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The Truman Show

The Truman Show

1998. Directed by Peter Weir. With Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

A number of movies ask the question, "What if an unsophisticated person happened onto a movie set and didn't realize it?" From the silent Ella Cinders to the hip The Stunt Man, naive outsiders have mistaken staged movie events for real-life events, with tickling consequences. How many clueless visitors to Hollywood studios have thought that the villain was attacking the pretty girl for real and leapt in to intervene, wrecking the shot?

The question about confusing art for life can be—almost has to be—asked because movies are at once so thoroughly convincing and so completely artificial, depending on your frame of reference. The view from inside the movie may show raw emotions, dangerous actions, crowded cities. The view from above the movie reveals glycerin tears, stunt-men and trick photography, false-fronted sets with crowds of paid extras walking past on cue. It's not just people who work in the movie industry who know this--we all do (thanks in part to self-referential movies). As I have suggested here before, this little situation is so popular because it mirrors the audience's own ambiguous position, alternatively (or maybe simultaneously) enchanted by the fiction and analytical about the tricks behind it.

There has always been a credibility problem with this oblivious-outsider story: It is utterly impossible to mistake a film set for real life. Even if you're as naive as the girl in Ella Cinders or as stoned as the guy in The Stunt Man, there is no way you can fail to notice the lights, the crew, the cables, the abrupt starts and stops of action, etc. The Truman Show tries to address this by positing miniaturized cameras and wireless audio receivers, a kind of self-contained biosphere set, and a protagonist bred to be dimmer than most. Its "Candid Camera" setup doesn't completely silence all objections, but it goes far enough to allow today's media-savvy audiences to take this old situation seriously and ponder its implications.

And what are those? Well, apart from the theological ones, The Truman Show does remind us that movie-makers are in the business of creating self-contained worlds. In conventional movies, these worlds seem internally consistent and quite real. Only from the outside can we see how absurdly elaborate, expensive, and resource-heavy it is to maintain this kind of fiction, as anybody who has visited, for example, the Warner Brothers New York Street set when it's full of extras and period autos can attest. Christoff's laugh line, "Cue the sun," is not really an exaggeration; after all, those shots of the morning light falling on Seahaven have been instigated by somebody. Here, as often, the distinction between Christoff and Peter Weir is not all that clear. Many times we have to ask if we are seeing the action that the viewers of The Truman Show (the program) are seeing, or if we are getting a more omniscient view from a different set of cameras entirely. One of the ambiguities of The Truman Show is to what extend Truman's dawning awareness and disillusion are part of the internal TV program and to what extent privileged information communicated only to us viewers of the meta-movie.

I don't agree with the widespread buzz that The Truman Show indicts our media-saturated culture. The show about Truman's life is far too benign, and the public's relationship to it too treacly, to reflect anything interesting about TV viewing in 90s America. But perhaps The Truman Show is about spectatorship in a larger sense, about audience collaboration in fictitious entertainments.

For example, it makes no sense that the audience of "The Truman Show" should applaud Truman's ultimate escape. Viewers who would find this heroic would have been so uncomfortable with the years of Truman's "imprisonment" that they would have found the show unbearable. My interpretation of the cheers and back-slapping at the end is simpler: audiences love seeing the frame broken, whether on a long-running TV show or in a hit summer movie.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein