THE SHEPCAT CHRONICLES

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Hell Is Other People #11

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PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS IN AUDITORY SCIENCE, SITUATIONAL AWARENESS, AND THIS ONE JAGOFF IN PARTICULAR

Here’s the thing about coffeehouses. I’m not alone in the practice of, well, frequenting them alone. And if you’re there to do a little reading, a little journaling, or to get some work done, the best you can hope for is one of two conditions: either complete, monastic silence or a wall of sound.

The former condition is typically the result of either a mostly empty coffeehouse or one occupied by multiple solo patrons who aren’t looking to be bothered or to bother anyone else. It’s its own kind of bliss.

The latter condition can exist at any decibel level, amid any degree of activity, so long as every brick in that wall — every patron, every barista, every appliance, every ambient noise, the music being played overhead, the traffic noise outside — is constantly equalizing its contribution toward some semblance of balance. In other words, every sound cancels out every other sound. Particularly conversation.

Because if you’re alone in your thoughts or, as I was today, attempting to concentrate on a David Foster Wallace novel containing some fairly acrobatic sentence structure, the last thing you want is other people’s words and thoughts invading that space.

Today, after I ordered my drink, I claimed the remaining table, and now each table in the coffeehouse had a lone occupant, as did the seating area with a couch and chairs at the front. These would be ideal conditions for monastic silence, though the music coming from the back was a little louder than usual or necessary today, and for some reason the TV in front, which is typically muted and closed-captioned, had its volume up. I was sitting nearer the TV, so I was kind of making an effort to project my focus toward the music, if that makes any sense, to better cancel the two in my head.

Now to my left — I hesitate to call it a conversation, because one participant was seated and mostly silent while the other was standing in front of him and doing all the talking. It was effectively a monologue, performed for a guy sitting two feet away but projected back to the cheap seats.

The monologist is another regular. I mean, inasmuch as I’m a regular, I see this guy maybe every third or fourth time I’m there. He’s an older Hispanic gentleman with a bushy mustache and pretentions, at least, toward being a musician. He almost always has a guitar case with him when I see him. Today he’s speaking to this other man in what I’d call Reverse Ugly American. You know the stereotype of the tourist who speaks only English thinking he can make the foreigner understand him if he just says the same thing louder and slower? That’s this guy in his heavily accented broken English trying to make sure the other guy understands the words that are coming out of his mouth.

During the 15 minutes or more that the monologist is performing for his captive audience — which, in a way, is, you know, all of us — a woman and her young daughter enter and join the guy at the rearmost table, a double that can accommodate as many as six people.

Both mother and daughter are so quiet as to be unnoticeable, but shortly thereafter another man and another woman arrive and join the table, and the woman, who begins by calling out her order from the table instead of going up to the register, launches into a story and continues talking animatedly and loudly enough to be heard throughout the coffeehouse when her friends are right there at the table.

Meanwhile, the monologist has returned to his table, where a small notebook computer is open alongside a comical tangle of more cables and cords than should be required for the operation at hand. He is wearing earbuds, and at some point during the ongoing chatter from the rear table, he takes out a harmonica and begins playing half-assedly, as though he’s attempting to accompany whatever music he’s listening to in his earbuds.

This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. The last time, about a month or so ago, he was singing.

So, not content merely to be a loud, obnoxious pain in the ass who lacks self-awareness, he has now retreated into his own private auditory world and found yet another way to be an obnoxious pain in the ass, altogether oblivious to how it might sound to the others occupying this space.

So now we have Steve Harvey yammering away on the TV, one of the baristas running a smoothie blender or grinding beans (which was almost loud enough to be a kind of salvation), music playing over the coffeehouse’s stereo, this jackass playing harmonica completely devoid of any musical context to which the rest of us can attach it, and this woman at the back who is talking nonstop as though she just got off an airplane and her ears haven’t popped yet.

I am a largely nonconfrontational person. You wouldn’t suspect it, what with the bourbon and all the profanity, but it’s true. And yet I find myself wanting to get up, make an announcement as though I’m getting ready to rob the place, and begin to orchestrate the sound design in the space and reshape the chaos that has sprung up around me, seizing control of the onsite media and imposing martial law on loud talkers and generally inconsiderate asshats as I see fit.

Sometimes it’s the establishment’s fault. You’re out for dinner or drinks and everybody seems to be yelling and you can’t hear your own conversation, and you want to beseech the hostess or the manager that if they’d just cut the volume of their music by half, their customers wouldn’t have to yell over it to be heard at their own table, their servers would get fewer orders wrong, you could still probably hear the music, and the restaurant wouldn’t sound like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

It occurs to me now that if I’d had more cash on me, I could’ve Sonny Corleoned the monologist — ripping the harmonica out of his hands, throwing it on the ground, stomping on it a few times, then peeling off a few bills and throwing them at the guy before returning to my table.

Maybe next time. Because I’m pretty sure there’ll be one.

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Written by Shepcat

February 22, 2018 at 11:32 pm

The Dollar Bill of Rights

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Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
 
Amendment II
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

 
The First Amendment derives its power from its first five words: “Congress shall make no law …”

The Second Amendment makes no such claim. It derives its power from money.

Never mind the right’s specious argument that the left wants to abolish the Second Amendment. It can’t be abolished. It won’t be revised. Ever. Nobody’s coming to take away your guns. Even if substantial political will to do so existed, it would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states, and there is no foreseeable political climate in this nation that would make that a reality.

But it’s money — accepted predominantly by Republican lawmakers — that keeps breathing life into that specious argument, even as the breath of life is stolen from innocent citizens.

Money is the reason the words “Congress shall make no law” are superimposed onto the Second Amendment.

Money is the thing that makes Congress blind to the words well regulated. Or militia, whose 2018 definition differs wildly from its 1787 definition.

Money is the thing preventing Congress from making any law — however minor, however limited — that would make it harder for the wrong guns to get into the wrong hands.

Money is the thing preventing Congress from even having a conversation about various common-sense measures to protect Americans from guns.

Money is the thing prohibiting the imagination and vision of lawmakers to conjure real-world solutions that would improve the safety and security of innocent Americans where guns are concerned.

Money is the thing preventing the Centers for Disease Control from studying the effects of gun violence.

Money is the thing that held up the confirmation of a Surgeon General nominee who dared to believe that gun violence is a public health issue. Money is the reason the new administration asked him to resign before the end of his term.

Money is the reason our votes and our voices barely matter.

Money is the reason some voices in this country are silenced permanently.

Want your life to matter to Congress? Better get yourself some money.

Written by Shepcat

February 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Politics, The Nation

Behind Every Great Man: Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is a tale told by a craftsman with technical precision and keen artistry about a craftsman who approaches his own work — indeed his whole life — with the same technical precision and keen artistry. It is in many ways the film that Paul Thomas Anderson has been working toward his entire career — perfectly contained, carefully observed, not an ounce of fat on it — anchored by a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that makes Thread a worthy swan song, if indeed this is the last we are to see of Day-Lewis. (If he retreats to the artisanal life of a cobbler, we needn’t worry that Thread will be regarded as his Welcome to Mooseport.)

Despite their having garnered wider acclaim, I have found past PTA efforts such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to be ungainly affairs in need of tighter editorial control, populated by characters for whom I feel little affinity or sympathy. It’s not that I couldn’t see a great artist in the making; it’s that, with all that talent evident on the screen, I couldn’t fathom how he hadn’t already arrived at that place. It’s not that I have to like every character in a story; it’s that I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find even one to cheer for. (Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not that I held a grudge against Anderson — on the contrary, once I heard him talk about his influences and his own work in interviews, I was smitten — but that I wanted to like his films as much as I like him. I have been cheering for him all this time, even as I have hated his films, until Inherent Vice.1 I can’t think of any other filmmaker on whom I’ve waited so patiently.

And by rights, I shouldn’t like fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock as much as I do. But Anderson allows such subtle glimpses of his humanity to emerge that one is won over to him by both empathy and sympathy. We are allowed to see him as much the captive prisoner of his own genius as he is the warden who supervises its execution, as it were.

Not all men demand as much or hold themselves and others to such exacting standards in all aspects as Reynolds does — and his specificity and hypersensitivity are at times played to great comic effect — but we are all set in our ways, particularly after a certain age or a certain length of time spent alone or apart. In which case the great central conflict of a burgeoning relationship may not be that a significant other wants to change us so much as that they want to change anything at all.

But Reynolds is nothing if not defined by the women in his life — his late mother, who inspired him; his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has never married and has made facilitating Reynolds’ genius and furthering his reputation her life’s work; and his new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is sweetly submissive and a fast learner — but to crack his veneer they must control him in small ways and be useful to him in big ways in order to fuel his ego and keep his delicate genius from pushing him over the edge. It is a balancing act that Reynolds believes he is performing when in fact it is Cyril and Alma manning the levers all along.

Reynolds cares more about his dresses than he does about the women for whom he designs them — hilariously so — and because Alma understands this and genuinely, unbelievably loves him, she finds her opening to be seen by him as more than just his ideal mannequin. Alma aims to be useful in the ways Reynolds needs her to be but also in the ways she wants to be useful to him, in order to be loved by him. The latter she must impose upon him (first by small degrees, then more insistently), just as he imposes the former on her.

More critical perhaps than the campaign she wages for Reynolds’ heart is Alma’s impressing upon Cyril that she is not the shrinking violet or disposable paper doll that serial monogamist Reynolds is accustomed to having in his life. Cyril is at first every bit as dismissive of Alma as she was of Alma’s predecessor (whom she literally dismissed) … until she isn’t. And that moment of recognition — when Cyril realizes that the admirably duplicitous Alma is an ally in her mission to protect Reynolds and preserve the House of Woodcock instead of a distraction and an enemy within — is rather marvelous.

At work behind all of this, though, is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail. He depicts this world in all its simple elegance, distilling these characters to their essence, and trims away all the excess to create a perfectly tailored, exquisitely bespoke film that presents him at the peak of his prowess. Others may argue that There Will Be Blood is his and Day-Lewis’ showy, sprawling masterpiece, but Phantom Thread, with its quiet grace, its unnerving tension, its spareness and its splendor, is as close to a perfect creation as he has yet produced. And at last Anderson takes his place among the ranks of filmmakers whose upcoming projects I eagerly anticipate instead of await with trepidation.
 
 
 
 
 
1 This may be in part because of PTA’s de facto christening as “the Altman of his generation” and his own stated admiration for Altman’s oeuvre. I, on the other hand, fucking loathe Robert Altman.
 
It’s noteworthy, though, that
Phantom Thread shares a certain period aesthetic and thematic spirit with Gosford Park, one of the few Altman films I like. The scenes of the seamstresses climbing the stairs of the Woodcock manse to begin their work day in service of Reynolds’ vision are evocative of the upstairs/downstairs world of Gosford Park.

Written by Shepcat

January 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Movies

A Maow Story — #3 in a Series

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Last night, for only the most trivial and arbitrary reasons, I didn’t want to eat my dinner from a full-size bowl. Too big for what I was eating, didn’t want to dirty it, whatever.

It so happens that the only clean, appropriately small bowl I had — which then proved to be almost too small for what I was eating — was Maow’s old water bowl, an off-white ceramic bowl with a small base and fluted sides. It’s been clean for the last two months, stored in the same cabinet with the rest of my bowls, but I’ve avoided it almost unconsciously. Until last night.

Even as I was ladling my dinner into the bowl, I felt wrong about it. The bowl is very much hers and was from the minute we first set it down for her. Of the three water bowls we initially placed throughout the house, to encourage hydration when we were most worried about her kidneys, it was the one she drank from most frequently, the one situated on the landing of our staircase. I once placed a different bowl there while it was in the dishwasher, and I think we both felt weird about it. They were swapped back as soon as the fluted bowl was clean.

The bowl is in the dishwasher now, and 16 hours or so later I still feel weird about having eaten from it.

Later in the evening, I dozed off during a movie I was watching, and I dreamed about Maow.

She was happy to see me the way dogs are happy to see you when you come back into the room after five minutes away, bounding over to me with uncharacteristic intensity. It would have been disorienting had she done it in real life.

At one point, she climbed up on my chest (which she also never did) and kissed me repeatedly, inasmuch as a cat can kiss, bobbing her head and planting little pecks on my cheek. However disorienting this too would have been, I recognized the moment it referred back to.

When my eldest niece, the first grandchild in our family, was born, we were all giddily obsessed with her and lavished affection on her constantly. We joke that for the first two years of her life, her feet never touched the floor, because someone was always holding her.

On what may have been her first birthday, if memory serves me correctly, I was holding her in one arm in the kitchen, where the whole family was gathered, and every so often I’d kiss her on the cheek or the top of her head. Then someone placed a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of me, and with my free hand I took a couple of bites before putting a smaller amount at the tip of the spoon and raising it to her lips.

She loved it. And she thanked me with a tiny kiss on the cheek.

I gave her another bite of ice cream. I was rewarded with another, bigger kiss. Soon it became clear that she thought if she kept kissing me, I’d keep giving her ice cream. We ate the whole bowl this way, with me receiving a kiss every time she took a bite of ice cream.

This is how Maow kissed my cheek in the dream.

That was the second time I’ve dreamed about Maow since she left us. I believe it was entirely circumstantial, owing to my dinnertime dilemma. I don’t believe she was somehow addressing me from beyond to let me know it’s OK for me to use the bowl. I’m still going to feel weird about it for a while, and I may avoid the bowl more consciously until a little more time passes and I realize that for the love of God it’s just a bowl or that using it makes me feel more connected to her. I don’t know why it should be this bowl, of all things, that makes me feel this way, but there you have it.

In any event, I hope Maow keeps turning up in my dreams.

Written by Shepcat

January 10, 2018 at 11:16 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Life

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The Insignificant Detail #10

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A WALKING ATM

One of the joys of my trip home this past Christmas was watching North by Northwest with my dad, who kept up a running commentary of the make and model year of virtually every car that appeared on-screen (with the exception of “Laura’s Mercedes”). He was positively Rain Man–like.

Then a couple of days later we were out shopping, and I happened to mention that, though I make a lot of daily purchases with my credit card, I still feel a sense of security having some cash on hand at all times. “Like Cary Grant in the movie the other night?” Dad said. “How he never ran out of cash?”

I’ve seen all or part of North by Northwest at least 70 times (conservative estimate), but until just then I’d never really considered how Roger O. Thornhill’s inexhaustible cash on hand qualifies as an Insignificant Detail, not unlike bullets in a John Woo gunfight.

Remember: Thornhill is abducted in the first four minutes of the film1 and spends the next four days either in the custody of or on the run from or toward his captors. So in 1959, decades before the advent of the automated teller machine, when would he have the time to stand in line at a bank (during regular daytime business hours, no less, while also being widely publicized as a fugitive from justice) to make a withdrawal?

With that in mind, here is a running account of every time Thornhill greases a palm — on camera and off — over the course of the film’s 136-minute running time:

DAY 1

  • 0:02:32 Thornhill buys a newspaper in the lobby of his office building with change he removes from the side pocket of his suit jacket.
     
  • 0:04:16 He pays the cab driver to return his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang), to the office.
     

DAY 2

  • 0:26:11 Thornhill presumably pays the Glen Cove police the $2 drunk-and-disorderly fine.
     
  • 0:26:49 He and Mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrive at the Plaza Hotel in a cab.
     
  • 0:28:06 He bribes Mother, first with $10, then with $50, to get George Kaplan’s room key at the Plaza. After berating him, she takes the $50.
     
  • 0:30:59 He tips the hotel valet for the return of George Kaplan’s dry-cleaned suit.
     
  • 0:34:17 Abandoning Mother, he escapes the Plaza in a cab, which he takes to the United Nations.
     
  • 0:38:24 He escapes the U.N. in another cab, which we see him sprinting toward in the overhead matte-painting shot. He presumably takes this cab to Grand Central Station.
     
    However, quite a bit of time must elapse in the interlude because the next scene shows the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his staff discussing the matter in Washington, D.C., where the fugitive Thornhill’s picture appears in the afternoon paper. This scene takes place the same day, because the newspaper article references his appearance in Glen Cove police court “earlier today.”
     
  • 0:41:43 At Grand Central Station, we first see Thornhill on a pay phone, talking to Mother. He references having called the Plaza Hotel and learned that Kaplan checked out en route to the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago. So that’s two phone calls, apparently made with pocket change.
     
  • 0:51:59 Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, he hastily tosses some bills on the table as he and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) exit the dining car when the train makes an unscheduled stop.
     

DAY 3

  • 1:02:31 The red cap Thornhill “assaulted” at Chicago’s Union Station appears to count out at least four bills that he was paid in exchange for his uniform.
     
  • 1:06:11 Thornhill presumably pays cash for his Greyhound bus ticket to Prairie Stop, Highway 41.
     
  • 1:24:21 He would pay and tip the valet at the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago after he sends his pesticide-dusted suit down to be sponged and pressed.
     
  • 1:25:23 He takes a cab from the Ambassador to the auction house at 1212 North Michigan Avenue.
     

DAY 4

  • 1:40:40 Thornhill views Mount Rushmore through a coin-operated viewfinder. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:42:37 Just before the sitdown with Vandamm (James Mason), he buys a cup of coffee in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Pocket change.
     
  • 1:55:13 Finally, Thornhill takes a cab from the hospital in Rapid City to Vandamm’s house behind Mount Rushmore, a trip of at least 20 miles.
     

By my count, that’s 17 times in four days that Thornhill dips into the pocket at the end of the rainbow and pulls out cash. Not for nothing is his gray suit widely regarded as the greatest suit in film history.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Excluding credit sequence. All subsequent timestamps refer to the full DVD runtime.

Written by Shepcat

January 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

A Dick Enberg Story

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Comb any dictionary from cover to cover and you won’t find enough superlatives to adequately describe the legendary sportscaster Dick Enberg, who died Thursday at age 82. Football, baseball, college basketball, tennis, Olympics coverage, studio hosting — since Marconi invented radio and the first voices were transmitted through the ether, it would be hard to name a better, sharper, more engaging all-around sportscaster. In my lifetime, only Bob Costas comes close.

I grew up watching and listening to Enberg. With his trademark “Oh my!” his was one of the indelible voices of my Saturday and Sunday afternoons for as long as I can remember. Others, like Vin Scully, Keith Jackson, Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek and Pat Summerall, were more readily identified with a single sport, a single season. But Enberg’s voice was one you could count on at any time of year.1

Enberg exuded warmth and cheer and, more so than many professionals — whose style may sound clipped, practiced, cultivated, transactional — always seemed genuinely excited to be calling a game and spending the afternoon with you. In his pregame stand-ups, his eyes crinkled in a way that made his entire face smile, and you just knew he had to be one of the nicest guys in the business. You couldn’t imagine him any other way. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but you sensed that if you met Enberg, he’d be exactly that guy — charming, friendly, the neighbor you always wished lived next door.

So now it’s sometime in the early aughts — say, 2003, 2004 — and I’m living in Los Angeles. My dad, who manages a grocery store, wins a weekend trip through a vendor, and he and Mom are flown out to San Diego with a bunch of other store managers and their spouses to see the Chiefs play the Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium.2 I drive down to spend the weekend with them, sleep in a chair in their hotel room, and figure on watching Sunday’s game in a bar in the Gaslamp Quarter and awaiting their return. But when the vendor’s point man finds out I’ve come down to see them, he finagles me a ticket to join them at the game.

This is how I happen to be sitting with my parents in end zone seats at the Murph, near an overhang bearing TV monitors showing the CBS broadcast. Calling the game that day: Enberg and analyst Dan Dierdorf, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman of the St. Louis Cardinals of my youth, another guy who always seems affable and upbeat on camera. You can’t imagine anyone not having chemistry with Enberg, but Dierdorf seems like a good match for him in any event.

So the game is going along, and our eyes are fixed on the field, but occasionally we glance at the monitor nearest us to watch a replay. I’m sure there’s some audio coming from the monitors, but with 40,000-plus fans watching a division rivalry, it’s too loud to really make out anything either man is saying. Then, during a TV timeout, I notice there are no commercials playing — it’s not the broadcast we’re seeing on the monitors; it’s the CBS network feed from the truck. So there on the monitor is a two-shot of Enberg and Dierdorf in the booth.

And they. Look. Pissed.

Now, this is just a snapshot: a couple of professional broadcasters with their backs turned to each other during a commercial break, each engrossed by his own game notes. And while I of all people appreciate that even a couple of guys as genial and good-natured as Enberg and Dierdorf can’t keep smiles plastered on all the time, there is just something jarring about this tableau.

There is a sternness to both men’s expressions that makes them, in this context, look like mortal enemies, like a couple on the verge of divorce, like a pairing the network had to put together for reasons beyond anyone’s control who were suffering through it for the paycheck.

Then the picture switched to the players on the field, the referee whistled for play to resume, and Enberg and Dierdorf undoubtedly resumed their friendly banter about the action unfolding before us.

I continued to enjoy Dick Enberg’s presence behind the mic for the next decade or so, most recently as he called play-by-play for the San Diego Padres just before his retirement, and he never ceased to be the same friendly, comforting, authoritative voice I’ve known since I was a kid.

