The small town is “a deeply rooted symbol in the country’s collective consciousness,” more than a place, it’s “a distinct life-style with its own set of values,” and, implicitly, its own set of drawbacks (Levy 15). The phrase itself has come to carry a double layer of meaning, at once sentimental and condescending. It has been a “permanent staple of the American cinema” since its inception (Levy 16). The image of the small town in film has changed drastically over the past century, influenced by social and historical events and phases of the country, from an idealized and romanticized version in the 1930s, to the idea of small town as prison, a repressive environment of conformity and dull homogeneity in the 1950s, and everything in between. However, from the very beginning, it has been the image of the ideal, rather than its realization, that has ensured the survival of the small town as myth, “at once historical (specific) and universal (atemporal),” providing both “a version of concrete history and a vision of existence” (MacKinnon 3, Levy 20). Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998), Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008) all depict the less-than-sunny side of small towns and suburbia, in a very personal way, and at the same time their characters stand in as representatives for society as a whole, individuals who gave in to the idea of the middle-class American Dream of success in the small town, and found themselves trapped by the environment’s blandness, boredom, and the constant obsession of keeping up with the Joneses
All of these movies take place in the fifties, and it has been that era, more than any other, that seems to epitomize and perpetuate the image of the suburban/small town ideal, chock-full of family values carried “to the heights of saccharine platitudinousness” in shows like Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave it to Beaver, “shows with lots of teeth—teeth that were all evenly spaced, capped, and pearly white. But not teeth that actually bit into anything, [in] a world nicely contained in a box in which there were no problems that couldn’t be solved in twenty-two minutes,” (Simon 67, Wynne-Jones 31). These “kinder, gentler” times we reconstruct from TV reruns and movies of the 1950s bear little resemblance to reality, and in films like Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross, we begin to see the true colors of this antiseptic view of the past (Sharett 65). Like any fairytale, the movie begins with “Once upon a time,” and transports the viewer into this “mythic utopia” we have made of the fifties (Maio 89).The protagonist, David (Tobey Maguire), comes from a nineties’ broken home, and finds consolation in immersing himself into the 1950s’ version of “this America that that nobody really had” (Maio 89). He watches reruns of the black and white Pleasantville on TV Time, and how could he not feel comforted by this little town where nothing ever goes wrong, when at school and at home he is flooded with statistics of the dangers and disasters of the present and future, ranging from dour job opportunities to impending natural catastrophes? Pleasantville is, like any small town of fifties’ television, perfect. There is no such thing as homelessness, and nothing burns; the books in the school library are as blank as the students’ brains, and they are taught the geography of Elm Street and Main Street; every basketball finds its way into the hoop, and the team has never lost a game; everyone eats hamburgers and drinks Cherry Cokes; the everyday weather report usually goes something like “low of 72, high of 72, not a cloud in the sky.” Most importantly, “it’s always the same. Never changes. Never gets any better or worse.” This “seems, at first, a salve, a soothing ointment to our societal wounds” (Wynne-Jones 40).
David’s sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), only related to him “on her parents’ side,” comes “from the cool side of the uterus.” When, through an implausible (to put it lightly) series of events, they find themselves transported into the show, she would do anything in her power to get back home. When she realizes she can’t, she decides the second best thing would be changing the whole town. He warns her about “messing with their whole goddamn universe,” asking her to “just go with the program.” Her response: “maybe it needs to be messed with. (…) Nobody is happy in a poodle skirt and sweater set.” Jennifer becomes a “one-woman sexual revolution,” drastically changing the practices of Lover’s Lane (Maio 90). Pretty soon, “some of the kids in Pleasantville are wearing their halos at a rather rakish angle,” and as the people begin to change, so does their world (Wynne-Jones 33). The monochromatic universe of Pleasantville explodes in random bursts of color that cinematographer John Lindley uses with the artistry and precision of a painter: a single red rose, bright pink bubblegum, a vividly green car. These images are beautiful and moving, simple yet startling symbols of change, emotion, and life. Sex, books, and rock’n’roll bring forth “the brightness of undiluted hues, as well as the darker shades of meaning” (Wynne-Jones 34).
