom, also called "Pleasantville."

It's a world without color, without sex, without free will. There are virtues--at breakfast, they are met by avalanches of waffles, dual Matterhorns of pancakes, and firemen, doing their only job, striking heroic Iwo Jima poses while rescuing kittens from trees.

But this cannot last. Among other things, Jennifer's sexuality shakes the earth, Eve-like; it's made manifest in ways such as "mom" Joan Allen's discovery of a self-made orgasm causing a burning bush to erupt the front lawn. Color, in the form of hundreds and hundreds of digitally composited shots, inflames flowers, cheeks, lives.

Someone trying to shorthand "Pleasantville" could jokingly call it "'Die Hard' in Mayberry," but just the elegantly simple contrast of photographic grays versus color creates all kinds of resonance, down to dreams versus waking.

"High concept is so abused," says the writer of "Dave" and "Big" with a laugh. "Pirandello meets Lewis Carroll, OK? It's silly. But the black-and-white/color thing transcends that emotionally. I think one of the reasons it does is that color is like music, it short-circuits part of your brain. It affects you in a primitive way, the contrast is evocative just going in. It's messing with one of the two most important senses we have for perceiving the world."

Jeff Daniels plays the soda-fountain counterman, whose routine is blasted apart by David's appearance. "That's my favorite character arc in the movie," Ross says. "He's always done things by routine. He's always put out the napkins, then the silverware, then the glasses. One day, [David's] there, he does things out of order the first time. When Jeff does them out of order, it frees him up. He's fascinated by that, then he does another thing out of order and he's fascinated by that. Breaking free from that routine creates all sort of introspection and analysis and curiosity. He has kind of an existential crisis, even! That's why he's sitting under the register, moping, seeing no point in flipping the burgers anymore."

Daniels' character rediscovers his drive when David encourages him to go beyond the sign painting that makes him happy. "A guy puts out the burgers before the fries once and has an existential crisis and becomes an artist," Ross marvels. "One of the points of 'Pleasantville' is that ultimately people achieve a kind of serenity in embracing confusion. Life's a great big mess and that's the point."

Ross knew the project would be complex. "It's incremental problem-solving along the way. There were five or ten moments along the way where I truly went, 'Gulp, this is terrifying, I don't know if it's possible.' But you get over them. You get a night's sleep, you problem-solve the next morning and get through it."

Unlike with many contemporary effects-laden movies, Ross was adamant about the form of "Pleasantville" not being dictated by a set release date. "It's all about having your act together. We were prepared. [Certain effects films are] driven by product placement and promotional plans and all sorts of shit that is a very different kind of aspiration than my movie. I knew what my release date was and we worked backward from that. Too many people get into special-effects movies without a plan. You don't just dive in and start making a bunch of shots, which is the way these things are done half the time. Look, we had a bid from one of the major effects houses, it was like a $10 million bid. We did all our effects for just over three. It's all about prepping."

After the great successes of "Big" and "Dave," Ross could have made a kind of character-driven movie that didn't require the years "Pleasantville" took to produce, but he sees the result as about the lives of his characters and not just an effects extravagance.

Was there a reason he didn't make a smaller film first? "The size of this is part of what attracted me to it," he says. "It's like, 'Gee I'd love to climb that mountain.' When I say size, I don't just mean, 'Ooh, look what I did,' all the effort. I also mean the scope of the canvas, the size of the expression of the ideas. I knew I was going on a wild three-year odyssey and I'm sort of nuts that way. It doesn't interest me to make a movie in a room with two people at a table."

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