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