Friday, December 4, 2015

At the Movies: "The Truman Show"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Truman Show
Peter Weir, 1998.

imbd: 8.1 (imdb 250: #212)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% Fresh

You have probably seen The Truman Show, a very successful dramatic comedy about a man whose life is televised twenty-four hours a day to an eager world-wide fan base. He lives in a bubble, literally – a giant dome enclosing a world built just for him, populated with actors and extras for him to interact with. Life in the dome is a slightly surreal, sanitized, and back-dated version of life in an American suburb with a cute-as-a-button little commercial center and roads that abruptly end at the edge of town.

It’s a well-made film for sure, and in fact the reason I was watching it was because it gets a shot-by-shot analysis in the book Film Directing Fundamentals (Nicholas Proferes, 2008). The effects are great, and one of those prefab Florida coastal communities looks, reasonably enough, just like you would expect a fake town to look. Jim Carrey, who prior to this film was a popular staple in serviceable but basically dumb comic roles, is perfect as the good-natured, deeply na├»ve, and increasingly baffled Truman. I liked The Truman Show in its original run, and it was fun to watch it now. It has held up well.

What I don’t like is reviews of The Truman Show, except this one of course. Reviews of The Truman Show always want to talk about how it is a satire of, or a prescient predictor of, reality television. This is silly. The Truman Show is about a man whose life is being filmed, unbeknownst to him. Reality television, so called, is really improvisational performance. People in reality shows are generally placed in highly artificial situations, and are invariably aware that they are being followed everywhere by people with cameras. The Truman Show of the movie may be kind of like what reality television pretends to be, but it is nothing at all like what reality television actually is. Comparing the two is kind of like getting all muddled and thinking that Jim Carrey lived the first three decades of his life in a giant bubble created just for him.

Some reviewers want to take it one step further and draw parallels between The Truman Show and the everyday surveillance, or at least the feeling of surveillance, that pervades modern life. Again, this is a crossing of the wires. The feeling of surveillance that pervades modern life is the knowledge that there are cameras all over the place, and that if we do something naughty or embarrassing or illicit, it might come back to haunt us. But in general, if we aren’t doing anything interesting, we are just flickers on a screen that isn’t being paid much attention to. The character of Truman is the opposite. He doesn’t feel like he is being watched (until late in the game, at least), and if he does anything illicit, the camera turns primly away. It’s his everyday life that the audience-within-the-movie are interested in.

The real core of The Truman Show is not a commentary on reality television or surveillance, but a playful take on the notion that the world may only exist for oneself alone. It’s a form of solipsism, the notion that nothing outside of one’s own existence is really knowable, and it has been discussed by your name-brand philosophers like Descartes and Berkeley as well as legions of stoned undergraduates and bright junior high school kids.

It has also been an occasional theme of science fiction over the years, and this is where The Truman Show fits best. In short story form, it would have fit right in to one of the sci-fi digests of the 1960s. As a film, it is arguably one of the best science-fiction films of its era. Only since it doesn’t have spaceships, people don’t notice that it’s science fiction.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

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