The truman show: 20 years later

- By Ruaidhrí Kiersey 

Truman show.jpg

Peter Weir’s 1998 classic The Truman Show has been done to death. The psychologists have molested it and pathologized it, the academics have given their tacit nods, as they languish typically and rightfully unread! We know the story, almost as if a myth, it came at a time when both Hollywood and French intellectuals (Jean Baudrillard) were hand in hand exploring the realms of media and its consumer society. It depicts a man who unravels a grim truth, that his entire life has been a secret reality show. This is, in my opinion, why Truman is such an enduring classic. It affords a genuine solution to the nihilism of its time, which largely marked the dominance of simplified media narratives over the real albeit difficult nature of reality. We could regurgitate the technicalities of the film, how the lenses of hidden cameras are imitated during some harrowing scenes (indicating the viewer’s scopophilic pleasure in Truman’s suffering) but the technicalities and the performance are, in this case, all serving a great message. Besides, where’s the poignancy of hidden cameras to a generation that memes in the face of corporate and state surveillance. No, The Truman Show is masterful in its depiction of an identifiable human nature orientated towards freedom, honesty and love- that is, nothing short of reality.

“While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman, himself,” are the films first words. They are drummed thoughtfully from the black clad, cold and bohemian-esque Christof (Ed Harris). Christof is in many senses the director and architect of a world’s first surreality. Surreality is something close to the ‘dead war’, as Baudrillard once christened the Gulf War, by which he meant, the cynical exchange of a real “hot” war for the simulation of one.  In which coalition casualties are so minimal that we may wonder if they fought at all, where valiant Patriot missiles are launched against Scuds; this is what Rick Roderick calls the “poetry of the simulation”, and what I mean by the surreal.

Within Christof’s surreal, Truman Burbank is born, raised, embarrassed, seduced, loved and traumatised precisely within the vapid town of Seahaven. It might stand-in for any North American suburb, perhaps it’s even reminiscent of the ghost estates we were raised in. It is bought and sold down to the last interactions of its inhabitants, it is picket fenced, close to work, consisting of rows upon rows of soulless housing, even the weather seems contrived. Imagine Skerries on steroids, albeit less smug in its’ thin veneer of opulence.

Truman lives out his menial life, he makes his mortgage payments, sells existential dread in the veil of life insurance. By all means a normal guy, an every-guy, right? We might grab a beer with him some Friday night and say something like “Truman, he’s alright; he has a nice car and a beautiful wife,” while the Trumans of this world retire in hushed disquiet that their home, their car and their wives are but the trappings of some lifestyle, not chosen out of love but thrust upon them by some near omnipotent oversight. Any cool flick through an Ikea catalogue threatens the mind’s feng shui, as it implores our sore lack of kitchen islands, shaking us to our core “what were you thinking with that paleo-décor?.” Truman, especially, would be on to something if he got his hand on the Truman Show’s advertising catalogue which sells the monochromatic ensemble of costumes worn by Seahaven’s resident, and promptly stopped making sense, whispering “this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife.” It’s hardcore economic determinism. See, Seahaven is not only his material prison, but a large studio-set designed to capture his every movement. Truman doesn’t know this exactly, but from our very introduction to Truman he is possessed with a need to escape his grinding day to day existence. He is ready to flee Seahaven for Fiji, perhaps ready to flee his wife due to a lingering sense that something’s off. This is, I believe less than astute. Truman is seemingly predisposed to grimace naturally at the fake smiles and sexual jibes of his wife (Laura Linney). After all, his first love was an extra, infiltrating Truman’s life as part of a group seeking his release. Whose attempted revelation of Truman’s condition leads to a bungling off set, with her fake Father claiming to whisk her away to Fiji.  

Truman, in a certain sense, is levelled to a flat Kardashian. Instead of rolls of silicone, diamonds and cellulite, Truman is of pasty build, affected, contorting mannerisms. He smiles at fellow suits, dragging himself to work. Mundane interactions are navigated with a pandering charisma. While once seated at his insurance firm, Truman tears magazines apart, seeking for his first loves features among myriad bland super-models. Instead of conducting himself like a working stiff, anxious over his financials and obligations, Truman is dreaming, far off from his desk job existence. The first time we see him at work he is threatened into accepting a job, his superior warning of sweeping cuts to his department. The fear of fearing joblessness is somehow a more powerful motivator in Truman’s life than his own mortgage and prospects of a family. That is, there is an overwhelming sense that Truman’s modest lifestyle is chosen for him.

