TIME OUT IN PLEASANTVILLE

A couple of evenings ago Ms Connection and I wanted to collapse onto the couch for a bit of screen time togetherness. As it was a week-night and we’ve found that anything too exciting disrupts fragile sleep patterns, it was agreed that something gentle and preferably funny was the order of the night. So I dusted off a copy of Gary Ross’s 1998 comedy, Pleasantville.

It was a film we’d watched together soon after its release so we also got the added warmth which flows from a film you already know and like. But rain has washed a lot of debris into the stream of consciousness. It may still wind its way towards Lover’s Lane lake, but the memory current is rather more sluggish. So although we both remembered the basic premise of the movie – shy teen and his rebellious gum-chewing sister get catapulted back into a monochrome apple-pie US sitcom set in 1959 – there was much to re-enjoy in the re-screening.

pleasantville-poster

 

It is a lovely, thoughtful film. I enjoyed the avoidance of easy cliché and the sly humour that permeates the perfect black-&-white TV world the teens have entered. A wonderful moment is when the basketball team is training, lined up in an arc on the three-point line. The lads shoot and all eight basketballs sail in choreographed perfection through the hoop. The team has never lost because that’s how things are in Pleasantville. There are no toilets, the parents sleep in single beds, girls giggle and boys say, ‘Gosh, Mary-Joe, you made those cookies for me?’

But there is a cost to this safe, repetitive perfection. Either in the limited vision of a two-street town with a library full of blank-paged books or the soul deadening effects of endless repetition. Safe but not really alive.

That’s where the change begins. New ideas come from the sassy assertiveness of Reese Witherspoon’s feisty teen. And colour – eye-widening, sensual, terrifying colour – starts to appear. The teenagers are, naturally enough, the group most open to the possibilities of a wider horizon. The film cleverly encapsulates this theme in the yearnings of the diner-owner, a boy-man who grills the cheeseburgers but yearns… to paint. When Tobey Maguire’s “Bud” brings him a book of Art, things start to really get vivid.

pleasantville mural

 

 

In that iconic American way, the young folk gather at Mr Johnson’s diner where they sip cherry-cola and listen to the jukebox. There’s a wonderful moment when Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” starts playing. It’s almost a shock to hear those vamping piano chords splashing out of the Seeburg M100C coin-in-the-slot record machine (as seen on Happy Days, folks!). “Take Five” was massive in 1959. The first million-selling jazz instrumental single ever to hit the Billboard Hot 100. Despite it’s unprecedented 5/4 rhythm, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s tune has a simple, inviting melody with a gently off-kilter groove that ensured its popularity then and now.

 

 

The use of jazz in the film was a deft move. The Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out was a jazz album even suburban white folks could enjoy, the innovations of his integrated band somehow infiltrating the conservative headspace of middle America. From the opening piece – the eastern influenced, blues infused “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – in a 9/8 time signature, this exultant album deserves its high regard. And maybe, from this beginning, some listeners found the courage to investigate other landmark jazz albums that appeared that very same year. When the sticker on my 2009 re-issue of Time Out proclaims “1959 – Jazz’s Greatest Year” it is by no means an outrageous claim.

Bill Evans “Portrait in Jazz”

Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

John Coltrane “Giant Steps”

Ornette Coleman “The Shape of Jazz to Come”

Charles Mingus “Mingus Ah Um”

The Bill Evans is one of my favourite jazz piano albums, a record of exquisite delicacy and under-stated melodic depth. Kind of Blue needs no further introduction other than to note that “So What” also appears in Pleasantville. The others might stretch a listener unfamiliar with jazz, but will repay the investment richly. Aficionados will naturally have their favourites or indeed other albums that ring their ’59 bells, but I have an enduring man-crush on Mingus Ah Um. It’s cocky, it’s passionate. It rolls and sashays, pouts and sanctifies. It is a technicolour jazz album whose cover art by S. Neil Fujita shouts, “I’m alive, I’m different, I’m modern!”.

There is danger and darkness in venturing outside the fields we know, whether it’s the Pleasantville town limits or our accustomed listening room. Writer/Director Ross reminds us of this when the stain of sexual violence seeps into monochrome males as their predatory gaze threatens fresh, vivid women. It ain’t all pink blossoms and snogging at Lover’s Lane.

pleasantville-predators

 

This contrasts with the touching confusion of William H Macy’s Father when he arrives home to an empty house and no dinner. Puzzlement, yes, but also latent rage. “How dare you be colourful. How dare you want a life of your own!”

Meanwhile, the conservative townsfolk gather at the Town Hall to legislate life out of the town with a proclamation of censorship. Coloured oil paint will be banned, music choice restricted to Matt Monroe and Perry Como.

The kids play Buddy Holly’s “Rave on” on the jukebox.

The climactic scene occurs in the Town Hall in a brilliant echo of the To Kill A Mocking Bird court scene with the ‘coloreds’ confined in the upper balcony while the power-holding (black and) white men run the show on the floor.

Conformity trades off creativity for safety. Dave Brubeck’s record company did not want to release Time Out, deeming it too out there, too radical. But listeners voted with their ears (and wallets). As humans we crave security. But we need stimulation and novelty too or it all becomes tediously monochrome.

Dip into some jazz. Git some colour in your soul.

 

 

 

Time Out CD re-issue

The Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Time Out” [Columbia, 1959]

Musicians

Dave Brubeck – piano

Paul Desmond – alto sax

Eugene Wright – bass

Joe Morello – drums

 The 2009 CD re-issue has an excellent bonus disc of live performances of the quartet at Newport (1961, 1963, 1964) plus a DVD

 

 

21 comments

  1. Great description of a wonderful movie! I’m not cool enough for jazz, and most of it is averse to my white-bread-and-mayonnaise sensibilities, but I’ve been known to dig it when it’s been cross-bred with some good old rock n roll. 😉

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    1. Far be it for me to force feed anyone on music (cough cough) but if you find yourself feeling a little peckish, come over all esurient like, notice an unfamiliar pull towards an exotic dish… the two morsels embedded in the post are definitely worth a nibble.

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      1. The first one I’ve heard, of course. The second one I didn’t know, but it’s a prime example of why I don’t like jazz. Nerve wracking. Tedious. Sorry to disagree, cuz you are my guru, but there it is. I’m too uncool for jazz. lol. 🙂

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        1. Scrabble, scrape, shuffle… THUD.

          That’s the sound of the guru backing off so fast he trips over his threadbare robe. ‘Better git’ tedious? You win. I’m gone. No more proselytising for the Church of Jazz.

          Meet ya down the pub for a pint?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I’m sure my tastes have been stunted and stymied by too much forced exposure to Hall and Oates or something of that nature. And yes, I’ll be happy to meet you for a pint. Perhaps Yes will be playing on the jukebox and we’ll both be smiling. 🙂

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        3. Blues & Roots (Mingus) might jjjuuusssttt be bearable, Marie.
          (Now joining Bruce in the bunker),

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  2. A great film with some amazing performances by Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, JT Walsh, and William H. Macy; not to mention Tobey and Reese. A movie that at first glance could seem a little light, silly, and even pedestrian, but take a closer look and there’s so much more there. Being someone that grew up in the Midwest loving old reruns of Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and even Father Knows Best I could relate to the Maguire character. Getting lost in these worlds and time frames where the biggest problem was getting the yard raked before Dad got home, or saving paper route money so a mail-order sling shot could be bought, was rather appealing to a kid like me.

    Excellent post. I may have to spin Time Out now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice summary J. Glad to have evoked some memories of various kinds.

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      1. The wife and I saw this in the theater back in simpler times, aka before children. We’d go see a movie every weekend pretty much. Another great thing I remember about Pleasantville was Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across The Universe”. Thought she did a nice job with it.

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        1. Yes she did. Recently picked up a CD of Ms A – Ms Connection has had it on high rotation in her car.

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        2. Love Ms Apple.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, Pleasantville – I lived there once.

    Thanks for another great post.

    (I haven’t seen the film but will see if I can get it).

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    1. I think you’d really like it DD.

      Do you have a favourite album from “Jazz’s Greatest Year”?

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      1. It’s hard for me to go past ‘Kind of Blue’ as the favourite from 1959. But I love Mingus, and Brubeck’s Time Out has been with me since the beginning of time. (Some of us are descended from Cro-Magnon, others Cro-Mingus).

        I have been brave/ silly enough to comment on ‘Kind of Blue’ …

        THE KINDEST BLUE

        How do you review an album like ‘Kind of Blue’ to make it fresh, to make it sound as if you’ve just sat down to listen to it for the first time? You simply sit down and play it again. You let your scalp tingle with awe as Cobb makes the first open-tap of the cymbal just seconds into the opening number, ‘So What’. Then, as you let your self go, you close your eyes and again feel surprise when Miles takes centre stage in your room, then you begin to wonder at the magic of Chambers and Evans (bass and piano) locked together as one and marvel at the compliments that Adderley and Coltrane pay to each other.

        People will argue about what is the best jazz album ever; forget argument and just listen to what is good in this beautifully produced record.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Really enjoyable film, really enjoyable music, really enjoyable piece. I always think Brubeck doesn’t get the kudos he should do, leading a mixed race band in those days was a courageous thing to do.

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    1. Yes, Brubeck was often damned with faint praise or devalued because of the undemanding melodiousness of Desmond’s sax parts.

      Although Benny Goodman had played with Teddy Wilson in the late 30s, integrated small groups were not at all common even twenty years later. That year (1959) was when Miles invited Bill Evans to play on Kind of Blue. Thank goodness all that racial bias stuff has been sorted out across the world now.

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      1. Ha, yes its good that we can finally bring our children up in a world devoid of division and bigotry!

        On a broadly similar musical vein I’ve got a bit of a thing for Erroll Garner’s ‘Concert By The Sea’. It makes me feel a bit sophisticated owning it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful, Bruce! The film is marvelous mix of the time and of breaking rules, especially with its needle-dropped jazz pieces that make for a simply splendid soundtrack. So glad you sent me the link to this post, my friend. Awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot Michael. I loved writing this even though I knew my usual music-audience might find it a stretch! Lovely to have a response from a film nut!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now that you mention it, haven’t seen ‘Pleasantville’ in quite awhile. Time for a revisit, me thinks. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Popped in here to check out your take on Dave and I’m going away with a flick to watch. Good list on the jazz records. I dig all those choices. I love Dave’s sound. CB doesn’t dig for a lot of info on people but knows enough about DB to say he was a pretty special human being. Proof you can be a nice guy and play really cool music. Another good one Bruce. Will check out the flick for sure. JT Walsh and Macy are always in good stuff.

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