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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Truman Show

I hadn't seen The Truman Show since it was released in 1998, but I read an article recently about how it is one of the most prescient films about the media (along with Network) that's ever been made. Think about it--before The Truman Show, the term "reality TV" didn't exist. Did The Truman Show predict it, or inspire it?

Written by Andrew Niccol (it was very much like a Twilight Zone episode from 1989--I seem to remember a lawsuit about it) the film taps into something primal about us--that we are being watched. I remember, as a kid, imagining that my life was a movie that people were watching. There is even a delusion, in which people live their lives thinking they are being filmed, that is now named after the film. After all, if we are raised in a religion that has an all-seeing, all-knowing God as the patriarch, than we are made accustomed to the idea of someone watching our every move. Now, with technology the way it is, it can be possible to monitor someone 24/7.

For those who have yet to see this brilliant film, directed by Peter Weir, it concerns a TV show that runs 24/7, following a baby from birth, then as an adult, where he lives, unaware of his predicament, on a huge soundstage. He is Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a genial man who is a virtual prisoner of his surroundings, which are directed by Christof (note the use of Christ in the name), who is, in essence, Truman's God. Every move of his is filmed, and all the people he knows are actors, including his wife (Laura Linney), mother (Holland Taylor), and best friend (Noah Emmerich).

The various problems this creates are handled with aplomb by Niccol and Weir (according to the BTS, Weir asked that the film be made more lighthearted than Niccol's original concept, which was dark). Using Carrey, who up until that time had never made a drama, helped. We immediately root for Carrey, and along with him, try to figure out what's going on.

The film is structured so that we know very little more than Truman does. A light falls from the sky. It rains only on Truman. Linney is constantly talking like a TV pitchwoman. There is nothing he can do to leave the idyllic town in which he lives (his "father" was killed off in a boating accident to make him afraid of water, and the only road out of town has various obstacles). Then, halfway through the film, we are introduced to Christof and his crew, who are in a control moon hidden by an artificial moon. An interview with Christof gives us exposition (a little clumsily).

There are differences between The Truman Show and modern reality television. No show would work 24/7, as there is too much downtime. Secondly, they don't need to use unwilling subjects. Z-list celebrities and complete unknowns have made careers out of opening their lives to the camera--they flock to it, rather than run away. These shows, whether competitions, like Big Brother or The Bachelor, or just "a day in the life of" spectacles like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or the like, are edited and repackaged to make things more dramatic. We see some of that in The Truman Show--he is attracted to an extra (Natasha McElhone) who rebels and is kicked off the show.

The Truman Show is just about perfect, but I would have liked a few minutes more to explore what is discussed in the BTS--the actors. Linney talks about her character, and how she would have gotten bonuses for every time she sleeps with Truman. The principals in the show would have to practically live their entire lives playing their characters--where would Linney go to take a day off? Christof (Ed Harris, in an Oscar-nominated role) talks of wanting a conception and birth on live television. What would the thinking be of an actress who would take on that responsibility? Emmerich's character has been on the show since he was seven-years-old. It's like a longtime soap opera part, but he doesn't get to leave it.

You could construct an entire semester's college course out of The Truman Show--theology, philosophy, media, and the sacrifices of acting. For example, it's interesting to me that Christof has built a city like most American cities, only better (no crime, no garbage, perfect weather). But since Truman knows nothing else, he could have made any kind of world, one that may have required far fewer extras, or set in medieval times, or what have you. The possibilities for creating this world would be endless.

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