Attacking the discrimination, prejudice, and unrelenting conformity and resistance to change of the small town, director Gary Ross shows Pleasantville’s most prominent members, the black and white majority, instantly separate themselves from the growing minority of “coloreds.” Just below the pleasant and comforting surface lie darker undertones of repression and intolerance. “If you love a place, you can’t just sit back and let this kind of thing happen,” allow the community to lose “the values that made this place great,” Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) preaches. “Something is happening to our town;” “certain things have become unpleasant,” and Pleasantville’s men aren’t having any of that, immediately coming up with a code of honor they hope will control this defiance of the norm. George Parker (William H. Macy), David’s TV dad, has been hit hardest of them all. His wife (Joan Allen), ending the charade of family happiness, has left him for another man. In the saddest, and perhaps also the funniest scene of the movies, he wanders through his dark, empty home, plaintively crying “Where is my dinner?” He is ridiculous, and somehow tragic, “a haunting symbol of an entire generation of white males who watched it all get away from them” (Maio 94)
In the end, feelings and emotion prevail; it’s human nature. Intense hues fill the screen, as every last person and object in Pleasantville takes on color. The outside world, where “roads just keep going,” where things are “louder and scarier, and a lot more dangerous” has intruded on the small town, and one single bus is going 12 miles away to Springfield. Not so far to go, but a start. Their world has expanded. The last line of the film is significant: “What’s gonna happen now?” Betty asks both her husband, George, and her lover, soda shop owner Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels). Neither one knows, and maybe it’s better that way.
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, heavily indebted to the works of Douglas Sirk, is a darker and more realistic version of this fifties shallow paradise. The film’s seemingly happily married couple, the Whitakers, is the image of domestic perfection, and the small town, turned to flame in early autumn, reflects this surface flawlessness. Frank and Cathy Whitaker wanted to be Ozzie and Harriet, and, for a time, they were. It’s all “smoke and mirrors,” as Mr. Magnatech (Dennis Quaid) himself informs everyone at a house party. In true Sirkian fashion, once the layers of lies and deceit begin to fall off, corroding the fabric of their carefully constructed world, there is no going back. Frank is gay, and takes his morning coffee with scotch. Cathy (Julianne Moore) is slowly falling in love with her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). “We girls all have our own little secret,” Cathy croons through clenched teeth, but these secrets extend far beyond the tricks and mysteries of the dressing room table. Everything in Hartford, CT has its own little secret; nothing is quite what it seems. Haynes proceeds “as if he were a diagnostician, examining society’s skin for clues to an underlying disease” (Klawans 36). And disease is festering under the avidly polished, glimmering façade of the 1950s’ town, in the form of intolerance, discrimination, and prejudice.
Cathy has constructed her world and herself out of the expectations of others; everything from her perfectly matching, stunningly coordinated outfits to her speech patterns, which seem studied and artificial, are the result of the image of the ideal corporate housewife, not its reality. “My life is like any other one for mothers,” she tells the local society editor. I would hope not. The small town becomes a prison the characters trap themselves in by choice, a lonely, gilded cage. Shots of Cathy behind windowpanes, or tightly fitted in a mirror abound, and every one of them is a poignant symbol of her imprisonment. In this universe of emotional restraint, Elmer Bernstein’s powerful romantic score and cinematographer Edward Lachman, costume designer Sandy Powell, and production designer Mark Friedberg’s extremes of color express what the characters can’t. Lights are gelled and contrasted to deep shadows of near-noir harshness and the colors on the screen, often complementary, clash in poetic dissonance. The gay bar Frank embarrassedly visits and the black restaurant Raymond takes Cathy to are both hued in the same intense, red-purple/green colors, but to different effects. The warm green and deep purple of the restaurant are contrasted to the bright magenta and acidic green of the bar, which is infinitely less inviting. Both of these are places where the rules are broken, where the norm is defied.
The sensuous possibilities of color are emphasized in Cathy’s outfits, and especially in the gorgeous scene of the four women in harmonized outfits that range from warm reds through oranges to gold, making them blend into their environment. Cathy’s scarf, a cold lavender, is “a striking visual discordance, a cacophonous note,” which marks her different from the rest. Ironically, it is also the one thing Raymond associates with her: “the color… It just seemed right” (Willis 149-150).
From this artificial reality of Far From Heaven, we move to the more authentic look at the drabness of life in the Connecticut suburbia of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, which is darker and more pessimistic still. The film opens with an embarrassing theatrical failure, and this is only fitting, since the protagonists’ whole life has been a failed act of perfection, “the arduous challenge of impressing people by being (or rather appearing) confident, wise, and witty” (Cooper 26). Roger Deakins’ camera is relentless in exposing the true nature of April (Kate Winslet) and Frank’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) marriage, and the false premise they built their lives around. All the suburban houses look the same: “cinderblocky, pickup-trucky for the little local people,” but Revolutionary Road is “much nicer,” their house a “sweet little house” in a “sweet little setting,” with “simple clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children, charming.” The most charming, prettiest little prison in the world. From the very beginning, the shots of blinds on the windows in the foreground are meant to represent prison cell bars, a technique Mendes also used in his American Beauty.
Frank is just like any other young man of fifties’ suburbia: working “year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.” “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, and the heroine in All That Heaven Allows read out loud. Never before have these words made more sense than when we see Frank as an insignificant part of the sea of commuters in suits and hats bobbing in luxurious slow motion through Grand Central Station in Revolutionary Road. When asked what he does at his job, he is taken aback. He doesn’t design, build, repair, or sell the computers at Knox, nor does he understand how they work. He hires designers, works with salespeople, and answers to bosses, all of whom seem to pass the work along to someone else. “Instead of producing anything tangible, Frank’s job is to perform – his product is his performance” (Richardson 10).
The Wheelers’ existence is “based on this great premise that we’re special and superior to the whole thing,” April tells Frank, “but we’re not; we’re just like everyone else. We’ve bought into the same ridiculous delusion (…) and we’ve been punishing each other for it.” The delusion is not simply, as she says, “this idea that you have to resign from life and settle down the moment you have children,” but, sadly, it is the premise of their entire life. What they’ve bought into was the promise of the suburban American Dream, a promise which was never made, and one that made them its victims. They played by the rules, did everything they thought they were supposed to, and stood by and watched helplessly as this dream, never quite realized, ruined their lives.
The only person who seems to make any bit of sense is, in a very Cuckoo’s Nest way, the certifiably insane John (Michael Shannon), “on a four-hour pass from the state’s funny house.” He sees right through the nice veneer of suburban life, and is the only one brave enough to say what he’s thinking: “You want to play house, you got to have a job; You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like.” When Frank says he cannot stand the “hopeless emptiness” of his life, John’s answer is simple and insightful: “plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” In contrast to the drab existence Frank and April live, there is always Paris. “People are alive there, not like here. All I know is I wanna feel things, really feel them, you know? How is that for an ambition?” Frank asks on one of their first dates. The tragedy of it is, that even in trying to escape, they are setting themselves up for failure. Paris is another ideal, just like suburbia was, which is blown out of proportions so much it can’t but fall short of their expectations. Sadly, they never even get the chance to discover whether or not they could be happy in Europe, because Frank chooses to accept a promotion.
In the end, Frank is worse off than April. In her one final act, which is indeed tragic, she at least takes her life into her own hands. She manages, even in death, to break free, while Frank is forever confined to live a life of quiet desperation. In Richard Yates’ novel, published in 1961, Frank is devious, selfish, vain, and cruel. DiCaprio brings some humanity to his character. His Frank is a shallow but affable man who’s emotionally and intellectually outmatched by his wife, the true tragic character of the film. April never gives up; until the very end, she questions the prison of the town, asking indignantly “who made these rules anyway?” “No one forgets the truth, we just get better at lying,” she says, but one wonders if Frank hasn’t gotten so good at it he believes his lies.
“The collective unconsciousness is mirrored by popular cinema. How exactly the mirror reflects, how distorted the reflection might be can prove more difficult to determine” (MacKinnon 69). In the case of small-town films, the mirror has assumed a number of different, often antithetical, reflections. The small town and suburbia have been, by turns, heaven or hell, according to the period and the filmmaker’s preference. Gary Ross, Todd Haynes, and Sam Mendes haven’t been too kind to the image of the American small town. Pleasantville, Far From Heaven, and Revolutionary Road show the perfection of the surface, but delve beyond this façade into areas that are much darker. The small town becomes a realm of repression and conformity, a prison for its inhabitants.
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