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Uncle Orson Reviews 1998

The Worst Film of 1998

This critical essay was originally written when Pleasantville was still in the theaters. But it still says all I have to say about the pernicious influence of closed-minded, self-righteous, Puritan Left filmmaking on American culture.

Pleasantville, Amistad,
and Smug Hypocrisy

The family situation comedies on television in the 1950s were not realistic. The problems the characters dealt with were often trivial, while many real-world problems were utterly ignored.

Instead, they often showed fathers and mothers who were happily married and wise enough to help their children through the crises of their lives. They showed a world where people were largely safe. Children could play outside in the neighborhood and parents didn't think twice about it. There were no drugs or guns in the schools. Authority figures were sincerely trying to do their jobs well.

These shows generally belonged to the genre of Bumbling Comedy -- everyone means well, or at least doesn't mean much harm, but through mistakes or small mischief, they cause repercussions they didn't expect, and have to face those consequences and make repairs or amends by the end of the half hour.

They did what they tried to do rather well. But they were ... well, silly.

In the movie Pleasantville, we see a couple of dysfunctional '90s teenagers torn by problems endemic to our time. Their divorced parents are having that most devastating of arguments: You take the kids! No, you take the kids! The mother is going off to have a weekend of sex with a younger boyfriend. The daughter, who has responded to the shattering of her family with meaningless, promiscuous sexual encounters with men, thinks that with her mom out of the house she can finally have sex with the really cool guy she's set her sights on. The son, equally damaged, lives for the reruns of the '50's sitcom Pleasantville, and this weekend is a marathon.

When their remote control is broken, a TV repairman shows up uncalled and gives them a magical remote control that plunges the kids into that sitcom, with all its artificiality and empty comedy. Not surprisingly, they find that reality is better than theatricality that only allows a twisted, vacuous vision that ignores most of reality. The books in the library are blank; the world is grey; everyone does the same things over and over again, with neither the need nor the possibility of change.

The stage is set for a satire on the artificiality of television. But why did they go to the fifties for a show to satirize? Television comedy is still about finding characters and situations that the audience will enjoy, getting them comfortable enough to sit and watch the commercials, and then never changing a formula that works. Imagine getting caught inside Seinfeld or Frasier, for instance. I have enjoyed both shows -- but reality is just as selected and the formula is just as repetitive, and it's still all about holding the audience for commercials. From Donna Reed to Fonzie to the smirky Three's Company to Roseanne to Friends, see one episode and you know what to expect from the next one. That's how television comedy works. That's why we tune in.

The reason why they had to go to the fifties soon becomes clear, however. For this is not a satire on television. It is a satire on the values of the fifties. The point of the movies Pleasantville is not just that people caught in a television show need to discover reality, it's that people who think the fifties represented a better time in American culture than today are completely wrong. For even though today has problems, those problems come from freedom and change, and change is inevitable and freedom is irreversible, and anyone who tries to return to those old values or cling to the few that survive is a bigot and a fascist-to-be.

The 90's teenage slut -- clearly a tragically dysfunctional girl desperate for love and clueless about how to find it -- is treated as the great liberator of these people, for as she teaches them to have profligate sex up at Lover's Lane, they start seeing colors, and then turn into full-colored human beings themselves. Their lives are disrupted by the changes, as double beds are brought into town for the first time and colorful modern art (plus a token Rembrandt) is discovered and books are finally available to be read. Some people embrace the changes; others try to stop them. And we know who the good guys are -- the "coloreds," who are banned from some stores and relegated to the balcony in the courthouse while the grey people burn books and hold Inquisition-style trials to punish those who dare to put their banned art on a public wall.

The message is clear: Bad as the 90's seem to be, they are a great improvement over the 50's, where sex was hidden away and racism prevailed and books were banned and McCarthyism ruled. So don't vote Republican or pay attention to religious people, because they are just hypocrites who want to control you and spoil all your fun. As for Ken Starr, he's downright evil to go on a witch hunt about sex. Pick your stock liberal shibboleth, and it's there in Pleasantville, artistically presented and powerfully performed.

Too bad it's a pack of lies.

Here's a clue, because they need one: It was only 50's television that was black and white. Real life in the 50's was in living color.

People in the 50's had sex. They had it a lot. That's why they call it the Baby Boom.

Adults in the 50's knew all about change. Adults in that decade had lived through the Depression, had watched a generation of young men march off to war, many of them never to return. They had won a war against one vile totalitarian system, only to see half the world fall under the control of another while they were helpless to prevent it because traitors gave our atomic secrets to the dictators.

But they also knew change could be good. The GI Bill had opened the doors of the colleges to hundreds of thousands of men who would never have dreamed of higher education till then. They watched, mostly with pride, as American aid helped Europe and Japan rise from the ashes. Americans in the 50's knew that we were different from all previous conquerors -- we did not grind the faces of the vanquished, we raised them up and tried to make friends of them.

And more changes were coming. Though bigotry died hard, it was in the 50's that Jim Crow began to lose his grip on the South, and racism began to move out of the mainstream and into the closet. It was in the 50's, too, that women moved into the workforce in ever increasing numbers, those who wanted to or needed to, laying the groundwork for positive change in the treatment -- and payment -- of women.

Legal barriers of censorship fell. Divorce laws became less stringent and divorce became both more common and easier to get. Rock-and-roll and the Beat Generation made their presence known in the American consciousness. All in the 1950's. It would be hard to imagine a more colorful decade.

But all these changes were only possible because society was founded on stable institutions and shared values. Today people say, "You can't stop kids from having sex," but in the 50's, an era before the pill and before legal abortion, when even condoms were hard to get, out-of-wedlock pregnancies were rare. The only conclusion we can reach is that for all the talk about necking in the back seat of the car, there wasn't that much sex going on among kids. Society's customs and sanctions were doing a splendid job of helping kids keep a rein on their sexual desires until they were old enough to handle them more responsibly.

Very few children -- but more and more of them, as divorce increased -- grew up in one-parent homes. Children could expect to live with the same two parents until they left home to start their own lives. Drugs were around, but were rare, and were never used among ordinary decent people. Crime existed, but children were still being taught that policemen were their friends, and we trick-or-treated in our neighborhoods, with parents tagging along only with the very youngest. We knew our neighborhoods were safe; everybody was looking out for everybody else's kids.

All right folks, let's have a show of hands. How many of you would like to be able to raise your kids in a neighborhood like that? How many of you would like -- or would have liked -- your kids to grow up in a home with a good Mom and Dad who love each other and who might even be the same ones they were born to? How many of you would like to not even have to wonder whether a gun might go off or a drug deal go down at the neighborhood school?

So what, exactly, was the message of Pleasantville?

The filmmakers certainly tried to seem honest. They may even believe that they achieved honesty. After all, they showed a broken home in the contemporary sequences. They had the girl change from being a slut to actually reading books (though anybody who thinks you'll find provocative sex in Lady Chatterly's Lover is going to be sadly disappointed). And when the boy came home, his mother was also giving up on her weekend of sex with her young lover because it was, after all, empty.

So Pleasantville may not be deliberately dishonest. But the writers of the film probably haven't had a reasonable conversation with a person who doesn't share their liberal mindset in the past twenty years. In fact, they are so insulated from contrary opinions, and have so demonized anyone who has such opinions, that they are now incapable of hearing a new idea no matter how obvious it is or how overwhelming the evidence might be. They absolutely refuse to admit any possibility that the misery that so many people live in today might be the direct consequence of having repudiated the values of the 1950's, and that the only hope of alleviating that misery in the future is to recover those lost values.

But this is where the kneejerk bigoted response kicks in: Oh, you mean values like racism? Women forced to stay home and tend children and bake cookies?

No, in fact, I don't mean that. The elimination of race-based law that began in the fifties was overdue and a moral imperative. Too bad that we've returned to race-centered law again. And I recall very clearly how painful it was for my mother to have to leave her home and children and go to work when my dad's health and his sign company failed, and how she longed to return home because nothing she did at work compared in value, in her mind, to what she could be and had been doing at home with her kids and her church work. Women weren't forced to stay in the kitchen. They got to stay in the kitchen if they wanted to. But not now. It's regarded as a sin against feminism if a woman decides that a career is trivial compared to the importance of her family.

But see how I've allowed the bigots to kidnap my own diatribe? The fact remains that there are plenty of women who chose careers in the 60's and later who now regret that decision, discovering that their lives are now as empty and frustrating as the lives of their husbands already were -- for a life spent in service to a corporation doesn't have much lasting value in it, while a life spent raising children can be filled with immeasurable rewards -- grief, yes, and I've tasted some of that, but it's the grief that comes from being caught up in something larger than yourself that you value more than yourself; while the corporate life is always, in the end, very much smaller than the people who devote their lives to it, and they have to shrink themselves to fit.

And if you took a poll of African-American families in the crime-ridden, drug-infested pockets of direst poverty and asked them how they like being "integrated," I can't imagine that you'd hear anything but bitter laughter, or maybe tears, for they are more segregated than ever, and any success they do achieve is scorned because everyone "knows" that they couldn't have done it without affirmative action. There are no more lynchings -- but drive-bys are out-killing the KKK in its heyday. In the fifties, colored men were put down, but most Black children had a father. In the fifties, a Negro who achieved something was respected and admired inside his community and out -- patronizingly, yes, as a "credit to his race," but with full knowledge of how he or she had to struggle to achieve that position; today, the same Black is assumed, even more patronizingly, to have his position because some white person was displaced to make room for him. If you doubt me, just see what gets said about Clarence Thomas and tell me that the American Left has eliminated patronizing attitudes toward Blacks.

So all that joy when the Jim Crow laws were swept away, all that hopefulness for a brighter day -- where's that brighter day? Are more Black children or fewer getting a good education now?

Again, the bigots will tear into what I've just said and attack me for saying that "we should return to segregation." But that's the opposite of what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that we still have segregation and it is still rigidly enforced by the laws of our country and a whole new crop of Uncle Toms are collaborating in the continued oppression of a huge number of Blacks, blocking any sincere effort to get them into the mainstream of American life, because they profit more politically from keeping them isolated and keeping them down.

I cannot find any point at which the 90's are morally or ethically better than the 50's, despite the illusion of freedom. How much freedom is a child born out of wedlock given to decide how he'll grow up? How much freedom is there for the children whose parents divorce? Where is the freedom for people who want to protest what they see as the great evil of abortion? Freedom of speech has been taken away from them, and the move is afoot to extend hate-speech laws to punish and silence opposition to the homosexual activist agenda, too.

In fact, the 90's most resemble the 50's in one area in particular: McCarthyism. Demagogues manipulating public opinion to rouse a frenzy against people who threaten the grip of the governing elite on the informational, educational and political institutions of America. I see no difference whatsoever between the dishonest, deliberately deceptive smear campaigns against Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and most recently Ken Starr, and the smear campaigns of Tailgunner Joe and many other demagogues of the 50's. The behavior of the Democratic Party, behaving in a shockingly partisan manner over the impeachment matter, while Republicans, of all people, were the only voices of calm and reason -- well, if you want to see the worst political moments of the 50's replayed live and in color, just tune in C-SPAN and look for the word "Democrat" under the talking head. It makes me pretty damned ashamed to be a Democrat today, I'll tell you.

Which brings me back to Pleasantville. Because the blindness of the American cultural elite today is absolutely epitomized by the dishonesty, the utter falseness of Pleasantville. The worst thing about it, though, is that unlike Reefer Madness, whose twin for intellectual integrity it is, Pleasantville is a marvelously entertaining movie, well written and well performed.

But being better-made art does not change the fact that by its dishonesty, its gross misrepresentation of both the present and the past, and its smug insistence that all the misery that people go through today, which they did not have to go through (at least in such numbers) back then, is merely the price of freedom or can be solved by embracing the inevitability of change, Pleasantville has become exactly what it started out to satirize: A hypocritical sitcom reassuring everybody that no matter how bad things seem in the real world, it's really all for the best.

