Movies of 1998 Bracket Game: The Truman Show Vs. Pleasantville
1998 is right in the middle of an era in cinema that I have great affection for. The success of former video store employee Quentin Tarantino had been hugely influential and motivated a general expanded interest in independent film and in the value of both movie trivia and the expertise of your local hole-in-the-wall movie rental clerk. Many of the bigger studios had scrambled to put together projects and promote filmmakers who would help to bolster their street credibility and make them seem in tune with the times. While at moments this resulted in some movies that only had the markers associated with the sort of stuff they thought we wanted to see, but none of the genuine connection with the material that had made it interesting to begin with, I’d say the overall result was positive. Creative and idiosyncratic efforts were more likely to get the green light, and I consider that to be a good thing. At the same time, we were still getting a lot of very mainstream movies with pretty varied results, which served to remind us both of the value of earlier studio approaches and of the corporate malaise that independent films were in part a reaction against. It was a fine time to be a movie fan.
Obviously, what we have here are two very different takes on television. One questions the morality of certain kinds of productions and the separation between real life and imagined life while the other uses our perceptions of specific small screen entertainments as a leaping off point for its ideas about change and enlightenment. Which treatise on small screen media resonates more for you? Come step behind the camera and give them both a look.
In yesterday’s matchup of popular goofball comedies, an anticipated knock-down-drag-out turned into an early knock-out, as the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski took a lead right off the bat and was never really challenged by the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. Next up for the Dude is a contest against box office bully Adam Sandler. But first, we head into the lower quarter of our bracket.
Believe it or not, so-called “reality” television hasn’t been around for very long in the big picture. The form arose in its current manner in the early nineties, and saw a gradual build to prominence even before Survivor or American Idol. In 1998 we got the first of two different major studio projects on the topic with Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. As timely as the subject was, the project had actually been in the works in different forms since 1991 when writer Andrew Niccol first created a treatment called “The Malcolm Show” that was more dramatic and sinister than the eventual film. It came from the writer’s curiosity over the possibility that life could be something other than what it seemed, but instead of the sort of hard solipsism that The Matrix would later posit, his script was more based on the machinations of the real world. The script was purchased in 1993 and a series of directors was considered for the project after Niccol was paid to step away from that task. Higher profile directors were desired by Paramount and Brian DePalma, Terry Gilliam, Barry Sonnenfeld, Steven Spielberg, and Tim Burton were all at one point or another either actually attached to direct or were considered for the project. Once Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) had signed on, he made determined efforts to change the overall tone of the movie, adding in significant comic elements. This involved Niccol doing sixteen different rewrites and casting his personal ideal leading man, one Jim Carrey who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world at this point based on his very wacky comedies and who was looking to do different sorts of projects.
While The Truman Show buried one man in an invented reality he wasn’t privy to for the entertainment of others, Pleasantville sent a brother and sister from the modern world into the nostalgic world of a 1950s era television show whose inhabitants were not aware of any outside world. Writer/director Gary Ross was previously best known for penning 1988’s Big and 1993’s Dave, but this was the first opportunity he had to direct his own script, and he set his degree of difficulty pretty high for a first attempt. The high concept comedy not only required a brand new computerized color saturation technique, but also ventured far past the easy jokes you’d expect into very fertile philosophical and political ground. The photography was all done in full color and later thousands and thousands of frames of 35 millimeter footage were scanned and then had the color altered to produce the final look of the film. This work helped to garner the film three Academy Award nominations, including for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. The visual wizardry of the film was well featured in its marketing and along with generally favorable reviews from mainstream sources perhaps led to it opening at number one at the box office. Unfortunately, after a few weeks it appears that everyone who wanted to see Pleasantville already had and the movie was removed from theaters after just its fifth week. The movie did stir up hornets in certain corners of the world due to its anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian themes that decried stuff like racism and censorship. Apparently some people like racism and censorship. Who knew?
Which television-themed high-concept comedy with something to say struck a chord with you? Vote here and tell us about it in the comments section.