Dads Against the Divorce Industry

DA*DI is devoted to reinstating the societal valuation of Marriage and the traditional, nuclear American Family, with particular emphasis on the essential role of FATHERS.

DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

Marriage and Family

Some Boomers Try Smearing the Past

James Pinkerton

HOLLYWOOD knows that you can't have drama without a villain. And in the No. 1 movie in America today, the villain is your father, that middle-class guy who moved to the suburbs in search of a better life for himself and his family. What an oppressive pig he was, constructing a bastion of white-bread sameness in which diversity and spontaneity were prohibited.

Of course, there's nothing new under the Hollywood sun. For decades now from "The Graduate" to "The Stepford Wives" to "Ordinary People" to "Edward Scissorhands" to "The Ice Storm," suburbia has been a synonym for stuffy stultification.

But no major motion picture has painted that critique as starkly as "Pleasantville." Starting from a "Back to the Future"-ish premise, the film depicts people of today as living in sophisticated color, while the people of yesterday were stunted black-and-white naifs. And just in case someone in the audience might not get it, writer-producer-director Gary Ross provides a closeup of a calendar in those dull old days: April, 1958.

The movie revolves around the liberation of people from their '50s drudgery. Indeed, when one time-traveling character wonders whether it's a good idea to mess with a contented culture, the other responds, "Maybe it needs to be messed with."

And, of course, the real truth, "Pleasantville" argues, is that people weren't really happy back then; they just didn't know any better. But when they do gain knowledge and authenticity - for example, when they have sex or put on public display nude paintings of someone else's wife - they are magically transformed from Philco monochrome to Trinitron brilliance.

And who are the people who oppose the Greenwich Village-ization of Pleasantville? Once again, the film simplifies and stereotypes: The forces of reaction are thuggish white males, shrewish white females and, in the case of the fascistic book-burning arch-villain, a repressed homosexual who can be helped only if he is honest about his sexuality.

Yet if the film is typical Hollywood fare, it seems out of touch with the larger culture. Perhaps that explains why the much-hyped film barely edged out movies already in the theaters, such as "Practical Magic" and "Antz." Might film audiences be thinking that the stifling 40-year-old patriarch of 1958 was also the young citizen soldier of 1944 who saved Private Ryan at Normandy - and then kept the world free from Nazis and Communists?

But wait. Whatever the external dangers the United States faced, weren't the '50s also the days of paranoid McCarthyite red-baiting, in which innocent nonconformists were hounded and harassed just as in "Pleasantville"? Here again, the wheel of history has turned. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), in his new book, "Secrecy: The American Experience," argues: "A significant Communist constituency was in place in Washington, New York and Los Angeles." Recently declassified evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the Rosenbergs, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss were in fact Soviet spies.

In other words, the anti-Communists of the day were more right than wrong. And while nothing ever justifies witch-hunting, new Cold War scholarship undercuts the traditional Hollywood view, displayed yet again in this film: that narrow-minded Pleasantvilleans were the real threat to freedom.

So why does Hollywood keep grinding out such movies? Maybe it has something to do with those Baby Boomers, such as Ross, who do the grinding. Georgia Witkin, a professor at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, calls it "awfulizing": the mental process of making the past seem worse than it was. And why would someone do that? "Every memory function serves a purpose," she says, adding that altering memories of the past - making the past seem awful - can help people justify their own lifestyle choices today.

So "Pleasantville" isn't about arguing the merits of the '50s vs. the '90s. It's about squelching that argument. Boomers, sitting in positions of power from Sunset Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue, must know by now that they aren't the morally superior change-agents they proclaimed themselves to be even just a few years ago. But, rather than admit their own failings, some Boomers would rather smear the past, so that at least they can feel better about the world that they have made.

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