THE MOVIE Pleasantville is the story of the rise and fall of an Islamic state. I know that sounds crazy, but bear with me for a moment. I've recently been immersed in studying about Islam, terrorism, and Islamic states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan (when the Taliban were running things). I didn't realize before that it is a Muslim's duty to create an Islamic state, wherever they live. And to kill and die for this purpose if that's what it takes. I recently watched Pleasantville. I had seen the movie before, but this time I saw it in a new light.
If the movie can be seen as a metaphor, let's look at the parallels. First, someone had a vision of a perfect world. In the movie, it was the creator of the Pleasantville TV show, and in Islam, it was Muhammad (or Allah speaking through Muhammad). They each had a vision of an ideal world. (Learn more about that here.)
Now, if everybody does what they're supposed to do, this vision can become a reality and people can enjoy a peaceful, orderly society. The key is getting everyone to do what they're supposed to do. The problem is, people love freedom. And of course freedom brings with it unwanted side-effects, as you see in the movie (and as you can see by looking around you).
But the lack of freedom also has side-effects. Which is better, living in a Pleasantville world but having to do what you're supposed to do all the time — or living a life where you choose your own destiny but also have to live in a society with others who are choosing their destiny too? I don't know who can answer that question for all of us, but I know which one I prefer. Give me liberty or give me death.
The movie is about the danger and the splendor of freedom.
When the movie begins, the teenager, David, is in a modern American high school, living in a free society complete with its dangers and side-effects. David is a fan of an old television show from the fifties. Everything was perfect in the show. It was an ideal world where people treated each other courteously, parents had loving, conflict-free marriages, and kids were wholesome and innocent. David yearns for a life like that instead of the messy, chaotic world he lives in. And he gets his wish.
But he discovers that there is a cost to living in paradise — a drastic lack of freedom. In the movie, when the teenagers started having sex and the world was going Technicolor, the leaders of the town were horrified. Things were getting out of control. And you can see they had good intentions when they tried to make it go back the way it was.
That's what the Taliban did. And Iran. And what Saudi Arabia is doing. They're trying to force it back in the box. They're trying to fulfill the vision written in the Qur'an of the perfect world. They are struggling against human beings' natural desire for freedom. They have to use force to get people to do what they're supposed to do all the time. They use extreme force and they still can't get everyone to conform.
And who hasn't had the same conflict in their own life? Haven't you? Haven't you gone through cycles of cracking down on yourself and then loosening up? Haven't you ever gotten a regime all worked out so you can get in shape or whatever and then after awhile you start feeling closed in by it and you want to break out of the restricting and regimented monotony?
When I was younger, I spent many fruitless hours trying to come up with the perfect system. A perfect week would have a certain amount of exercise, a certain amount of communication with loved ones, writing time, goofing off time, etc. A perfect life plan is not very difficult to come up with. But actually doing it turns into a nightmare of routine. Most people would never do something like that voluntarily for very long. I loved creating the perfect system, but I hated living in it. And it was my system. What if some else created the system? It would be nearly impossible to make me conform to it.
Our longing for freedom and change and adventure always makes us want to break out. The Qur'an has an idea: Enforce the system from the outside. People can't do it on their own. But if you could make everyone in a society follow the perfect system, you could have a perfect society.
In the movie Pleasantville, the men join together and try to restore order, under the banner of the Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce. They try to enforce pleasant behavior. They create a code of conduct for everyone to live by and they punish the ones who rebel. And what you see is what happens in real life. People feel a conflict. Yes, they want a pleasant society, but not at the cost of their personal freedoms. Many wonderful and terrible things didn't exist in the perfect world of Pleasantville: Art, sex, women's rights, creativity, exciting music, novelty, love, passion, anger, awakening, self-discovery, self-expression, disagreement, conflict, change, violence, book-burning, discovery, exploration, experimentation, new experience, rebellion, defiance, personal growth, and the list goes on and on. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
What does it take to keep the ugly and bad stuff away? You have to get rid of a lot of the good stuff. That's what it takes. And you have to make it a crime to step out of line. You have to have punishments. So the perfect world has its own ugly side. Do you know about the punishments in Islamic law? If you steal something, they cut off your hand. If you have premarital sex or drink alcohol, you get flogged. For adultery, both the man and the woman are stoned to death.
The punishments are intentionally extreme so they are a strong deterrent. They don't cut very many hands off because that law really discourages theft, and after getting caught twice, you don't have any hands left to steal anything with. I'm not advocating this by any means. You already know how I feel. I believe in freedom. But that doesn't mean people who try to come up with the perfect systems are necessarily evil.
I think the movie could help freedom-lovers sympathize with the perfect-world-lovers because after all, we in the audience are also attracted to the perfect world of Pleasantville at first. We sympathize with David, who wants to get away from his ugly, sometimes painful life, and doesn't realize or appreciate how much freedom he enjoys until it is taken away from him.
And the movie could also help the perfect-world-lovers see the beauty and magnificence of freedom — and the joy of not knowing what's going to happen next. And the satisfaction of choosing your own destiny.
In the book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Robert Pirsig wrote about the difference between static quality (the perfect world) and dynamic quality (a free society), and how these two forces are always and necessarily in conflict, and in a way the tension between the two is a good thing in the long run, or at least could be a good thing.
In one of the scenes in the movie, David and his girlfriend are out by the lake. She has just found out that David has seen the world outside of Pleasantville. She never has, and until recently, didn't even know it existed. She asks him, "So what's it like out there?"
He says, "Well...it's louder. And scarier, I guess. And it's a lot more dangerous."
"It sounds fantastic!" she says enthusiastically. Sure. For someone whose life has been ordered and perfect, a little dynamic quality would be like cool water to someone dying of thirst. That's the glory and the downside of human nature living in a free society.
With freedom, you have to learn to live with the fact that things aren't the same any more and never will be. That's both tragic and wonderful.