[23 August 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Peter, he saw in Jim something that none of us had seen.
—Edward Feldman, producer, “How’s It Going to End?”
So when Truman dies, we go back to the single channel format, right?
—Marlon (Noah Emmerich), deleted scene, The Truman Show: Special Edition
“It was so complete,” says Peter Weir. “It was like putting someone else’s clothes on. I thought, ‘Who is this Andrew Niccol? This is different, this is a writer… writing something that he knows about.” While Weir reminisces about his first encounter with Niccol’s script for The Truman Show, the documentary “How’s It Going to End?”, made for Paramount’s new Special Edition DVD, shows a life-changing moment for Truman (Jim Carrey): a lamp falls from the unseeable dome ceiling of his perfect environment, smashing to the pavement.
This event triggers Truman’s change, his giving in to a suspicion that his life is somehow orchestrated. And his “point of view of the world,” as Weir pits it, broken into bits, will never reassemble in quite the same way. The image of this life shattering, however, is hardly horrific or unnerving. Instead, it is bright, almost harsh: the sky is too blue, the lawns too manicured. And the characters—Truman’s friends, relatives, and neighbors—are too aware of the cameras. This, says Weir, is his first contribution to the project. Where Niccol’s original script was set in New York, the framing was dreary and science fictional, more severely dystopic. Weir calculated that the film needed to take a more comedic approach. Truman’s world was “a sort of holiday resort,” he explains, “the ideal place. People always look at holiday brochures or they have screen savers with fish on them, or tropical lagoons, you know. So I thought it should be in a place like that, a dream haven… Therefore, it would be more entertaining.”
Looking back on the moment of The Truman Show, 1998, the other contributors to “How’s It Going to End?” (including costars Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, and Ed Harris) underline its prescience, its anticipation of the overwhelming popularity of “reality tv.” And yet, while the reality tv in Truman is pretty much a “dream haven,” the reality tv we have come to know is mostly grim, mean-spirited and exploitative in sensational ways. Indeed, their own self-congratulation sounds like the smarmy-self interviews they give as movie characters. But such dark twistiness is at the back of The Truman Show—the movie criticizes the very media system—producers and consumers—for which it might be considered Exhibit A. How meta.
Truman Burbank, as you likely know, is the unknowing star of The Truman Show, described by its promoters as the “world’s longest running documentary soap opera, now in its 30th great year.” As the movie begins, Truman is beginning to get the feeling that he’s being watched. You see why: there are cameras everywhere: in his car, bedroom and office, in trash cans on the street, in his ring and his bathroom mirror. Every moment of his life has been taped, and everyone in his life is an actor, from his parents and wife, Meryl (Linney), to his best friend Marlon (Emmerich). Orphaned as an infant and adopted by the entertainment corporation which broadcasts his life, Truman stays put in Seahaven, a huge soundstage disguised as a planned island community, because he has a phobia of water (as a child he saw his “father” drown). He’s surrounded by fake buildings, fake weather (“Cue the sun!”), fake traffic, fake hair, costumes and smiles, and accompanied by a soundtrack designed to entertain consumers.
The show is overseen by its creator, producer, and director, former prize-winning documentary-maker Christof (Harris), who watches from his control booth, full of monitors and switching boards. “We’ve become bored with actors giving us phony emotions,” he says by way of opening the film, and/or the tv show. “Tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.” Godlike, wearing a beret and headset, Christof tells interviewers that he educates his audience while entertaining them, teaching them “values” like loyalty and honesty. The fact that the tv show sustains other industries—secondary media, products placed everywhere—suggests the extent of this set of relentless betrayals.
Though the show was conceived as a one-year deal, following a baby day in and day out, Christof saw the ratings, enjoyed the fame and the clout, and agreed to continue. Thirty years later, he’s telling himself that the show serves a greater good, along with selling commercial products. His actors are co-conspirators: Meryl (played by Hannah Brill) beams brightly and holds up packaged foods or rubber gloves, noting their time-saving or protective qualities. Truman’s “mother” (Holland Taylor) comforts her son when he asks about his long since “dead” father (Brian Delate) after the actor who played him makes a troubling appearance one day on the set (now homeless, he’s still pissed off about having been cut out of the script and the proceeds). And Marlon—whom Emmerich notes in the documentary must be suffering for daily deceiving his best friend since age eight—repeatedly takes up the emotional slack, earnestly conversing with Truman about the meaning of life or the importance of friendship.
Truman begins to suspect something’s up in college, when he’s unable to maintain a relationship with the beautiful Lauren (Natascha McElhone). Sylvia, the actress playing Lauren, feels sorry for him, and drops a hint that his life might not be “real”; after this, she is immediately pulled from his arms on the beach by her “angry father.” (The tv show includes flashbacks to refresh its viewers’ memories.) Truman marries Meryl, who’s been hired to be the girlfriend/wife, and so she pushes her way in between Truman and Lauren. (Once she’s a star, she tells her interviewer, “For me, there really is no difference between a private life and a public life… The Truman Show is a noble life, it is a truly blessed life.”) But Truman never forgets his whisked-away girl. Eventually, her memory drives him to ask a few too many questions about the tidiness, convenience, and perky routine of his life.
For the Truman tv show audience, such routine is soapily addictive. They appear in various states of rapture while watching (in their homes, in bars, in the street watching monitors in store windows), thrilled by the suspense of their favorite character’s emerging self-consciousness. They clutch their Truman merchandise (pillows, action figures, clothing), discussing his plight, deciding what he “should do.”
Weir’s Truman is most effective, most insightful, in these moments, representing and posing questions about audience investments and needs. The movie critiques media’s persistent commercial angling, the cycle of consumption that orders contemporary existence. It’s witty and slick, the soundtrack is ostensibly the tv show’s, but its soaring or somber strings are manipulative just the same. And if it doesn’t answer the questions it poses, it does let you leave feeling fine about Truman, the sanctity of individuality, the triumph of a certain kind of will. It lets you feel all right about yourself, because you, of course, want the right thing. You want the happy ending and Truman’s self-assertion, even if that desire is shaped by those ideologies and ideals marketed by both Truman Shows.