Monday, June 23, 2014

The Zen of Pleasantville (1998) Movie Analysis | Internal GongFu

The movie Pleasantville (1998) starring Toby McGuire, Reese Witherspoon,, ingeniously illustrates two ways of experiencing Life; either through fear, control, and repressing life feeling or by accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling.

As you may know, there are as many analyses of this movie as there are those offering such analyses. However, in my opinion each of these either unconsciously overlooks or deliberately ignores parts of the movie which do not support their point of view.

Contrary to others' reviews, I contend that this movie has no plot because Pleasantville is a state of mind. Even though the typical plot description narrates two 1990s teens navigating life in the 1950s, this “plot” is actually a cleverly designed vehicle to present a collage of "accepting, allowing, and expressing life feeling" experiences, any one of which may lead to a Zen enlightenment moment.

These moments are ingeniously portrayed using a change from black & white to color. The moments depicted in the movie involve: falling in love, experiencing and expressing the sensuality of sexuality, exploring artistic expression through painting, reading and feeling an author’s words, taking a stand for someone, acknowledging a deep feeling of love and appreciation for someone, expressing rage. Authentic expression - “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

Prior to these moments, the Pleasantville state of mind controls and regulates the expression of these natural impulses of Life through mind-numbing routines. Pleasantville is a world of black & white and shades of gray. It is a world where there are no highs or lows, where everyone and everything is, well, pleasant. It is a world of codes of conduct, habitual behaviors, book burnings, sexual assault,  repression and destruction of artistic expression, restrictions on movement and thought, fear of freedom, etc.

Another way to think of this movie might be as a depiction contrasting the two extremes as elucidated in Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:

Therefore when the Dao is lost, then virtue arises  (故失道而後德)
When virtue is lost, then righteousness arises  (失德而後仁)
When righteousness is lost, then morality arises  (失仁而後義)
When morality is lost, then law arises  (失義而後禮。)

The movie begins with David firmly believing that life is supposed to be a certain way and as his “supposed to be” falls apart around him, he seeks refuge in escaping to a fantasy of “supposed to be”. (Each of us has a “supposed to be”. What’s yours?) In this example, the central character (representing me and you) imagines life in his “supposed to be” world.
Bud: If we don't play along, we can alter their whole existence...
In this line, Bud is expressing fear about changing. Addressing fears is a huge part of an internal gongfu practice.
Bud: He won't notice anyway.
Mary Sue: Why not?
Bud: They just don't notice that kind of thing around here.
When you live mechanistically, when you get locked into patterns, when you are even a little bit numb to feeling in any area of your life, then your level of noticing is limited and it is really difficult to notice anything outside of the pattern. This presents a huge problem to practicing internal gongfu where one’s ability to notice what is simply there is dampered by one’s habitual patterns and blind spots.
Skip: I think I might be ill. Something's happening to me.
Mary Sue: That's supposed to happen.
Skip: It is?
Mary Sue: Yeah. Trust me.
The first time you have a breakthrough and feel in an area that had long been shut down, you literally will have no concept to explain the feeling. Trying to "make sense" of it, you will likely misinterpret what you are feeling. Someone who is familiar with you and with the process can reassure you. In this scene it is interesting that despite this couple having had sex, they both remain in black & white. This is a key point. Simply going through the motions is not the same as being fully connected.
What's outside of Pleasantville?
This is an important question. What would be my experience of life it I did not live it as “supposed to be”? How would my life be different if I felt a little more deeply, if I connected a little more? Having the curiosity to simply ask the question is a huge step.
Mary Sue: How come I'm still in black and white?
Bud: What?
Mary Sue: I've had ten times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend like an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden, they're in Technicolor?
Bud: I don't know. Maybe it's not just the sex.
This is an excellent example of how you can be disassociated from or not connected to your body. You may simply go through the motions or you may develop connection.
Dad: One minute, everything's fine. The next... What went wrong?
Bud: Nothing went wrong. People change.
Dad: People change?
Bud: Yeah, people change.
Dad: Can they change back?
Bud: I don't know. I think it's harder.
In this poignant, touching scene, Bud has recently changed to color. He has connected with himself. His dad is still in black & white. I think this brief dialogue speaks for itself.
Bud: I know you want it to stay pleasant around here but there are so many things that are so much better. Like silly or sexy or dangerous or brief. And every one of those things is in you all the time if you just have the guts to look for them.
In this courtroom scene, Bud expresses what he is learning. It takes courage to address resistances however subtle. Once a resistance is removed, everything changes.
Mom: I'm forty years old. It's not supposed to be like this.
David: It’s not supposed to be anything. Hold still.
Mom: How'd you get so smart all of a sudden?
David: I had a good day.
Here, David summarizes his Zen moment of realization, “It’s not supposed to be anything.”

The movie concludes with these lines:
George: So what's gonna happen now?
Betty: I don't know. Do you know what's going to happen now?
George: No. I don't.
Bill: I guess I don't, either.
We like to think we know how our days, seasons, and life should be or will be but in reality…

Here’s an experiment you may try. After you watch the film, imagine you are amongst the crowd leaving the courthouse or any other moment where a character first experiences seeing something or someone in color. Now, put yourself in that person’s place and look around you. Select one object at a time. See that object for the first time, in color, without name, fresh, new. Allow yourself to feel awe and wonder (the Wow! moment) at the vibrancy of its distinct shape, the tone and hue of its color(s). Look at a few other objects the same way. Now notice how different this feeling is from your ordinary black & white experience of only a moment ago and to that which you will likely return.

In terms of internal gongfu and developing internal strength, this little experiment provides a useful distinction of just how different your ordinary “black & white” muscle movement feeling is from the “color” feeling of internal connection. The subtle shift in feeling you experienced is the level of subtly at which internal gongfu is played.

A big stumbling block on the path to developing internal strength is maintaining the belief that it is supposed to feel like something. If we learn anything from the movie Pleasantville, it is that "it" is not supposed to be like anything.

If you did not notice a distinct shift in feeling, don’t despair. When I first saw this movie over ten years ago, I barely understood the symbolism at the level of data. It's taken a long time for me to reach the understanding of this movie that I have today.

And know too that as you develop sensitivity at one level, there is another level and another and another… Through the training process, your body changes and you develop your ability to notice and feel at more subtle levels. "It" is constantly changing. To try to reduce this dynamic process to a "supposed to be" puts you on a mechanistic path to a dead end.

And so the relevance of the movie Pleasantville to an internal gongfu practice lies in its portrayal of how we approach an internal gongfu practice. We generally start in the black & white world of Pleasantville and evolve to discovering color. We struggle along the way. And we don't know which moment will be the breakthrough moment. Even though we may think that we are "on the path", we won't "get it" until we "pass through the door" and connect deeply within ourselves and with others.

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