Friday, September 06, 2013

The Truman Show (1998)

USA, 103 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Photography: Peter Biziou
Music: Burkhard von Dallwitz
Editors: William M. Anderson, Lee Smith
Cast: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Ed Harris, Peter Krause, Paul Giamatti, Harry Shearer, Philip Baker Hall

It's surely going too far to call The Truman Show a horror movie—it's not exactly ever scary, for one thing. But the affinities to Twilight Zone in its near-future science fiction premise are evident enough even as it slyly obverts the cinema of paranoia over to the point of view of the voyeurs. The deception it lays out in broad strokes and then methodically details is scandalous nearly beyond belief. It's hard not to be stirred at least a little—disturbed, even horrified. Which is not exactly the intent here, but not exactly not the intent either.

Indeed, it's not easy to know what The Truman Show thinks it is about beyond an overweening sense of its own prescience—at which, in fairness, even 15 years later, it seems very good indeed in the hurly-burly of seeing it. Easy shots proceed like automatic weapon fire at creeping corporatism, media/celebrity culture, TV and the displaced and alienated lives of people living vicariously through it. There's even, arguably, an attempt to illuminate the Situationist spectacle. It is almost dazzling in the way it picks up on and flies down the rabbit holes of media criticism then in play, gleefully embracing and inflating practical marketing savvy tactics like product placement and embedded marketing. Most importantly, I think, it's very sharp tracking the diminishing levels of public discourse. It doesn't know who or what to blame it on, but it knows there is a problem. Likely spoilers ahead.

The Truman Show misses the office politics side of reality TV that Survivor and its innovation of competition brought along just a year or two later, and it has no evident inkling of how fungible that competitive element would become, vastly widening the opportunities for exploitation to the worlds of fashion, cooking, big business, even golf, and beyond. But it definitely understands the Jerry Springer/Housewives of levels of lust for attention from TV that has pervaded media culture since then, and only worsened.

It is, in fact, astonishingly clear-sighted about the textures and fabric of amorality as it dances and slinks across media surfaces, testing to see how far it can push its own credibility. I think the picture may have been even more cynical then than I am now, because I still can't believe a crime like the one perpetrated on Truman Burbank could ever be pulled off. Though I'm closer to thinking it might. The intervening years have only brought more examples of how often we seem to sit and watch as great crimes are committed in front of our (media) eyes. Consider the developments in the national security state.

In many ways, on another level, The Truman Show is more riffing by director Peter Weir on one of his favorite themes—insiders and outsiders sorting things out, binary commingling of oneself and an other at societal level. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the unwitting star of a smash hit reality TV show. He doesn't know he's on TV, he just thinks he's living his life as an insurance man in some generic Happytown, USA. Everyone around him, even his wife Meryl (played by "Hannah Gill," played by Laura Linney), is a television professional. He is the only one who does not know. He is also "the first child to have ever been legally adopted by a corporation." Under contract with an anonymous single mother, his birth was broadcast and every moment of his petri-dish life since, which has been confined to a soundstage dome stocked with props, costars, extras, and fabulous skyscapes. At 30, Truman is a lot like George Bailey slowly giving up his dream to flee Bedford Falls—it's never quite going to happen.

As such, Truman is at once the ultimate insider and outsider. No one else can live his life, a fate we all share, but because of the deception he has no one to share that with him. As a concept, it's grotesquely huge, making too great an enormity of a broadcast corporation (although, to be fair, there is Fox News today). It's just too monstrous a crime, and there's no real good way to mitigate that except go ahead and play it straight. It helps that Jim Carrey seems uniquely qualified for the unusual role—his tendency to overplay the awkward bathos is made to order here, as is his phony happy-guy shtick. Is there anyone else who could have so convincingly delivered this line: "Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!" No, not even Fred Rogers or Jerry Lewis themselves.

Weir is so good at making movies that one tends to overlook these unharmonious notes and questions as things keep sweeping forward. The Truman Show always looks great, there's a wonderful blend of shots culled from all manner of cameras and lenses, in a version of the documentary verite style. And there's ingenious foolery for those who like such (I'm one in this case) with self-conscious quotation and mashup, recycled classic movie moments such as a lively dalmation named Pluto, scenes and images pilfered in from Persona, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, various Brian De Palma thrillers, and above all Frank Capra at large. The mockumentary of television journalism is rich and dead-on and constant, capturing notes of video sales pitches, overnight cable-TV marketing infotainment, and the self-serving complacence of the whole Entertainment Tonight industry.

The ending tends toward the boffo, and has always seemed to me strained and oversweet. But I guess if the crime is so enormous the redemption would have to be quasi-heavenly. And there is the implicit Capra connection, Truman Burbank as a more or less explicit John Doe figure. So make popcorn and gather everyone around for an evening of first-class entertainment.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I have been wanting to see this one again. I liked it a lot, but my take is that this is very intentionally a film about Gnosticism (much like Man Facing Southwest). The clever symbology in the film touches on many different pathways to transcendence, like the boat steering wheel straight from Mahayana Buddhism or the photo of Sai Baba in the trunk of a car. (I can't recall the rest--I need to see it again).

    As true Gnosticism posits the idea that we live in a sham creation (created by The Demiurge or false creator god) it makes sense, the cynicism Weir shows. The importance is that the Pleroma -- true existence beyond this sham -- is awaiting and signs -- hints that Sophia or wisdom will release us, are everywhere, in the movie and in the life of the seeker.