Reviews Short Documentary

The Pleasants Effect (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Pete Levine

Running time: 36mins

One of the things I often find hardest about reviews for Indy Film Library, is avoiding playing ‘fantasy filmmaker’. While I would argue there is no such thing as objective criticism in this game – we all bring something of ourselves to the movies, and those aspects of our personality inescapably affect how we interact with the film in front of us – the longer I talk about what I wish the film had, the further I wander from any possible shared response other viewers might have had.

Bearing that in mind for the sake of The Pleasants Effect, let’s at least get the actual contents of the film out of the way first. This is a short documentary, pieced together by director Pete Levine, some 50 years after he recorded the footage. This gives it the endearing time-capsule qualities of Too Good to be Forgotten – giving us insight into a bygone world, of now-alien hairstyles, sensibilities and cultures.

In the middle of this lost world sits Mary Pleasants, the ageing matriarch of a family that had seemingly been on the brink of the American dream, decades earlier. Text from Levine explains that he first met her while delivering brooms for the Fuller Brush company – when she told him a story he felt needed to be recorded, and re-recorded.

Mary lived an incredible life, by her account. Born in the late 1800s, she moved to San Francisco when she was young, suffering from a lung condition which her parents hoped the city’s climate might help assuage. Painting a picture of life in the city at the turn of the century – from the effects its thick smog had on the horses which pulled carriages through the streets, to chilling recollections of the devastating fires which broke out following the 1906 earthquake – Mary’s account of life back then is something any collector of oral history would be ecstatic at having captured.

That is not the story Levine seems to have been interested in, though, then or now. What really seems to have captured his imagination is Mary’s claims that her late husband, Clellan Ross Pleasants, had invented a method for controlling the weather. At this point, the picture that has been built of life on America’s west coast fades into the background, eclipsed by a number of fantastical claims.

Mary is keen to note her husband was not a scientist, but rather an inventor in the mould of Thomas Edison – operating by trial and error, and finding new uses for natural phenomena. Exactly what he did, or why it allegedly worked, therefore remained a mystery to him and to her. However, after he spent several days tinkering in the garage with a garbage pail and some different materials, he produced a burnt dust he thought could lift away fog at his command. Not only would this solve many of the issues they faced on the dangerous smoggy streets of San Francisco, but it could lift fog that endangered the nascent technology of air-travel. Mary tells the camera that one foggy night, C.R. took her to Twin Peaks (no, not that one) and he opened up a bag – parting the fog before them.

As the story nears its ending, Mary notes that it “would have made a marvellous picture”. And if you’re as cynical as me, you won’t be able to avoid thinking “yep, sure is a shame there was never any way of recording this miracle in the following decades.” Which inevitably brings me to one of the biggest problems with the film…

All we have as proof for any of this are the anecdotes of Mary (and very briefly her son and her grandson). While Levine seems to have thought he would be able to use editing to shore up the core claims of the film in spite of this, the opposite ends up being the case. Throughout The Pleasants Effect, Mary is interviewed from multiple angles and in different settings, seemingly retelling the same stories. Presumably, this is to make her testimony more believable – because we get to see that the story remains consistent every time. But Levine does not allow for the same full sentences to full emerge from her mouth – instead, roughly chopping together clips from different interviews to make sentences that jump out as having been doctored. It is a technique he continues to deploy throughout the film, and often plays audio with no visual accompaniment. As we hear the audio chop and change throughout the constructed statements, it becomes impossible to suspend our disbelief any further. At this point, not only are we being invited to take Mary’s word for something seemingly impossible, it is not even clear that this is actually her word – and without the use of a medium, it will be impossible to ever seek clarification.

The rest of the film sees Mary recount the rest of C.R. Pleasants’ life after his miracle discovery. It is implied that the ‘politics’ of high-ranking officials was largely the reason why no business or government organisation (not to mention no army on either side of World War II) ever availed themselves of his technology. That, and the fact he went into business with a man known only as Dimity to try and promote it.

Of all the figures in this unrecognisable past, Dimity will be the most familiar to 21st century audiences. According to Mary, Dimity saw great potential in the development; not as a product to actually sell, but a concept which never needed to come to fruition to make money. Just as contemporary ‘luminaries’ like Elon Musk have long since realised, a fool and his money are soon parted when they think their stake could be the one that helps a money-making tool – however impossible – ‘get off the ground’. So, like the idiots who poured funding into Hyperloop, backers soon find they are actually sinking cash into an endless tunnel to nowhere.

Whether or not C.R. had invented something incredible, setting up shop with a Musk-equivalent – only interested in taking credit for an ‘innovation’ he could use to sell shares as an eternal ‘start-up’, rather than producing anything – did his credibility no favours. Neither did the fact that with another half-century of hindsight, Levine never considered getting an actual scientist to try and prove or disprove any of the claims in his footage. Finally, that brings me to what isn’t in this film – and while I know I warned against that, I think it’s arguably as important as what has been included.

The film is at war with itself. On the one hand, it presents itself as a time-capsule of freshly unearthed mysteries – to be taken as organic and untouched. But they are so clearly (and heavy-handedly) edited, that whatever state the footage was initially in, it is very evidently reconstructed to convey a cohesive message for a modern audience. In that case, the rejection of adding modern context and insight to this footage becomes conspicuous.

C.R. and Mary might not have been scientists, but there are thousands of scientists who would have given comment on this story. There are also plentiful historians who could have helped examine the socio-political picture painted by Mary and co., to examine their claims about why the invention could not gain traction.

This could also have helped us understand the forces motivating C.R. if he was not the dedicated innovator his family painted him as. Could the determination to make a quick buck at any cost be understood, when desperately trying to make ends meet for his family in the years before the New Deal? And on top of all this – as a good historical documentary film should – that could have helped us find reasons why this story is relevant today. Considering the old stomping ground of the Pleasants has since become Silicon Valley – where countless grifters sell investors on ever-more useless apps and innovations, ‘solving’ non-issues, or exploiting the world’s underfunded and crumbling infrastructure – that link would not have been difficult to make.

In The Pleasants Effect’s submission form, its accompanying statement asks, “Was what this eccentric man doing science? Was it art? Was he an unacknowledged pioneer or a lucky crackpot?” But none of these questions are broached, in any meaningful sense. If they had been, it might have lived up better to its billing as a portrait of “an inventor, his implausible invention, and the family that believed in them both”.


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