But I’ve never been able to shake that Chiefs-Chargers memory, that rare glimpse into a moment that was most likely nothing of consequence or concern but might also have been a rare letting down of the guard that none of us were ever meant to witness, that creeping suspicion that the friendliest, most cordial of sportscasters had a dark side hidden from a world that admired him almost universally.

It’ll be the Enberg that I watched the other 99.9 percent of the time that I remember fondly, though. His is an absence in our shared passion for sport that can never be filled, only regarded wistfully when we talk among ourselves about the best who ever called a game.
 
 
 
 
 
1 That said, if I could choose only one sport for Enberg: calling college basketball alongside Coach Al McGuire. Hands down. No contest. One of the all-time great play-by-play/analyst pairings in any sport.
 
2 By this time, Jack Murphy Stadium — so named in 1980 after the late sportswriter who had championed its construction back in the ’60s — had been renamed Qualcomm Stadium after the telecommunications company that bought the naming rights in 1997, but I have always flatly refused to refer to it by its corporate name because we writers have to stick together.
 
As of this year, it’s called San Diego County Credit Union Stadium, which is more of a mouthful than Qualcomm ever was. Screw ’em both. It’ll always be the Murph to me.

Written by Shepcat

December 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Life, Sports, Television

Tagged with ,

My Favorite Things — #3 in a Series

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PLEASANTVILLE

Writer-director Gary Ross’ Pleasantville is a practically perfect movie. God, I love every frame of it. I had almost forgotten how much.

Before these latest viewings, it had been several years since I last watched it. Which is astonishing even to me, given the title of this continuing series. (I had begun and abandoned another version of this piece some years ago.) But now, some 19 years and change since the film’s release, it is arguably more relevant than ever. We find ourselves at a juncture in history during which a nostalgia not unlike that which the film both celebrates and satirizes is being wielded against us for more insidious aims.

In the abstract, in its most charitably innocuous interpretation, the phrase “Make America Great Again” might conjure up in our collective imagination that same midcentury, postwar America that gave us such gentle domestic comedies as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — the amalgamation of which forms the basis of Pleasantville’s TV series–within–the movie conceit — as the cultural yardsticks against which American families measured their happiness and prosperity.

But there was a dark side to that happiness and prosperity, because midcentury, postwar America was also Cold War America. And Jim Crow America. And it was “postwar” for only about five years before we became embroiled in the Korean conflict, with Vietnam faintly visible on the horizon. Our innocence, illusory though it was, was soon to be trampled amid the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s.

To geeky, good-natured ’90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire), though, the Parkers of TV’s Pleasantville — father George, mother Betty, siblings Bud and Mary Sue — represent a more personal form of escapism, the perfect nuclear family as counterpoint to the broken home he shares with his divorced mother (Jane Kaczmarek), vulnerable and looking for love, and his cooler-than-thou sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), rapacious and primed for sex.

The film is sometimes criticized for being too on-the-nose, but the milieu lends itself so readily to metaphor that Ross would just as likely be criticized for any low-hanging fruit he left unpicked. (In this regard, Ross’ script is every bit as watertight as, if not somewhat inspired by, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future screenplay.) Yes, the opening is a little slow and the contrivance that sets the plot in motion is a little clunky, but these criticisms are abated by the perfect casting of Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman whose timely intervention results in David and Jennifer’s being transported through time, space and cathode-ray tubes into the bodies of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

The time-travel trope of doing one small thing that totally alters the course of history is turned on its ear here when sex-positive Jennifer introduces original sin to this monochromatic Eden and that life-changing, mind-altering knowledge literally inflames the town and pinballs through its once-innocent population like dopamine run amok, opening their eyes to rapturous art, racy literature, jazz and rock and roll, their own unrealized potential, and the thrilling, dangerous, unknown world just beyond the horizon. Had circumstance dropped David alone into this perfect world, one imagines that he would employ his encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show as would an omniscient god, enforcing predestination to ensure that all the actors hit their marks and the daily life of Pleasantville proceeded according to its intelligent design, as originally televised and repeated ad infinitum in syndication. But Jennifer fell with him, and in the guise of Mary Sue brought free will to the citizens of Pleasantville.

As Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, the late J.T. Walsh exudes glad-handing menace from the moment he first appears in the doorway of the barber shop, in the first of many low-angle shots in which Ross frames him. While his introduction comes after Pleasantville has experienced its first post-Jennifer aftershocks, there is an uneasy reverence toward Bob among the ordinarily cheerful townsfolk that implies he has always been a looming presence, a disingenuous strongman, a benevolent despot who gives but also takes away, who might turn on them at any moment.

Of course, through the lens of 2017 it’s all too easy to view Big Bob as a Trumpian reactionary who throws his weight around, stirring up outrage among “all true citizens,” then claiming to restore order by enacting restrictive ordinances aimed at those whose otherness has suddenly upset the normal life of the town, “to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” Never mind that they’re the same people he’s lived and worked alongside all his life, friends and neighbors who likely elected him in the first place; he is enraged by their departure from the norm and their perceived rebellion against his magnanimity and authority.

Of all the film’s various relationships, my favorite is the one between Maguire’s Bud and Joan Allen’s Betty, at once maternal and conspiratorial. Because while Jennifer’s intercession unmoors all of Pleasantville from its axis, it is Betty, of all the characters in the film, whom David was sent to set free. It takes the complete undoing of his ideal world to show David that he also has the power to change it for the better, and his empathy for Betty’s circumstance ultimately leads him to facilitate the unraveling of the nuclear family he idolizes, which in turn gives him a deeper, more compassionate understanding of his own mother back home in the untelevised present.

In all the family sitcoms of the 1950s, the father goes to work, the kids go to school, and the mother stays at home to keep the whole operation running smoothly and looking picture perfect. So the father has co-workers, and the kids have classmates — mirrors they can hold themselves up to — but Ross cannily observes that the mother, left alone for hours at a time, is the one most likely to have an interior life, to while away the days contemplating her needs and desires and what her life might have been but for the one defining choice she made. So while George Parker (William H. Macy) is steadfast and true, if a bit daft and guileless, cut from the same gray flannel as Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson, one can easily imagine Betty Parker (or Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson) as a melancholy Douglas Sirk heroine, presenting a cheerful façade, resigned to her rote, routine roles as wife and mother even as she imagines a different, vibrant, more complex and intoxicating life.

We feel this undercurrent the first time Betty locks eyes with Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), Bud’s artistically inclined boss at the soda shop. There is a history in their shared gaze. We understand instantly that Bill is Betty’s road not taken. And her inevitability.

Nostalgia, whether wistful or moralistic, might have us believe that these couplings and uncouplings, these little disobediences and larger acts of rebellion, this submission to and eventual embrace of chaos represent a tipping point at which our shared values began to erode and the fallout became irreversible.

But Ross reminds us that the world was never really that black-and-white, or even gray, to begin with. It has always been vivid and chaotic. The volume and variety of our values didn’t end at the few we shared in common and presented to the world. And a challenge to the status quo by one was an invitation to any of us to challenge the status quo, to turn the world upside down and remake it in our own image, painting with all the colors in our palette.

Pleasantville does fill me with nostalgia, but for Pleasantville itself. It is so many things at once — a time-travel story, a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, a “woman’s picture,” a social satire, a race allegory, a broad comedy — that it should by rights be a tonal train wreck. But Ross somehow balances all these elements and blends them seamlessly into a thoughtful, funny, warm-hearted picture that, like Pleasantville itself, is almost too good to be true.
 
 
 
Honorable Mentions:

  • The unintended supernatural effect of Joan Allen pleasuring herself in the bathtub for the first time.
  • Macy’s various readings of the line “Where’s my dinner?” each one funnier than the one before it.
  • The remarkable Walsh, who left us entirely too soon, uttering the line “Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley,” then having his Patton moment in front of the overhead projection of the scorecards.
  • The destruction of Bill Johnson’s soda shop, in its own way as startling and upsetting to watch as the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
  • The courtroom scene and its echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” sitting in the balcony.
  • The look on Witherspoon’s face when she hears that, under the town’s new Code of Conduct, “no bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.”
  • The incredible Don Knotts: While he once, in the pages of Esquire, referred to Deputy Barney Fife as his greatest achievement, his performance here as the ubiquitous TV repairman is the perfect culmination of his career, never more so than when he’s losing his shit over the havoc David and Jennifer have wrought on a world that he, Knotts, helped build.

Written by Shepcat

December 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm