Monday, June 20, 2005

Thinking in colours

It's funny that the Deputy Headmistress at The Common Room just posted about homemaking and (not) worrying about needing to be June Cleaver, because this weekend Mama Squirrel and Mr. Fixit watched the movie Pleasantville. Mama Squirrel does not recommend this movie for families; it contained enough adult material to make her blush even though she was only watching it with Mr. Fixit. Mama Squirrel also (deliberately) has not read any reviews or criticism of the movie yet, because she wants to comment on it as it came across to her without getting cluttered up with what other people think it was about.

Pleasantville, for those who haven't seen it, is a kind of a Back-to-the-Future story about a teenager and his sister who get zapped, not back into the actual 1950's, but into the black-and-white world of his favourite old sitcom (think Leave it to Beaver), a place where beds only come in twin size, books have no writing inside them, and people exist in a kind of static, unchanging, naive reality (since they are only really characters on the show). As the two of them begin to interact with this world, their ideas and actions start to bring parts of Pleasantville (and some of its characters) into full colour; books start to have real contents, and the artificial stability of the town comes crashing down.

There is a huge amount of symbolism in the movie–-rain as rebirth (it never rains in Pleasantville), roses and D.H. Lawrence, forbidden fruit; besides the main metaphor of things (people, ideas) turning from black and white into colour. There's also a strong and interesting emphasis on the role of books in this renaissance, including a big book burning scene and the city’s decision to close the public library along with “Lover’s Lane.” It's interesting that, at the end of the movie, the sister (who never cared about school) decides to stay in this "time" (which wasn't really any time at all) so that she can go to college.

So reality, unreality; Pleasantville, as it was created, was obviously unreality. Northrop Frye contends that our whole everyday world of small amusements and hassles is unreality, and that our "real" talk about ideas (about literature, for example) is what lasts, what counts. From David Cayley's interview with Frye (from the book Northrop Frye in Conversation):
Cayley: ....You’ve often written about the unreality of the real world, and my sense of what you mean is that when one comes into the presence of Milton, to take your example, one then enters what is truly real. The educational journey is from unreality to reality in your view.

Frye: Yes, the unreality being what’s out there and reported in the papers, and the reality being what remains stable or improves. If I look over the seventy-seven years I’ve lived in this ghastly century....I see only one thing that has remained stable during that time, and that’s the arts. I would include religion with the arts, by the way.

Cayley: And can you say what you mean by stable?

Frye: Something that’s there and won’t go away.

Cayley: What was your advice to students [during the student protests of the 1960's]? What was the way you wanted students to take?

Frye: It was the way of the intellect and the imagination. Those are the powers that you’re given and things you’re responsible for....the demand for relevance, which was, again, an anti-intellectual movement among students, meant of course that they wanted every lecture, every classroom meeting, every gathering of students to be an exciting existential experience. They wanted to shuck off the steady repetitive practice, which is the only thing that does contribute to the real advance of either the intellect or the imagination.....the demand for relevance was, to my mind, the absolute antithesis of what education is about. Education is a matter of developing the intellect and the imagination, which deal with reality, and reality is always irrelevant.

Is the "ivory tower" of the study of the humanities reality or unreality? Are our everyday lives ("the trivial round, the common task") just black and white? (Frye said that an arts degree was useless; and that if it wasn't, then it wasn't worth much.) Is reality just when we write about the books we're reading, or when we post pictures of our cats or our family trips? This is one place where I think Frye forgot something: although our conversations about the "real stuff" (like literature) may bring the colours into our everyday existence, it doesn't necessarily follow that everything else is black and white or unreal. Mama Squirrel prefers to think that because we have these opportunities to think and talk in living colour, the colour finds its way into the rest of our lives rather than being something separate.

And for those who are always trying to define what a living book is, Mama Squirrel has a suggestion: "a book that makes you think in colours."


Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience said...

"A book that makes you think in colours"....Exactly, Mama Squirrel.

Ann Holyexperience

Mama Squirrel said...

A comment on my own post: I would like to point out again that mulling over the points that Pleasantville tried to make doesn't mean that I think it was a swell movie. After having looked at a cross-section of reviews (positive and negative), I'd recommend reading Plugged In's review at , for a succinct look at why the movie's values don't necessarily reflect a Christian worldview. BUT: even a movie that is somewhat wrong-headed can still give us something to think about or a metaphor to use. Right?