Revisiting The Truman Show
The Truman Show (1998)
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
Produced by Scott Rudin
Distributed by Paramount
In 1998 I was 14 years old. I had three heroes at that point; Andy Kaufman, Bill Murray, and Jim Carrey. Jim Carrey was my favorite though. Since Ace Ventura came out in 1994 I followed Mr. Carrey’s career with fervor. There was something primordial about his act. He was almost like all the Marx brothers rolled into one, The SuperEgo The Ego and The Id. By the time The Truman show came out Jim Carrey was at the peak of his career. Because of the success of Ace Ventura, its sequel, Dumb and Dumber and The Mask, Jim Carrey was banking $20 million per film starting with “The Cable Guy” in 1996. He was at that place where the studios were giving him more freedom to do the kinds of films that he chose, getting films made by putting his name behind projects that would otherwise have gotten lost in the shuffle.
So, when The Truman Show came out, I was there on opening day. I remember enjoying the film immensely. But I didn’t know why exactly. It was off. It wasn’t as funny as the other movies he was in, but it did something to me emotionally.
This week Paramount TV announced that they would be making a television show out of The Truman Show, making it more meta than anything I can recall in recent memory (a tv show about a movie about a TV show). Where exactly Paramount takes the franchise remains to be seen. I was trolling through Netflix the other day and saw that The Truman Show was streaming so I though this would be a good time to revisit something that I hadn’t seen in a very long time and maybe this time I could vocalize my thoughts on it.
So here it is:
The Truman Show begins with Christof “The Creator” (played by the softly intense Ed Harris) speaking into a camera about his “creation”, Truman Burbank and “The Truman Show”. “There’s nothing fake about Truman…it’s not always Shakespeare but its genuine, it’s a life.”
Truman Burbank(Jim Carrey) was the first person to be legally adopted by a corporation. He was bought when he was still in the womb and placed in a giant bio-dome made into an always perfect little seaside island(aptly named Sea Haven),where hired actors portray every person in the town. Unlike the negative aspect that so heavily drives our “Real World” inspired realty television shows of how we know them today; scripted mellow drama, petty arguments, physical violence, rude, crude language and otherwise belligerent behavior, The Truman Show is a more positive experience.
Everything in Truman’s world is beautiful. “We find many viewers leave him on at night for comfort”. Even his most traumatic moments are beautifully shot and acted out by the cast. Truman sells life insurance. He has a beautiful wife (Laura Linney) a loyal “awe shucks” best friend (Noah Emmerich) and a lovable, somewhat overbearing mother (Holland Taylor). This supporting cast helps keep the show together, on and of screen and as actors on “The Truman Show”,they do amazing work.
You see, Truman doesn’t know he’s being filmed. There are thousands of cameras on the island and everyday of his life is like a scripted, partly improvised performance, along with forced, awkward (isn’t it always?) product placement. The supporting cast also act as production managers/assistants, in case Truman strays from the script, the actors, his family and friends, are there to pull Truman back into the scene. The actors receive there lines and direction via ear prompter. The work for the cast of the show must’ve been grueling.
"The Truman Show" is a cultural phenomenon. Viewers at home watching "The Truman Show" are watching a human life play out in real time every second of the day. The viewers see Truman’s most intimate, private, and tragic moments. They feel connected with him because ultimately, Truman IS the audience. He’s experiencing everything for the first time with an innocence you can’t train any actor to portray. It’s all for him. What happens when he leaves the room? The actors break character, go on coffee breaks, start changing the scene for the next day. Make calls to their agents. In Truman the audience sees itself. Elderly women clutch pillows with Truman’s face embroidered on them. Theres a man who watches “The Truman Show” for hours in his bathtub. Two all night security guards watch the show on their down time, in Japan a family tries to say Truman’s catch phrase, “good afternoon, good evening and goodnight”, in english.
The show is a hit for the nameless corporation and despite a few minor technical ticks here or there its a well oiled machine. But what the Corporations couldn’t buy was the human spirit. Truman has always sought out adventure. From climbing a tall mound of rocks at the beach as an infant, to the very end where Truman literally breaks the fourth wall. The Creator has made and effort to curtail Truman’s risk seeking behavior by writing into the show the death of Truman’s father. On a day out on their little dingy, Truman’s father suggests that they return to shore due the rough weather. But Truman persists on continuing out until his father(or rather the actor playing his father) reluctantly agrees. Moments later a storm huge storm hits the boat, throwing his father over and eventually drowning him(he’s killed off like any tv show does when the ratings start to sag). Truman is forever haunted by this traumatic event. By inducing this trauma to Truman, it leaves him with a phobia of water but he still dreams of getting away. To Fiji. To find the girl that literally got away.
When Truman was in high school he fell in love with an extra on the show, Lauren (played by the fake actress “Sylvia” which is played by the REAL actress Natascha McElhone.). One night Truman and Lauren sneak off to the beach together. There, Lauren tries to tell Truman the truth about his life, she tells him that her name is Sylvia just as the actor who is playing her father rolls onto the beach and physically puts her into the car. Truman says “I’ll see you in school!”, Lauren’s father says “Fiji, we’re moving to Fiji”. So now years later, after marrying his high school friend (Linney), Truman still seeks out his lost love and tries to put her face together using magazine clippings of models posing for ads. He also regularly calls up travel agents to try and plan a secret trip to Fiji. Something always comes up though and Truman never leaves the island.
Anytime Truman speaks candidly to his closest friend Marlon about his desire to “just go”, Marlon always counters, assuring Truman, “You have a great life why ever leave?”.
The unexplainable return of Truman’s father (the actor who played his father somehow snuck by onto the set) , the accidental radio frequency, the lights dropping from the sky all contribute to Truman questioning the genuineness of his reality . One of the scenes that still moves me is when Truman after having accidentally received the shows ear prompter transmission through his car radio, enters the rotating doors to his job and then instead of going inside, like he’s done everyday, he goes in a circle and exits back out into the street. The moment of defiance, of spontaneity is captured musically by the brilliant Phillip Glass. This is my favorite scene because Truman’s act of defiance, his spontaneity, starts right at this moment. His decision to go back out into the street to venture off of the path changes his life forever. He can never go back to his “perfect” world.
Another very powerful moment for me is at the end when Truman’s boat crashes into the cloud clad wall of the dome. All of Truman’s worst fears come true. He never had a choice. Everything was rigged. Everybody was in on it. And in that moment Truman cries and then beats on the walls in desperation, all of his breath gone from his body, unable to gasp. He finally speaks to Christof over the loud speakers. He’s speaking to his Creator, and he chooses to defy him and to join the real world. The Creator warns him, “it’s no realer out there than it is in here. The same lies, the same deceit.” Truman takes a final bow and bids his last catch phrase “good afternoon good evening and good night” and then crosses the threshold into the unknown.
Everybody has had the impulse to break from their everyday reality. To seek out the great unknown. We enjoy (like Truman)interviewing ourselves in the mirror, we want to be that important, or at least feel that important. We want a change from the norm, but more often than not, we don’t take that journey. Whether its because you can’t take that much time off of work, you don’t have enough money, whatever the reason. Sometimes we’re even held back by the ones closest to us. With so many things to consider, it does feel sometimes that everyone is “in on it”. Your friends and family don’t want you to leave, because if you leave, theres no you. Theres no show. It’s only when we choose to ignore that voice in our heads, to pass through that threshold of the unknown that one can start learning what its like to be free.
I think that now we all live in our own little Truman Shows, voluntarily voicing our personal thoughts, posting pictures, videos, selfies. We let the world in to see our neat little lives that we actively collage on a daily basis via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The Truman Show seems to suggest that if we knew our whole life was being publicly documented, manipulated, exploited , we would have a very adverse reaction to it when and if we found out. But now because now that we personally control what part of our lives we want to share, we now unabashedly exploit ourselves.
Has The Truman Show come true? Yes, but the budget is much, much smaller.