In the opening scene of Pleasantville lots of aspects of mise-en-scene are used. Colour is one of them, even though the fictional tv channel “TV Time” only broadcasts shows in black and white, the promotion for the Pleasantville marathon is crowded with an array of colours in order to catch the attention of both the on screen audience such as David, and the off screen audience watching the film. The shift from colour to black and white helps drive the narrative as we are instantly placed the the world of Pleasantville, conforming to their traditional values and 1950’s lifestyle of a classic white suburb in the era. The setting of the town sets the narrative course for the film, no crime, poverty or injustice is present, foreshadowing that this system might slowly begin to crack and decay towards the climax of the story, when characters from a more culturally diverse and female empowered generation are transported into alternate universe. The town is within its own bubble, no one leaves or enters, nothing changes because it follows the structure of a episodic format, so the characters lives and decisions are already depicted for them. The world is perfect but equally as fragile, because it is so traditional in regards to 1950’s lifestyle any aspects of change threaten to destroy it all.
The huge house in the opening scene sets our narrative expectations that the story will revolve around a wealthy 1950’s nuclear family due to the magnitude of it and the performance confirms that. A staple phrase in the media to represent a family in the 50’s was “honey, I’m home”, pointed out by the old Hollywood narrator in the opening scene. This was a signal to wives that their husband had returned from work an they were expecting a warm welcome upon arrival, George Parker (William H. Macy) exclaims this to his wife Betty (Joan Allen) who greets him with a margarita and cooked dinner. It presents to the audience how she is currently viewed in society as simply a housewife and this makes her transformation into ‘colour’ one of the more drastic as it’s symbolic to her freedom and independence as a woman in society at the time.
Contrast in costumes is prominent in the opening scene, the citizens of Pleasantville condone to the fashion of the era, men wear suits, suspenders and hats which allowed them to be respected by others and highlighted their social status. Women on the other hand were expected to be feminine to attract male attention, however it was also very respectable, Betty is seen in a floor length dress and apron, with light makeup and curled hair, making an effort for her husband even though she had simple been taking care of the house. This projecting the expectations of women in the story, helping to drive narration forward as once the town begins to change she is no longer waiting at the door for him. Cohen’s third thesis Monster Culture (Seven Theses) explores social construct in society, within Pleasantville men have a clear dominance of power over women, however when Betty is absent from home when George arrives she “threatens to smash distinctions” (Cohen 70, 71) as the narrative shows the changes and breakdown of their traditional roles.
Towards the climax of the film Bob (J.T. Walsh) and George are discussing the “changes” that are occurring around the town, the lighting is classic old Hollywood, soft three point. This creates a calm atmosphere as Bob tries to hide his concern at the issues his town is facing by making light-hearted jokes, but due to the low level of the lighting it “may induce feelings of anxiety, even terror” (Dix, 21) portraying that in actual fact he is worried at what the future holds for his community. The lighting shifts when David is consoling his crying mother who is ashamed of turning coloured, it is harsh to highlight both the distressed look of Betty and the shocked expression of David in seeing how quickly his fantasy world is affecting those closet to him. Moreover top lighting on Betty is implemented which demonstrates her beauty in colour and how she shouldn’t have to hide behind makeup in an attempt to fit in to society.
Make up is an important factor in this scene, it is used as both a prop and as a form of narration so Betty can continue living her ‘normal’ life without judgement. The makeup is a disguise so she can continue to blend into society, her son David applies the makeup for her, revealing his caring nature even though he is still black and white and conforming with the ‘pleasant’ nature of this reality. On the other hand it could show an underlining meaning that he feels she needs makeup to be acceptable, it can represent the divide between masculinity and femininity that troubled the era. Gaines described this sort of costume as an “‘eye-catcher’ that dangerously distracts the spectator from the key task of the following narrative line”(Gaines, 1991: 203-11) but instead of the spectator being distracted it’s the characters in the film due to the drastic alterations disrupting their social norms. George’s repetition of “Betty” further highlights this as she is more concerned about society’s view on her differing looks than the needs or wants of her husband.
Betty’s mirror is introduced in this scene and continues as a motif for social change throughout the film. In this instance it is used as a safety barrier for Betty, as she wants to remain colourless and is nervous to see her reflection as it could reveal her true nature. When she sees herself she is overcome with relief and wont be shunned by her society. Her mirror is a prop that “performs an informational role in narrative cinema” (Dix, 17) because it focuses on the attitudes towards diversity both in the film and in the era of the 1950’s. Close up shots of the mirror indicate it’s an important feature and means great value to Betty, it allows her to see her true self as a free woman going again societies set constructs. The mirror is then used again in a later scene to reveal to David he has also turned to colour, this time the reaction is more positive as he has accepted his diversity and is no longer holding onto his fantasy values of what pleasantville should be.
In this scene a riot commences due to the black and white people hating how the colour in the town is changing the attitudes of the residents. Before the riot David and Margaret (Marley Shelton) share an innocent kiss outside of David’s house, a black and white local drives up to them asking the still uncoloured David why he’s not at the town meeting discussing how to stop the town changing. When David refuses to attend the local calls his date the “coloured girlfriend” degrading both him and Margarets relationship based solely on her colour. This highlights the tension between interracial couples in the 1950’s as white people were seen as superior, in ‘Pleasantville’ the same idea is constructed through the narrative in order to segregate the colours from the colourless and portray how distant the town has come with all the abnormalities David and Jennifer have provoked by changing the course of the citizens narrative line. After the town meeting the audience are taken to the diner where Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) is scraping his colourful abstract art work off of his window due to the pressures of his town to be colourless and none expressive. Over the road stands Betty, whom we now know is utterly infatuated with Bill even though she is married.