Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Truman Show ****


The Truman Show
 predicted the coming of reality television at almost the exact moment the phenomenon hit. Also notable for being Jim Carrey's first foray into a serious role, Carrey would go on to play many dramatic roles and abandoned his Ace Ventura persona, here he's channeling a parodic version of Jimmy Stewart. Upon revisiting The Truman Show I was taken surprised at how fast the movie whizzes by in under two hours. Directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, his focus on the fine line between utopia and dystopia still resonates. 

Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an insurance salesman who lives in an idyllic island community which unbeknownst to him is actually the largest television set in the world. Millions tune in everyday to watch the daily activities of Truman. Adopted by a corporation at the time of his birth, the world has watched him grow into adulthood. Behind the scenes Christof (Ed Harris) is the God like producer manipulating every aspect of Truman's reality. Laura Linney plays Truman's fake wife Meryl and Noah Emmerich is the prototypical best friend Marlon. 

Seahaven is idealized version of a 1950s sitcom universe. A harmonious community of mostly white couples with white collar jobs. Truman works for an insurance company, but it's clear he's restless and starting to question his reality. He cannot point to anything specific, just a feeling. Product placement is everywhere, Truman's been conditioned to be pitchman for all sorts of products. The TV show is a massive commercial enterprise feeding the capitalist system. At the same time the world of Seahaven is set up to keep Truman complacent and content. A few have attempted to tell Truman the truth over the years, but it's a realization he must reach himself. 

The Truman Show invites everyone to put on their cultural critic hat. Today many aspire to be the star of their own reality shows and many have found a way to do it through social media. Facebook, Twitter, youtube instagram and a myriad of other platforms allow anyone to become the star of their own lives, some with substantial audiences. If 20+ years of reality stars and digital stars have taught us anything, it's all fleeting and artificial. The highest aspiration for an ambitious social media user is to become an influencer, they have their own hustle and eventually become unwitting tools of parties with a better hustle, supported by corporate wealth. Digital celebrities in the end become glorified advertisers. Like Truman, their humanity is reduced to a pre-packaged product consumed by the masses and used by corporations. 

Marshall McLuhan wrote all media works us over completely. Few films better illustrate this than The Truman Show. Peter Weir's direction jolts us when we shift to the real world, who in the film are composed of people watching the show in a parody of the Spielberg gaze. Observing the doings of a reality show character cannot compete with spaceships landing or a boy riding a bicycle over the moon. Christof comes across as a villainous version of a Spielberg or Lucas type figure, supremely confident in his ability to manipulate the emotions of millions - most of all Truman. Like all the best visual artists he knows the power of imagery and has a primal sense of narrative, which can also be used for nefarious purposes. Ed Harris is quite effective in his limited screen time as a futuristic master of cinema and narrative/marketing strategies.

Peter Weir maintains a humanistic touch throughout. A modern version of Plato's Cave Allegory, we are all conditioned by our environment but also have the ability to see beyond it. Every dystopian story deals with the human need to pursue a life that's fulfilling, not a life under control by outside parties. The Truman Show never answers the question: What happens when one shatters the confines of their controlled world? There's no need to, from an existential perspective the victory is the realization itself. 

As an afterthought, many have written about the "What is reality?" type movies coming out during the turn of the millennium including Fight Club, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and most famously The Matrix. The Truman Show eschewed the dark and nihilist tone of those films and rooted itself in a not so bizarro reflection of our own world. Unlike the 1976 classic Network which was a little too on the nose with its satire, The Truman Show is a modern fable and appropriately ends on such a note. 


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