Friday, January 9, 2015

Peter Weir | The Truman Show

the end of reality
by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Niccol (screenplay), Peter Weir (director) The Truman Show / 1998

Andrew Niccol’s provocative script, which apparently went through 16 drafts before it was finally shot, has become, in the years since its 1998 premiere a kind of open mirror into which literary and film critics, sociologists, psychologists and numerous others have cast their images, often with quite distorted visions, regarding this work’s significance. Certainly the work, in its uncanny prophetic abilities to perceive the direction of television and other media toward live “reality” broadcasts, is startling. The film’s obvious links with and satire of utopian visions is equally fascinating for anyone, like myself, who has a literary bent—particularly, in this case, since many of the scenes were actually filmed in a kitsch-like picture postcard, newly-minted, “master-planned” community in Seaside, Florida; today, of course, there are such communities and Disneyfied shopping centers throughout the world; in my own neighborhood, the most popular shopping destination is the charming “old village” creation, “The Grove”. What is represented in the film, accordingly, as a retrogarde absurdity in which the central character, Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) in entrapped, is now repeated throughout the nation and the world, flash-freezing, possibly, millions of individuals, even if only temporarily.

     As my essay above on Joel and Ian Gold’s study, Suspicious Minds, details, moreover, numerous psychologically deluded individuals have developed what has been dubbed as “the Truman delusion,” believing that, like the film’s character, they have been entrapped in a world in which everyone else is involved in deluding them about the reality of the world in order to manipulate them for the purposes of entertainment or for other secretive and often coded goals. In short, what the figures of Truman’s world attempted to define as his delusion has actually become, in the real world, a delusion infecting others.

    Finally, a movie in which the character is required to “read” subtle messages and codes in order to finally perceive that something is not right in paradise, and, a work in which that figure himself expresses many of his actions in coded messages scrawled upon a mirror with soap, encourages movie devotees to read in their own series of codes and secretive messages. The film, even if unintentionally, encourages those who believe in conspiracies.
     For those readers who have not seen the film, let me just begin by explaining that Truman Burbank, born an unwanted baby, was adopted, while still in the womb, by a television corporation, and has grown up and lived his life on a set of gargantuan proportions (embedded in a vast arcological dome) in which he is the only unknowing figure surrounded by hundreds of paid actors who perform as his family friends as he daily goes about his life, broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Almost everyone on the planet watches the film which financially survives through the strategic placement of products in his home, on the street, and in other locations throughout the small island home where Truman resides.

     Although Truman’s world is portrayed, at first, as one in which everyone is so neighborly and friendly, a world which is quite literally centered around the individual—Truman—that it seems pointless to doubt one’s love and safety, it quickly becomes apparent that everything is too good (too sickeningly beautiful and cute) to be believed. Yet Truman has been trained from birth to believe in and respond to precisely the kitsch-like images, costumes, behavior, and values systems that surround him, so that it is nearly impossible for him to even comprehend a reality outside of the one he has known. Habitualized to be terrified of bodies of water (forcing him to remain in his island community) and frightened of dogs (which the TV producers use as guards to intimidate entrance to verboten areas), Truman is trapped in the fantasy paradise that ritualizes his reality. The major issue of the film, accordingly, centers upon how Truman might possibly begin imagine another reality when he has had nothing but intimations of anything outside of his Seahaven paradise. For Truman all other realities are embodied in one word: Fiji; and he is determined that in that word he will find everything that is apparently forbidden him in his personal life, particularly the woman whom he truly loves, Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), an extra on the T.V. set who has accidentally gotten too close upon to Truman upon at least two occasions, a was hurried off the set and series.