Perhaps it is oxymoronic that our choice might be provided for us and if we are to deny this we might assent that we are, at least, risking indictment when we opt out of social trends. Think on the conditions that frame our political conversations; as crypto-fascism and its parent ideology neoliberalism duke it out in successive elections across the West we are repeatedly caught up in a kind of small talk, whether we would vote for Trump or Clinton, Le Penn or Macron. Framed, thus these choices appear more than between the tumour and the carcinogen. It is often unacceptable to point out that the fixed infrastructures and social climate that allow for the rise of the latter. When it comes to Clinton and Trump I don’t see it overly realistic that either candidate’s policy appeals to their majority poor citizenry, but there spectacle does. They are pro-gun, corporate endorsed and vetted, historically racist candidate- but they are somehow opposed to one and other in the video. Really these leeches are indistinguishable; while there are plenty of principled alternatives to these parasites, in our surreality of CNN wars and Sky coverage we are provided the choice of two. The result is somewhat determined, before the polls open. Reality is rolled up and thrown away, not for a simple simulation or copy, but a doctored image, a surreality that blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

Outside this surreality, plus ça change, life goes on as Christof says of us, caustically, “We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented. It's as simple as that.” Accordingly, the audience of the show within the show, are depicted as hooked to this telethon of mundanity and private dread that is Truman. Enthralled rather than empathetic, after all, (and this is no great condemnation of us) his life is a spectacle meant to be gawped at. Truman’s world may seem alien to us. He has mere faux rights to privacy, freedom to his income and social life but this runs against the absolute determinacy of his social conditions which are literally directed by an overseer (Christof) offscreen. That is to say, Truman’s interactions with what he takes for reality are entirely scripted. In some sense, then, isn’t Truman?

Running counter to Christof’s idea that Truman is real, is that Truman’s true self has to be consistently undermined via trauma to prevent him leaving his island paradise. His father was drowned at sea in front of Truman creating a pathological fear of water, his education was marked by limiting parents and teachers, shredding his dream. Any student of Ireland’s almost solely Catholic education system should recognise this. Bullied by other stifled and struggling children, that found confirmation for their barbed and exclusionary insults by a hierarchy that directly allows homophobia, sexism and abuse among its rank and file. It is important then, as it is for Truman, to keep Fiji in mind, the school child must look forward to a different kind of world, by which we mean a separate set of social conditions, in which he wouldn’t be alone, but might broach friendship with his enemies. In the world of reality T.V. and dead wars, we must remember that keeping it real is a revolutionary act, which means appealing to things like our taste for freedom, love and communication, instead of arbitrary historical affiliations, whether with the Tory Party or Boko Haram, when we act.

This is the central question of the The Truman Show, ‘what is real?’ Weir recommends that what is real is the want for freedom. Freedom from? Well, the economic determinacy of our world, the two party elections, the slabs of granite and marble in the middle of my ugly kitchen, the dead wars and Kardashians. It is genuine, natural, even for us to want to sail beyond these things, to envision a better world in which our high mortgages aren’t placed on negative equity and our taxes aren’t siphoned off into the hands of strange others that fail to invest it in us. Truman is dissatisfied by what Christof deems his “normal life” and he is prepared to die to liberate himself from it. This is extraordinary for a young generation that are falling into the palms of hackish cultural commentators such as Jordan Peterson in the absence of reliable or even consistent role models. We are falling into the hands of the politicians that it’s popular to like, not because we’ve found them popular personally. Truman conquering his fear of water and voyage to the periphery of his set hangs the prospect of the real to us without defining the kind of society that might be generated from it. However, remember that Truman does not just free himself. Truman frees his audience, who stop being enthralled with him, and cheer him on as he escapes, guaranteeing the shows cancellation. We may forsake some trappings of entertainment for a moment of real comradery. So, we must remain hopeful. All things considered, The Truman Show is a good source. Entertaining but equally inspiring, a classic in its own right.