Magazine article The Spectator

Pleasantville Did Exist

Magazine article The Spectator

Pleasantville Did Exist

Article excerpt

I ONCE lived in Pleasantville - the 1950s dreamworld of sunny peace and stable families that really existed in this country as well as North America. Years later, I found myself in the nearest modern equivalent to it, the sweet north-western suburbs of Washington DC where the street echoed each evening to the sound of playing children, and - if you didn't look closely - the Eisenhower era had never ended. The truth was not quite so charming. During the day, there was hardly an adult to be seen, except for nannies and minders imported at cheap rates from Latin America. Divorce, serial marriage and step-parents were probably more normal than unbroken wedding vows. And, as the children grew, they began to live in a sullen separate republic of their own, brought up by their peers and the television, barely speaking to their parents and skulking in separate quarters under the same roof. It wasn't exactly Unpleasantville, though that could be found in the poor districts 20 safe miles away, but its security was an illusion and its happiness menaced by ad hoc morals.

So I was enthralled when I heard that Hollywood was making a movie, Pleasantville, in which two 1999 children return by magic to America's Garden of Eden, with neat white houses, shady streets and teenagers still polite to their united parents. The plot was appealing, and the use of special effects witty and even beautiful. The interlopers from the future bring the diseases of their time into the innocent suburbs of the past. As their influence spreads, the clear and simple black-andwhite of the 1950s is gradually invaded by disturbing, sinister, yet alluring colour. However, what could have been a great film is a missed opportunity.

To begin with, the parable is straightforward. Promiscuity erupts amid the innocence. It might have been, and almost is, a daring criticism of the sexual, moral and cultural revolution which has turned much of the USA into Unpleasantville, but this is a conservative idea stolen by liberals who cannot cope with the thought that the past may really have been better than the present. What ought to happen is the destruction of discipline and proper education at the high school, the arrival of drugs, an epidemic of foul language and an increase in noise, illegitimacy and crime. But instead there is a McCarthyite counter-revolution, which somehow manages to link sexual liberation with free thought, literature and great art. Social conservatives are shown as lowbrow, narrow, pleasureless, bigoted ignoramuses, who see their wives as nothing more than simpering housework machines.

In a laboured attempt to suggest that the 1950s were an era of censored ignorance, the books in Pleasantville's library are blank and nobody knows any geography beyond Main Street - a satire which misses with both barrels, since it is modern America where nobody reads, and where college graduates cannot find Africa on a map.

The parent generation in 1950s USA actually had far broader minds - in all senses apart from the sexual one - than their equivalents today. Hundreds of thousands of them had recently returned from a global war, many from Europe. Having grown up before the mass availability of colour television, they had also been brought up on books and so possessed individual imaginations in which they could learn to make moral choices. …

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