Pleasantville really is Ozzie and Harriet for the 90's. Everything today will be just fine, Mom, if you'll just sit down with your wise son and let him wipe away your tears.

But there's a key difference here. If, in the 1950's, you believed in Father Knows Best and tried your hardest to model your life after the parents on that show, you weren't guaranteed happiness, but you had a pretty good shot at it. While today, if you model your behavior on the values celebrated as "colorful" by Pleasantville, you'll find that casual sex, adultery, wives moving out of their homes when their husbands fail to understand them, and spouting platitudes about embracing change do not, in fact, bring you even the tiniest step closer to creating any kind of happiness for yourself or the people you love.

Pleasantville is, in fact, a celebration of the values that made Bill Clinton such a memorable president. He is believed by most Americans to be just as much a slut as the girl in the movie. And, because they believe the moral values taught them by people like these filmmakers, they keep telling the pollsters that it's OK that the President puts nooky ahead of the nation's business, and lies to everybody around him for his political advantage, and attacks those who accuse him just as McCarthy did back in the 50's.

The difference between Clinton and McCarthy in their attacks on their detractors is not in the level of truthfulness -- those are identical: all lies. No, the difference is that no one from the cultural elite has yet stood up to Clinton and named him and his vitriolic defenders for what he is: The same smug power-seeking hypocritical demagogues as those who used anti-Communism in the 50's.

Pleasantville is not a film about intolerance. It is a film that practices intolerance, painting a ludicrously false picture of the values that moral conservatives are trying to defend, and then defaming them for it, allowing no possibility that there is even the slightest value to any of their cries of protest about what is happening to the society that we all have to share whether we like it or not.

Which brings me to the monument to smug hypocrisy from last year: Amistad. Others, armed with better research than I, have enumerated the many lies told in that "historical" film. Let me only touch on the high points, for in many ways Amistad is the same movie as Pleasantville, however differently the philosophy is expressed and the deep dishonesty is acted out.

Amistad, the tale of a group of African slaves who took over their slave ship and were captured and put on trial in America, is based on a true incident. What really happened, then, was this: An idealistic lawyer, working in a cause he believed in, fought for their lives in court, while prayers, demonstrations and political pressure from white Christian abolitionists kept public attention focused on these Africans, keeping them from being quietly done away with. Ex-President John Quincy Adams, long a vocal opponent of slavery, reiterated his ringing opposition to slavery in a statement before the Supreme Court, and the court ordered the return of the Africans to their homeland.

But the movie could not tell that story. No, the white lawyer was changed from idealistic to venal. The abolitionists demonstrating in the street were mocked, their religious faith ridiculed in the film in a way designed to get a laugh from the modern audience. The leading white abolitionist, who in real life was so radically devoted to equality of the races that he believed that even the barriers to intermarriage should be struck down, was depicted as willing to let these black men die to become martyrs for the cause -- a complete calumny against a good man who cannot defend himself against such slander because he is dead. John Quincy Adams is now painted as reluctant to take up the Africans' cause, and is only able to find his (incoherent) argument before the court when helped by some chance remark of one of the Africans. Through it all, the only staunch defender of the Africans is the black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman, a character whose only flaw is that in the real history, he didn't exist.

The actual story, as it really happened, is a story of noble people who devote months and years of their lives, with no financial reward, while becoming outcasts in polite society, all in service of a moral cause their religious faith demands of them.

Why did this story have to be altered? Not to improve the dramatic effect. This movie failed precisely because the heroes weren't allowed to be heroic. The only possible payoff for this movie was to see good people doing good. But instead, the movie had to take all the good people who happened to be white and make them venal at best, hypocritical snakes at worst. Except for John Quincy Adams, but with him the movie had to take away his whole life's work in opposing slavery and instead give him an incoherent speech that couldn't have influenced a man with a cold to blow his nose. It made no sense to the audience. There was never a moment of closure in this movie. Dramatically it utterly failed. Unlike Pleasantville, where the intellectual dishonesty and demagoguery are served up in a marvelously entertaining package, in Amistad the story could not survive the assassination of its true heroes.

