THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998, USA, Peter Weir, screenplay Andrew Niccol)
What distresses you, ultimately, is that Truman prefers his cell. As you call it.
Seahaven is the kind of place you'd love to visit, but – as Truman Burbank slowly comes to realize – you wouldn't want to live there. The seaside town with its whitewashed clapboard buildings evokes a sweeter, simpler time – a crime-free, trouble-free, poverty-free postcard world that never existed outside a Jane Wooster Scott painting. You'd take a tidy little bed and breakfast somewhere near the boardwalk, you'd eat ice cream sundaes in well-managed sunny little shops stroll the quiet streets, you'd be tempted never to leave – unless, of course, they wouldn't let you go. Then this little slice of heaven would start to look a lot like hell.
Jim Carrey plays a man born and raised in something like theme park America, a TV-perfect vision of marching bands and perma-friendly pals and next door neighbours that plays like some wish-fulfilling manifestation of North America's collective unconscious, the monstrous, squeaky-clean spawn of a toxic nostalgia for the past mated with a controlling fear of chaos and the unknown. (Interesting how the sea with its mysterious, imagined depths is as dreadful a barrier for Truman as it was for the Israelites.) As the opening credits cleverly suggest to the audience, and a mounting sense of unreality and inconsistency begins to suggest to Truman himself – a strange, otherworldly lighting instrument falls from the sky, the name of a star and galaxy scrawled on the side in felt pen – the entire story, and Truman's entire life, is unfolding on a massive soundstage. His life is the ultimate high concept Reality TV show, and Truman is the only person in the world who isn't in on the concept. He doesn't know that from the womb, his every experience has been filmed and broadcast live to the entire world. Every experience, that is, except sex: whenever his perky, almost-plastic wife (my theory? she grew up in nearby Stepford) beguiles him to bed with babies on her mind, the camera discreetly turns away to curtains blowing in the wind. Not, it turns out, because The Truman Show is too discrete to film such prurient details – God knows, the ratings would soar! – but because nobody has sex in Seahaven. (The bed and breakfast idea is looking less appealing by the minute...) Not the townspeople, who are after all professional actors. And certainly not Truman, the only true man on the set.
You see, our hero may have been plotted into a chipper but unfulfilling and unfulfilled marriage (and what a horrifying vision of marriage this is! Meryl's main function is to steer Truman, to reign him in, putting the damper on his dreams with talk of savings and mortgage and building a secure future: we're reminded of Warren Schmidt's quietly desperate marriage, and the false face he puts on to mask the discontent from himself and everyone else), but he won't make the producer or the viewing audience happy by making babies. Truman's is the oldest, best and truest reason in the world: he's not in love. His heart belongs to another, an extra who caught his eye one pseudo-summer's day and was whisked away because she didn't fit with the pre-ordained storyline. Now and then we get glimpses of The Truman Show's viewing audience out in the real world, and there she is, his lost love, living in the kind of low-rent apartment that you'd never see on Truman's show, carrying on a "Free Truman" campaign that marks her as a trouble-making nut case.
I'll level with you. First time through, I didn't connect at all with this movie. Maybe it's my irrational hatred of all things television – though that didn't put me off PLEASANTVILLE. Maybe it's the gloss. Maybe it's the high concept thing, that played to my head instead of my humanity. Maybe it just didn't speak to my experience: I read it mostly as a paranoia film, with Truman essentially the victim of a massive conspiracy. Im not paranoid enough to connect with that, I just don't see myself – or anybody, really – as the object of any sort of government plot or media plot.
It was my second try that finally afforded me a foothold, and that's when I connected with Truman's secret, the unspoken longing he carries inside him for this woman from Someplace Else. I know that yearning. C.S. Lewis calls it joy or "Northernness," Truman calls it Fiji, a strange and distant land of which we've caught fleeting glimpses. Rumours of Glory. Reality. Eternity. Our home, perhaps. And once our heart fastens on it, we're restless until we find our way there. We're "hunting the divine fox," and we can't rest once we pick up the scent.
So that's when they finally had me, the moment I picked up echoes of my own spiritual coming of age, my waking up to the fact that there was a realer world beyond the one I'd grown up believing in. Jesus called it the Kingdom of Heaven, but he didn't mean pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, he said it's among us, within us. Gerard Manley Hopkins called it God's grandeur, said it flames out "like shining from shook foil."
And Truman glimpsed it in a girl. Now he buys glamour magazines and spends his secret time piecing together a collage of her half-remembered face: this one's smile, that nose, those eyes. And that's why there's no sex in Seahaven.
That's not the only thing missing from Seahaven: there's no religion, too. Imagine, no churches! Not even those solidly reassuring Protestant edifices that flourished in the Truman-like Fifties, fending off the fears of a nation that wanted to forget the horrors of war and manage the dread of invisible Cold War enemies across oceans and maybe even closer at hand. What's with that?
Turns out there's no religion in this sub-creation because Seahaven is sealed off from the heavens, the stars are movie lights, and the winds and the tides are controlled not by the Creator but by the creator, a television director likes to play god, who invented the series and directs every episode from a tech booth hidden somewhere just beyond the (artificial) moon. He's set himself up as god over this pre-fab, anti-lapsarian Eden, and apparently he'll have no other Gods before him. Not content to let God be God, he keeps Truman's world small, he micro-manages the risks in Truman's world to provide edification, emotion and – ironically – escape for the millions in the viewing audience.
Some read this film as pure and simple allegory: Truman is you and me and every man, Christof is God, and clearly the best thing for any of us is to get out from under this despot's thumb and get real. Not good enough: it doesn't take into account one tiny moment that points beyond Christoph to something – or Someone – higher. The Young Woman – Christof christened her Lauren, a Movie Star Saint's name like every character and every street name in this moviolatrous sub-creation, but her real name is Sylvia – embodies not only Transcendence and Wonder and the longing for Relationship, but also good old un-movied Real Life. And at the moment of Truman's greatest jeopardy, when he curses the storm and the (false) god above just like Lieutenant Dan and Captain Ahab before him, Sylvia looks up and prays, simply, "Please, God." Suddenly THE TRUMAN SHOW isn't, after all, an allegory about a human spirit constrained by a controlling, rule-making, fear-mongering Higher Power, but rather a portrait of what happens when mere creatures forge a world that denies the Creator, fashioning a false paradise that aims to fulfill every need but the spiritual and soulful. It is good and right that we should create worlds – we are, after all, made in the image and likeness of our Maker, who is before everything else creative – but if we don't acknowledge that higher Creator, if we think ourselves gods just because we create, will our creations bear the image of divinity or only our own image? If Truman's god is merely human, if he lives only in a sub-creation, will he only ever be sub-human?
Some will say that Truman's hunger isn't for God at all, that it's for freedom, mystery, love, passion, intimacy, authenticity, risk, adventure – all the great stuff that most movies are about, the "behold it is good" things that nourish and satisfy human souls, God or no God. It's a story of emancipation, just like all Peter Weir films. But it's also a story about encounters with unknown places, worlds in collision, and about the spiritual worlds we can see from those liminal places, those border lands – just like all the best Peter Weir movies. Because when it comes time for THE TRUMAN SHOW to show its hand, everything it has to say is about truth and reality and the creator, about freedom and choice and transcendence. As clever and pretty and entertaining as this movie is, it's playing for keeps. (For instance, what's with that piece of music that plays just as Truman's ship breaks through the wall of his soundstage prison camp? It's a Wojceich Kilar composition entitled "Father Kolbe's Preaching." Go ahead, look up Saint Maximilllian Kolbe, I dare you!)
Sure this movie is about personal freedom, it's about media and political systems that subjugate us with bread and media circuses and cheap nostalgia and fear, it's about how being surrounded by pretty stuff won't satisfy – you can live in at TV commercial or Disneyland and not be happy! It's about the basic human need for authenticity, and it's about the shadow side, the unavoidable, messy, dangerous, desirable chaos of real life, and the futility of trying to control it all (again I think of Warren Schmidt, who like Truman – or Bob Parr, for that matter! – makes a living managing death, assessing risk, selling insurance to fend off fear about life's one great unalterable). If you like, it's a parable about parents and children, about coming of age and apron strings. Heck, you can even see this movie as a film-maker's meditation on the soul dangers inherent in the creative process, especially when your creation will influence millions: an insider's cautionary tale about the vocational hazards faced by every cinematic Sorcerer's Apprentice who helps build the myths that people end up living inside.
You can read this movie a lot of ways, it's that rich and complex. But when the film ultimately frames its questions in metaphysical terms, is it any surprise we look for ultimate, metaphysical answers? The basic dramaturgical questions here – what is Truman hungry for? And what's Out There? – are also the essential human questions. So it's no wonder that, as Truman wakes up to the awareness that there's something beyond the world he knows, as he becomes restless in the mereness of his bland, pretty, predictable little life, we hunger with him for something much, much bigger and not nearly so tame.
PLEASANTVILLE, THE MATRIX, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE