Look back in angst at Thanksgiving

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THEY MAY be richer than ever, live in bigger houses, enjoy cleaner air and better health, but some of that sunny optimism is fading from their lives. As they trim and stuff their turkeys ready for tomorrow'sThanksgiving celebrations, white, middle-class Americans are looking inwards, and back.

A recent crop of films examines what might be called the American condition on the threshold of the millennium, and it is shot through with angst for a way of life that may not be all it seems and may never have been.

From The Truman Show, a morality play for the television age, through Pleasantville, a critical look back at the America of the Fifties, to Happiness, a search behind the respectable facade of a "perfect" American family to find some very dirty linen, the ideal of wholesome, family- orientated America held dear by generations is cracking.

The leading character of The Truman Show is the real-life and unwitting star of a soap opera that has revolved around him since his birth. He lives in the television dimension. Everything else - wife, house, neighbours, job, town - are fabricated according to the television ideal; every man is manly in a televisual way, every woman is beautiful, and every child, as Garrison Keillor said in his gently satirised tales of Lake Wobegon, is above average.

For the viewer, the earliest clues of the deception are a prophetic falling "star" that shatters like the light bulb it is, and the digressions by Truman's "wife" to advertise commercial products, direct to camera.

They culminate in the first storm in living memory to hit the manufactured world under its artificial sky. This ultimately gives Truman an inkling, and then the certainty, of a world outside. The "moral" is the obvious one: "True man's" overriding need for freedom.

The limits of small-town America are a theme also of Pleasantville, a box office success for "all the family", which hammers home the message that those glorious, secure, innocent Fifties you may be tempted to feel nostalgia for were not so wonderful: they were circumscribed, cold and bigoted.

The tale is of two Nineties teenagers transported back to the world of a Fifties soap opera, with two-parent, two-child families forced by social and civic pressures to conform, whatever the personal cost. In a crude device that transforms the characters from their black and white originals to glorious Technicolor, each is "awakened" to personal enjoyment and fulfilment through the Nineties knowledge and experience of the newly arrived teenagers.

Even the issue of race is introduced as the "coloureds" are subjected to discrimination by the as yet unenlightened monotone characters.

Happiness - a niche film rejected by the big distributors worried that one of the characters emerges a paedophile - lifts the veil on an outwardly "model" American family. Three generations are shown in progressive disintegration, with the most perfect of them all - the comfortable, complacent suburban housewife who has it all - big house, money, children and loyal husband - having her contentment stripped away as her psychoanalyst husband's vice is exposed and her own Nineties tolerance breaks.

Despite the combined message from all three films that the idealised world of family- values America does not exist, something else emerges. There is at the heart of each an ambivalence; it is as though none of the directors could quite dismiss the fabricated ideal altogether.

Was Truman better off when he believed in his world? Of the teenagers transported into the Fifties, the boy (David/Bud) returns to the Nineties still enamoured of stable family and fixed values. The girl (Jennifer/Mary Sue), abandons the permissiveness she brought to the Fifties world, retreating chastely to her frilled bedroom and her books. And Happiness shocked some critics with its refusal to condemn the "perfect" husband for his paedophilia.

The cumulative impression is of a troubled - white - caste that is unsure whether the comforts and principles it lived for ever had any substance. After all, those pretty clapboard towns are reproduced as flimsy housing developments across America; the props of that showy television world can be bought at every shopping mall, and those families that will gather around the dinner table tomorrow are, more often than not, fractured.

No wonder these people are reluctant to shame President Bill Clinton. The brash New World is at last starting to feel the self-doubt of the Old.