Again, why was this done to an inherently dramatic, heroic story? Because with Mississippi Burning it had been made painfully clear that people who aspire to political correctness could no longer make movies about the struggle for Black liberation in America that starred White people as the liberators. Never mind that Amistad was based on a story where White abolitionists absolutely were the heroes, and the Africans on trial were utterly helpless to save themselves once they were in custody. Political correctness trumps truth, in this film as in Pleasantville's slanders against the 50's.

And they filmmakers relished what they did in Amistad. They knew full well they were talking about today. That's why, when Christian abolitionists are shown standing in the street outside the jail, singing hymns as they demonstrated to try save the Africans, they were mocked, not only by the characters but by the filmmakers. For they first made them resemble anti-abortion protestors of today, and then made them look pathetic, while even the captives mocked their religious faith. That moment made the film so utterly false to itself that there was no way it could survive. The audience may not have recognized it consciously, but when the filmmakers ridiculed the Whites who were putting their public reputations on the line (back in an era when public reputations mattered) solely in order to take a cheap shot at religious anti-abortion activists, they made it clear that this was not a movie about the rights of man, it was a movie about attacking people you hate.

For that is what Amistad and Pleasantville both were: Extremely well-filmed and well-performed attacks by a smug governing elite against their already-beaten enemies. Moral conservatives in America today are obviously as impotent, politically, as Communists were in the 50's, but that is precisely why they make such an attractive whipping-boy for the power elite: They can't fight back. Ken Starr can't defend himself; nor can Clarence Thomas or Robert Bork. The same demagoguery used in the House Un-American Activities Committee against those who did not cooperate is now normal procedure against moral conservatives.

Ghe governing elite is so smugly assured that it has a complete monopoly on truth that it has no compunction whatever about lying to defeat its enemies. That's why many Democrats show no shame in supporting Clinton's lies. Lying -- or rather "spinning" -- is standard operating procedure. You take anything negative you can find on Bork, on Starr, on Thomas, even flat-out perjury, and you scream about it as if they were guilty of a capital crime. But any wrongdoing by people on your side is just a pecadillo, and besides everybody lies about sex. The same people who claimed Thomas was unfit for office because he was alleged by a disgruntled feminist to have said sexual remarks that offended her, now say that it's all right for Clinton to commit adultery as often as he likes, to lie under oath in order to gain an advantage in a lawsuit, and to lie to everybody around him, include the whole nation, in order to gain political advantage.

Does no one see the hypocrisy in these people as they endlessly split hairs to assure us that Clinton's harmless little lies are nothing like Nixon's horrible Constitution-threatening lies? That Clinton's flirty harmless oral sex in the Oval Office is nothing like Thomas's horrible sexual harassment? (Never mind that Thomas is obviously completely innocent of charges brought by disgruntled former employee whose testimony is repudiated by every other woman who has worked with Thomas; while Clinton, even when he was still lying -- i.e., before the dress -- found not one person who was willing to come forward and say, "Bill would never do anything like that.")

If this exact scandal had happened in 1991 or 1987, with Bush or Reagan as the President who had adulterous sex in the White House and lied about it under oath and on camera, not one of the current defenders of Bill Clinton would ever, in a million years, have stepped forward and said one word about how "it's just about sex" or "it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense."

And the filmmakers of Pleasantville and Amistad, like the makers of The American President and other films of mind-numbing political correctness, are full supporters of this smug hypocrisy. Anybody who speaks about the old moral values is an evil book-burner -- never mind that the only people successfully putting limits on the First Amendment today are the politically correct. Anybody who tries to speak up in support of his religious beliefs is immediately disqualified for "trying to force their beliefs on others," even though the beliefs of the politically correct were forced on us by courts dominated by the politically correct, creating new laws in a country where laws are only supposed to be made by the democratically elected Congress. Who is it who subverts freedom and democracy?

Why, the people who can, that's who. And today those people are of the Left and call themselves Liberal as they subvert Constitutional process; and the propagandists for their coups d'etat make films like Amistad and Pleasantville to assure us that our rulers are wiser than we are, and this screwed-up society we live in, where most children can't even find two parents to give them a safe haven until they grow up, is the Best Of All Possible Worlds -- and is certainly better than anything those evil religious people and evil conservatives could ever create.

And they make these claims even though millions of us are still alive who remember perfectly well that back when the views of the religious people and the moral conservatives were simply the common values of the whole nation, life was actually safer, happier, and, yes, freer than today. We aren't deluded. We were there.

Which, ultimately, is the thing that embittered me most as I watched the fine performances in Pleasantville. Just like Goebbels's propaganda machine in Nazi Germany, just like Bill Clinton today, these people have the gall to tell me lies about things I've seen with my own eyes, and expect me to believe them.

This is how people who know they can't be trusted with power but want it anyway always behave. They know that the truth won't support their position. They have no choice but to lie.

And the only way to fight their lies is by refusing to believe them. By insisting on hearing the truth, even if you have to listen hard to hear those faint voices crying in the wilderness. (Not that the Left has a monopoly on lies and misrepresentation -- just that it has the power to make its lies stick, because of its complete monopoly on the mainstream media, and its willingness to be utterly partisan while claiming, with a straight face, to be impartial.)

I'm one of those faint voices, trying my best to tell the truth. I am not a Republican -- I am and will remain a Democrat, however ashamed I am by what is done in my party's name in recent months and years, for I am even less at home in the party of Jesse Helms, "free market" capitalism, and the NRA. Nor am I a conservative, by most definitions of the term. But I am a believer in a Christian religion and in the strong moral values that bind families together and create safe, free havens where children can grow up surrounded by love as they're taught the self-discipline and responsibility to take their place as adult citizens.

Pleasantville and Amistad, like our current President, are trying to strike down the last lingering remnants of those values by making a mockery of them, each in their own way. They are not "just movies." No movie is ever "just a movie." They create, affirm, and destroy moral values with every moment of action on the screen. And because film is the most privileged of storytelling media today, smug hypocrisy has its most powerful effect through that medium.

Am I telling you not to see Pleasantville? Not at all. In fact, I think you should see it. See it and laugh at the astonishing moral blindness, the cheap shots, the blatant falsehoods, the ludicrous sentimentality over the most stupid of moral principles. Hoot and jeer at it. Mock it to your friends. Because this movie is ridiculous. In our world, with the hideous price we are paying for profligate sex, the stupidity of a movie that says that premarital and adulterous sex is what brings color to our drab lives is an intellectual joke. Make catcalls at the screen. Don't let anyone in that theater miss the fact that this movie is unbelievably stupid.

After all, that's the technique that is used by the cultural elite. They're the ones who shout down speakers or get them banned from campuses. They're the ones who keep anti-abortionists from exercising freedom of speech. They're the ones who are constantly shooting the messenger who brings ideas they don't like -- just ask Ken Starr. Since they have shown us that ridicule and shouting and jeering actually work and are the weapons of political combat today, then let's put off our dignity and speak up, loudly.

Laugh at the "tender" moments.

Laugh at the stupid red flower, the pathetically obvious symbol of the apple, the stupidity of the putting on and taking off of the grey makeup, and the smug falseness of using the word "colored" for people whose only "virtue" is that they got laid.

Jeer at the bad paintings with their politically correct messages -- shout them out when the words appear on the screen.

Laugh, above all, at the absurdly portentous ending, and as you leave the theater, talk loudly about how false and stupid the whole movie was.

This movie is Reefer Madness of 1998 -- propaganda from supporters of the status quo, trying to persuade us that we must not sample such forbidden fruit as faithful monogamy, virginity, and putting our children ahead of our own desires. Treat it accordingly.

Go to Pleasantville and have a wonderful time.


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