     The only other “events” that might suggest the existence of other realities to Truman—the sudden fall from the skies of a spotlight (explained in the course of the day through a radio broadcast that suggests it came from a passing airplane), an odd radio interference wherein he hears what appears to be stage directions, the sudden appearance of his “dead” father (Brian Delate) who is quickly whisked away by authoritative beings, and his discovery of an elevator serving merely as a prop, behind sits individuals snacking on “offstage” doughnuts—are, frankly, not really enough to explain his sudden “suspicions,” particularly given the fact that he has never needed to employ the system which in our society we outsiders need in order to survive by determining the difference between what’s true and false. Since everything Truman believes inherently is a lie, how might he possibly be expected to even imagine what “truth” might look like? And that is a question the film never explores. 
     In other words, if we truly were forced to perceive reality the way Truman might see it, the suspicions which lead him to perceive the timed approaches of neighbors and passersby, that make him suddenly doubt the nearly always friendly intonations of his wife’s (Laura Linney) consumer-friendly voice would be absurd, signs of real delusion which the television characters accuse him of. How does one develop a system of suspicions in a world which automatically allays them as quickly as they arise?

    Of course, as some psychologists argue, it may be that suspicion is hard-wired into us as a protective structure, that our suspicion systems are in-born to us as a species. But the film, quite obviously, does not argue this or even hint of that possibility. Indeed it argues for a series of values that are taught by the studio executives and actors, overseen by Christof (Ed Harris), and through learned Pavlov-like reactions imposed on the mind through traumatic events such as the storm at sea which supposedly “killed” Truman’s father. Indeed, the reason why Truman is so “watchable” to the millions who tune him in every night is that he is a true innocent, a gullible and likeable being unlike everyone in real world. In short, Truman is not a human like us, but is, metaphorically speaking, Christof’s baby, visually made clear through Christof’s stroking of the sleeping image of his “child.”

    The reason why we allow for Truman’s sudden suspicions has little to do with the character, I would suggest, and everything to do with us. We naturally suspect and, accordingly imagine that Truman should also gradually uncover the delusions imposed upon him. Like the television audience that The Truman Show portrays, we want Truman to discover the lie, to escape into our soiled world and become one of us instead of remaining the gullible innocent he has been bred to be.
    Truman’s suspicions seem reasonable because they accord with our own. Even the lying characters, such as Marlon (Noah Emmerich), reiterate to their “friend,” Truman, our shared childhood imaginings, perhaps the earliest stirrings of our suspicion systems: our doubts about our parentage, our imaginings of association with worlds outside our own, and our individual relationships to faith-based hierarchies such as God. If Truman’s disbeliefs have no ground in which to grow, our own full-grown patches of doubt make the character’s occasional wonderments seem absolutely justified. And thus, associating with the stick-figure character with which we’ve been presented, we easily project our own selves into his situation. This, indeed, may be the reason why so many individuals have taken Truman’s delusions on as their own, and have brought them from their encounter with a Hollywood movie into real life.
    But while we cheer, along with the pretended television audience of this film, for Truman’s final ability to turn his back on his creation and, simultaneously, his creator, Christof with his stock phrase “good afternoon, good evening, and good night,” it somehow doesn’t dawn on us that, having hit the photographic imitative wall of his world, Truman has come to the end of reality. The black door into which he “escapes,” is not “our world,” but a world in which reality can now have no meaning. And, in that respect, our world can now be only his fantasy world. Which, of course, is the truth of the situation, since Truman is not a real being in any event. When a character exits the book, so to speak, what he enters is not “reality,” but the end of everything, death itself.   

    Or, let us look at it another way, as did Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985: if a figure of film fantasy where to step down from the screen, chaos would ensue, not only affecting the “real” figures it encounters, but would threaten us as a species, possibly converting us into figures of fiction as well. In Allen’s movie, the hero of the fantasy returns to his film, and reality is restored to its proper position, while art regains its power—as Oscar Wilde would have had it. 
     Is it any wonder that if we might believe that Truman has escaped his Seahaven fantasy that we may fear that we too must not be completely real, that we might suddenly feel endangered by all others who control and moderate our lives? As the Gold’s well argued in their study, Suspicious Minds, sickness can truly be influenced by products of our culture. And in a world where so much of so-called art is described or defined as “real,” how is anyone to comprehend what we might describe as life? What is truth in a world of pretense? It just may be that, ultimately, our own realities will come to an end. If I cannot think (imagine), perhaps I do not exist.

Los Angeles, January 8, 2015

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