JIM CARREY — ED HARRIS — THE TRUMAN SHOW — 1998
This is an intriguing film. Truman is in his mid or late 20s when we get to him in the present. The idea is that he was one of several children born from mothers who gave away their children for adoption at birth. He was the first one to be born and as such became adopted by the corporation represented by Christof, the director or this show. Suspend your disbelief a lot because the fact that he lived in this artificial cinema setting all his life, which means went to school on a daily basis and to college to get his qualification for his job, is a pure illusionary impossibility. It is maybe easier to make a few hundred people live in this community with only one real inhabitant, Truman, and all the others actors who have to be unionized in a way or another and hence cannot work more than a certain certainly limited number of hours a day and a week and a month and a year. And what about the population of a school from grade 1 to grade 12, not to speak of the full population of a college.
I will not consider the legal side of things. This abduction and total retention of a minor and then an adult in an artificial environment is pure imprisonment, which means totally illegal, and when Christof says Truman could leave anytime he wanted, it is an absolute lie since when Truman finally tries he is nearly killed by Christof’s own decisions and acts. That amounts to the inhumane torturing of a grown up by another grownup with a whole bunch of accomplices pushing the buttons. This has to be said because everything in this show is REAL, really REAL. Not just Truman, but all the others. They are maybe a fake illusion for Truman but they are real actors and actresses, really acting on command, prompted by earplugs in constant relation with the studio. Instances of Christof’s dictating to an actor what he had to say is even provided. It is all an illusion and a delusion for Truman, but it is all true. And I repeat totally impossible because beyond any material credibility and what’s more beyond any human rights as for Truman, and in fact as for everyone in the film. Apart from Truman, they all behave either as criminals or accomplices of criminals.
But we have to accept to enter the film to find a deeper meaning in the story.
The first element is the delusional world in which Truman is forced to live. It has one motto written on a couple of arches: “Unus pro Omnibus, Omnes pro Uno.” This motto is old and was first used within some religious conflict in Bohemia in 1618. It is also a traditional motto in Switzerland, but not in Latin. In German “Einer für alle, Alle für einen.” In French “Un pour tous, tous pour un.” In Italian “Uno per tutti, tutti per uno.” And in Romansch “In per tuts, tuts per in.” The motto is generally translated into English as “One for all, all for one.” It is particularly famous because it is the motto of the famed and heroic though hilarious (three) Musketeers staged by Alexandre Dumas along with d’Artagnan. This motto is immediately visually amplified by the name of the store on the corner of the street in front of these arches, Omnicol, though I do not know what this store might be selling.
This motto is very ethical and is obviously in full contradiction with real life where it is always everyone for oneself. This community, Seahaven, the very well named place because it is a haven and even a heavenly haven to its residents. Imagine keeping up with this illusion that this is a harbor (Le Havre in France) on a sea with no possible traffic, ships, and even the ferry is only a prop on the set. The only boat ever really shown is the boat in which Truman’s father will die in a storm in front of Truman’s eyes. And then at the end, the second boat will be Truman’s escape boat in which he will nearly die by the decision of Christof himself who could not accept the escape with a cynical remark of his that sounds like a death sentence:
Network Executive: For God’s sake, Chris! The whole world is watching. We can’t let him die in front of a live audience!
Christof: He was born in front of a live audience.
At this moment Christof himself is showing the reverse motto: everyone is supposed to do what he wants, even Truman who may die if necessary to satisfy the selfish ambition of the power freak and the control freak Christof is. His name is the very antagonistic reference to Christ — he is an Antichrist — who is supposed to die for everyone and not the reverse. In fact, he is more like Ponce Pilate, thus turning Truman into the Christ of the story to be sacrificed for the interest of the show that is supposed not to die, since the show must go on, as Shakespeare said a long time ago. But this is a film and that’s what makes the show a pure fable. The director of the film systematically creates a distance between Truman’s experience and ours, the audience’s experience, of Truman’s fate. The public is shown as having a tremendous level of empathy for that young man who is going to be sacrificed on the altar of a reality TV show.
The director of the film systematically uses flashbacks, which is impossible in any reality show because they are not real since they only are recollections, fantasies or delusions. Christof himself uses in the show picture books with family pictures to make Truman and his band speak of the past in a realistic way. Here we feel the contradiction between the director of the film who uses flashbacks and the director of the show who uses recollections. But there is more along this line. A long time ago Christof got rid of the father by drowning him in a storm at sea in order to make the young boy so afraid of the sea that he will never want to leave the island of Seahaven, either by boat (see the ferry scene) or by road since the other way is a long bridge over the water and he can’t drive over the water. In other words, Truman is traumatized by the event, hence by Christof for the only sake and interest of this individual who pretends to be God almighty. So imagine bringing the same actor who was the father into the picture as a homeless to be seized and removed as fast and strongly as possible from the scene with the moral of the story from Truman’s mother and later in the press on the following day about cleaning up Seahaven of the homeless scum of society.
But the film catches the show at the moment when Christof is losing his grip on Truman who, late in his life since he should have wondered about his community a long time ago when he was sent to school, to college and when he traveled with his family to Mount Rushmore and on many other occasions, finally comes to grip with the absurdity of his artificially simple life. We can even wonder if he has a real sentimental or romantic life — meaning with normal physical intercourse — with his own wife who is an actress in a normal situation that does not imply any kind of real intercourse. Note the strange scene when Truman is taking care of his flowers in his garden on all fours. The camera that we may think is the wife Meryl’s vision, though we know now that all camera movements and choices are decided by Christof himself, this camera is heavily centered on the backside of Truman in his red shorts pointing up and you can even see and feel the underwear through the shorts. This is slightly obsessive or excessive and it may reveal in either the wife, which I doubt, or Christof, which I do not doubt at all, some kind of perverse fetishism that could reveal Christof is onanistically playing with his own psyche. And for eighteen years he had done it with a minor. Certainly not touching since he never sets foot on the set, but definitely seeing, watching, escrying, observing and many other visual verbs of all sorts, the boy for a long time, the young man then concupiscently if not lustfully.
This film is entirely based on voyeurism: voyeurism of all the actors on the set, voyeurism of the shooting team in the studio, voyeurism even of the audience of the TV show. And of course, we are the fourth level of voyeurism: the audience of the film. And that is a real problem. The only level that is critically and regularly deactivated as for the voyeurism concerning Truman is the audience of the film because many sentences in the film or in the show have double entendre and thus prompt us to think twice before sinking into believing. A few examples. Truman after the fake elevator scene says “Maybe I’m being set up or something.” Even better the discussion between Truman and Marlon after Truman started panicking and is led by Marlon into reminiscing the old days when they were both boys cheating with life.
Marlon: We were right together.
Truman: We were wrong together.
Marlon: [Emotional, almost to the point of tears] The point is, I would gladly step in front of traffic for you Truman. And the last thing I would ever do to you…
Christof: [Feeding Marlon his lines] … is lie to you.
Marlon: …is lie to you. . . You’re the closest thing I ever had to a brother. . . You were right about one thing though. You started all this.
At the end then the film shifts interests from Truman in Seahaven as the creature of Christof to Truman in Seahaven wanting his freedom and ready to fight and even die for it and to Sylvia in Hollywood wanting to support Truman in his quest for the Holy Grail of his Freedom. We are then centered on the defeat of Christof and his reluctance at being defeated and his final obligation to accept it because anyway the audience of the show has accepted this full liberation that ends the show and “Please pass me the TV guide” they are ready to move to another show if there is any other show of the same type, and there will always be one somewhere.
We can, of course, look at the film from a completely different point of view, and that is the manipulative nature of television. It is the medium that is the manipulator because of its technical and communicational power. The director Christof is only, in fact, the tool of this medium and he accepts to be the tool because it is his personal economic and professional interest to accept to be manipulated into being a tool. He thinks he is God almighty but he is nothing but a fool and he is constantly obeying the demands and requests from the medium. What makes that medium that powerful? The audience is the answer. The audience is manipulated by the medium into believing what they see is real, into all-sensorially responding to what they see with empathy and in a way personal projection into the main character, not to be him but to experience his state of mind, feelings, sentiments, passions, desires, frustrations and many other elements of the type. We could and we should push this idea a lot further but what is essential is that as soon as we shift to the cinema instead of television, then the manipulation does not work as much or even at all because the cinema requires a distance between the audience (seen as individuals in a crowd lost in darkness and thus exploded into human items if not artifacts) and the world, universe, situation presented in the film. Television is all-sensorial whereas the cinema is reflective. Television is based on a collective audience that shares in a way or another what they see and feel whereas the cinema requires an isolated and individualized experience of the film even if it is in a multiple audience hidden in the darkness of the room. In the first case, the distance of reflection is not possible. In the second case, the distance for reflection is indispensable.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU