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Cinema: Pleasantville (12) - It's a phantasmagorical life

Director: Gary Ross Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, Reese Witherspoon

124 mins

To parody Marx, a spectre is haunting contemporary Hollywood - the spectre of Bedford Falls. Who or what is Bedford Falls? It's the small town in which Frank Capra set his hardy perennial, It's a Wonderful Life, a masterpiece which, if unappreciated on its original release, can now arguably be considered the single most influential movie in the history of the American cinema.

The story It's a Wonderful Life has to tell is essentially pessimistic, but most spectators choose to ignore that fact, preferring to focus on its idealised evocation of small-town Americana. It's certainly that aspect of the movie - its "suburban pastoral" mode - that permeates the work of Spielberg (notably, ET) and was lampooned by Joe Dante in Gremlins and David Lynch in Blue Velvet. Less remarked upon is that It's a Wonderful Life also invented a version of chaos theory avant la lettre. The one idea everyone has retained from chaos theory is that minor causes can have major effects - a butterfly fluttering its wings in Bolivia may be responsible for a tidal wave in Japan - and that's also Capra's message. On the verge of both bankruptcy and suicide, Jimmy Stewart is made to see that the quality of life in his home town has been immeasurably enriched by his own rumpled, fallible decency. Without him, it would have become a hellhole of squalid honky-tonk joints and rooming-houses.

That, I realise, is a somewhat lengthy preamble, but Gary Ross's Pleasantville is only really interesting - as distinct from consistently watchable, nicely played and occasionally affecting - if inscribed within a codified generic tradition of which It's a Wonderful Life remains the epitome and the apotheosis. Its two protagonists, the teenage brother and sister David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), find themselves transported (don't ask how) into the former's favourite TV show, the titular Pleasantville, a black-and-white sitcom from the 1950s that, four decades later, has become the object of a campy cult among sophisticated geeks. As was true of primitive American sitcoms, Pleasantville has been ruthlessly bowdlerised of life's grittier realities. It has no sex, no violence, no adultery, no divorce, no culture (the pages of any unopened book glimpsed on the show turn out to be blank), no intimate bodily functions (none of the houses has a lavatory) and, naturally, no colour.

Then the presence of a couple of our heroes, two sexy, knowing adolescents from the 1990s, begins insidiously to contaminate this bland, serpent- less Eden. Colour seeps into Pleasantville's textures. The books acquire texts (Melville, Twain). The town's bigoted and stubbornly monochromatic elders take repressive action against what they dismiss as "the coloureds" (something of a cheap shot, that). And the clean-cut captain of the high- school basketball team suddenly discovers, between his legs, a fleshy, dual-purpose contraption that he seems not to have noticed before.

It's an ingenious concept, and one that engenders a lot of sparky fun along the way. I liked Joan Allen's archetypal sitmom, rustling up vast, lethal breakfasts for her brood, then, when belated sexual fulfilment with the manager of the local diner (Jeff Daniels) gives her skin a glowing Technicolor tan, applying black-and-white face make-up to prevent her husband (William H Macy) putting two and two together. I liked Macy's hilariously woebegone confession that, since his wife left him, he's lived on a strict regime of cocktail olives. And I liked - in fact, I never tired of - the repeated effect of a minute and delicate splash of colour embellishing an otherwise black-and-white image. (There's one lovely shot of pink cherry blossoms drifting softly on to a grey country lane.)

Unfortunately, like a lot of movies with ingenious concepts (Multiplicity, The Truman Show), Pleasantville isn't so much too clever by half as not clever enough by half. That it all ends in mush is scarcely a surprise - it's an American movie, after all - but, even as one watches it, one can't resist mentally tidying up the scenario, registering and regretting the missed opportunities, ironing out the nagging little wrinkles. Why raise the lavatory joke if it's only to drop it again? How come the sitcom's characters, who've never known anything but a monochrome world, are instantly capable of distinguishing one colour from another? Why, above all, should black and white be associated with emotional impoverishment and sexual repression while colour has the monopoly of light and life and love?

Colour, precisely. I'm going to be subjective, film-buffish and a touch pedantic here, and I'm conscious that the vast majority of Pleasantville's spectators will be indifferent to the objection I'm about to raise, but the fact is that the hundred-year-old history of the cinema is divisible into two virtually exact halves. Up to the halfway mark, circa 1950, almost all movies were in black and white; since then, almost all have been in colour. A medium which used to be lunar is now, so to speak, solar.

For scholars, historians and cinephiles, however, no value judgement should be made on the sole basis of that difference. In life, we may all be instinctively attracted to colour and shy from the drably monochromatic, but the first half of film history contains just as many warm and lyrical and euphoria-generating romances in black and white as the second half does in colour. To take only the example that most immediately springs to mind, Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner, a work of sheer, miraculous perfection, was in black and white, whereas Nora Ephron's inept and saccharine new remake, You've Got Mail, is in colour. And of course It's A Wonderful Life was in black and white too.

It would be tempting to propose that, where colour in the movies is concerned, less is more - except that, for some of us, it's black-and-white cinematography, with its exquisitely subtle palette of shadows and shadings, that actually offers the spectator more, not less.