The Truman Show (1998)

*. In hindsight we might call 1998 the Year of the Simulacrum. The two big films that are most often paired are Dark City and The Matrix, but The Truman Show is very much a work in the same vein, playing especially close to Dark City. When Truman punches a hole in the horizon, with only a mysterious void beyond, it’s a near equivalent moment to John Hurt’s breach of the wall at the end of Alex Proyas’s film.
*. It might have been even closer in spirit to Dark City if the original concept had been filmed, which was more of a suspense thriller set in an ersatz Manhattan. But things went in a slightly different direction, leading to a (somewhat) sunnier vision of a man trapped in a fake reality.
*. Of course Seahaven is a much sunnier place than the dark city of Dark City (though they both seem to represent a strange amalgam of 1940s America). It never rains in Seahaven (except for very local cloudbursts) just as the sun never rises on the dark city. But The Truman Show is a sunnier film in other ways as well. The ending, with the viewers cheering (ourselves included, since the viewers on screen are just there to play a laugh track-like role), appears to have only a minor irony attached to it, as the television audience realize the show is finally over and they can change the channel. Truman has demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit. Now on to the next station.
*. The sunshine also means that it has to hold back from killing Truman at the end. Christof seems willing, but the executives all around him plead for Truman’s life. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience,” they insist. Compare the studio suits in Network, who have no hesitation in killing Howard Beale for ratings, or Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean (a showrunner not unlike Christof) who can casually order the execution of Stanley Motss. Wag the Dog being another simulacrum movie that came out just the year before. This sort of thing was all the rage in the late ’90s.

*. Is Christof an artist? He does wear a beret. Or is he just interested in ratings and keeping the cash cow that is Truman going? He also has wire-rimmed glasses. Apparently Ed Harris was given a lot of back story to help him understand the character better, but he remains a mystery to me. Perhaps he’s less the creator of Truman’s world than someone who has been swallowed up by it himself. When he insists that its ideal environment is in fact normal we sense that something is very wrong.
*. The idea that this is really The Christof Show also fits with the way it is presented as a narcissistic fantasy. The whole world really does revolve around Truman, even if he doesn’t know it. Within such an environment he can remain a man child forever. Indeed if he were to grow up or show signs of maturity he would have to leave Neverland.
*. Was it a film ahead of its time? Anthony Lane was one critic who couldn’t understand why billions of people would watch Truman, but hasn’t that question been answered now? Millions of us watch people online play video games and open boxes of toys, so.
*. Whatever happened to Jim Carrey? At the time of this movie he was one of the biggest stars in the world, but for the last fifteen years he seems to have done nothing but crap. Talk about a disappearing act.

*. Carrey was widely praised, but I felt the role could have been so much more. There’s really only the one scene where he has much of a chance to show anything, and it’s the wonderful one where he finally confronts his wife as she tries to jam in some more product placement. I wish there were more scenes like that. But even at the end he seems to have retreated behind the plastic smile again. Which may be meaningful and sad — that part of Truman Burbank, even if he knows it’s fake, is all he knows — but it’s frustrating as well.
*. I still like The Truman Show and I think it’s aged reasonably well, if not as well as the other Simulacrum movies I’ve mentioned in these notes. Perhaps it just needed more cynicism or irony. There were a number of interesting directions it could have gone in — like, for example, a reflection on Plato’s parable of the cave. Might Truman have been happier staying in Seahaven, even knowing the truth? Wouldn’t the audience turn against him for breaking the fourth wall? Instead there’s little development of any of the issues raised, like authenticity vs. reality, or public vs. private life. These are points that the film raises, but, at least to my eyes, fails to address.
*. Instead I remember it mainly for its imagery and few effective moments. The idyllic town. The warnings that seem torn from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The extras as automated as the robots in Westworld. The ship’s bow puncturing the skyline like a Guy Billout cartoon. Of course it all looks terribly fake, and maybe that was a missed call. When fakery finally took over it wasn’t so obvious.

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