The Truman Show: Predicting the Commodification of Victimization

Upon its initial release, few moviegoers could possibly have predicted that The Truman Show would not remain pure fantasy for decades to come. The very concept that millions of Americans would ever sit around 24/7/365 watching what essentially amounts to a secret recording of a kidnap victim’s daily life as if he were some kind of actual celebrity was clearly the most outrageous and fantastic conceit of the movie. While The Truman Show was clearly intended as satire, the fundamental quality of satire is that it retains some distance from reality and the distance between that conceit and the ugliest realities of society that the film was satirizing seemed permanently detached. In less than two decades since its release, however, The Truman Show can be seen as an almost eerily prescient prediction of the commodification of victimization as entertainment in a process that increasingly makes viewers complicit partners rather in exploitation rather than victims of a more passive nature.

Watching The Truman Show and dismissing its premise of watching a kidnap victim live out his life as entertainment for the masses as something that could never be accepted by American society is no longer something easily accomplished. The show within the film presents what at the time appeared to be a satirical extension of the concept of the reality show to its most impossible extreme. Truman is, after all, from a legal perspective nothing more nor less than victim of the federal crime known as kidnapping and it is only obliviousness to his situation is the only aspect of his condition which allows for the secret filming of that life to become entertainment. He is kept against his will; such a situation is definitively against every aspect of American values. This element of the film was thus so far removed from expectations of the possibility of the future of television that it is clear evidence that Truman’s situation was not designed to be a reflection of reality and, therefore, was intended more as the last final footing lost on a slippery slope. Over the years, however, such an unlikely scenario is actually moving closer and closer to becoming something that could happen any day now. That slipper slope in real life has already taken viewers from Big Brother to Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. Clearly, the American ability to accept what was seemed clearly unacceptable has gone through a state of de-evolution.

The film also points the way to a society where victimization is the new entertainment and there no longer seems to be a boundary over which content producers won’t cross when it comes to exploiting victimization for the sake of entertainment. Truman seems far happier than most real life “stars” of so-called “reality TV shows” but this is likely due to the fact that he is not aware that he is the star of a reality show. On the other hand, the actors paid to play parts in Truman’s life—including what amounts to a prostitute playing out the role of his wife—do not seem particularly happy. Even as recently as 1999, it seemed laughable to suggest that billions around the world would tune in to watch the mundane and—let’s face it—utterly boring daily routine of a person’s life on a 24 hour basis, but the rise of YouTube sensations who do absolutely nothing of any real interest has made that assumption laughable now. YouTube and live streaming just taps the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the intrusion into the most private moments of a person’s life. In a way, The Truman Show also foresees the coming of the NSA spying program in the way that so many Americans so quickly and passively accept it.

One of the less explicit satirical targets of The Truman Show is how it works to present a stark warning about the coming devaluation of the professional creative artist. Although there are professional writers and actors who work in front of and behind the camera making the reality show that is at the center of movie, its success is entirely dependent upon the non-professional participation of Truman himself. The movie thus becomes a show business satire proven to be right on the market when it comes to the very real future of how non-creative aspects of the television industry (network executives, conglomerate CEOs…producers) have joyously latched onto the cheaper production cost of reality shows as a means for devaluing the creative input from professional. When a teenage boy who makes six seconds home videos featuring such brilliantly creative plots as his through the snow is actually handpicked by the producers of a dancing show and sold to a complicit audience as a “star” there seems to be little more need for further evidence to prove that the value of professional creative artists in the entertainment industry rests at its lowest ebb ever.

A much more explicit and far more potent warning about the future of entertainment to be found in The Truman Show is how it becomes one of the first satirical critiques of entertainment media to target the consumers as being every bit as complicit in the negative aspects of media as those producing that content. One of the standard arguments to be found in any critique of the film is that delivers a message that audiences are becoming less and less resistant to the power of the media to shape and control the message they deliver to audiences. Closer critical scrutiny reveals just the opposite message is at work. Without an audience willing to watch a man go to the bathroom or sleep or live what is essentially a fairly boring life, the show’s creator, Christoff, actually becomes less the God figure implied by his name and more of a minor autocrat employed on a work-for-hire basis by his viewers. In fact, the only person genuinely lacking any complicity in the criminal behavior that is the reality show in which he is the star is Truman himself. One can only imagine that if the film were remade today, the ending would be far less of a triumph for free will…Truman would likely join in the compliance by demanding triple the salary of his highest paid co-stars.

The Truman Show began life as an outrageously unlikely warning about the multiple effects of the reality show genre taken to a periphery that was too extreme to ever masquerade as genuine reality. Over the nearly two decades since its release, the extreme quality and easily accepted doubt that such a show could ever actually come to fruition has waned to the point where few would ever be surprised to learn that their favorite reality show is one in which the star really doesn’t have the slightest idea that his victimization at the hands of the producers and consumers is being exploited solely for the purpose of entertainment designed to distract millions from the real problems going on outside their own reality show taking place inside their homes.

The Truman Show: Warning for the Future

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is a film of great satirical intellect and poignancy. However, beneath the facade, this “comedy” conveys important social messages that provide a warning for the future. It mocks human beings’ automatic acceptance of what they are presented with and shows how manipulative and addictive the media can be. On a deeper level, the film also cautions against accepting absolute authority, the interminable hunt for Utopia, and the evils inspired by the desire for wealth. Whether The Truman Show is a satire, a comedy, a documentary, a fable, or even a hoax is debatable, but what is impossible to question is the need to consider its themes and digest its principal lessons. The international populace is influenced, manipulated, and shaped by the world they live in and the media they are exposed to. Truman Burbank, the primary character of The Truman Show, provides a perfect depiction of modern man, because he accepts the facade created by the society in which he dwells for most of his continuously-televised life. Having been cast from the moment of his birth as the unwitting star of a popular reality TV soap opera, he is unsuspectingly moulded by his society (the people, social standards and media he interacts with), all of whom are meticulously controlled and directed by the show’s creator, Christof. By tolerating the absurdities that often occur in his life and not questioning why they happen, Truman permits himself to be dominated by invisible sources that force him into service as a profitable breeder for the creators, a source of amusement for viewers, and a lifestyle for the professional actors and technicians involved. Truman’s naivete, as Christof explains, is possible because, as humans, “accept the reality with which we are presented.” It is not human nature to question the “truth.” Very few question the information they are fed by self-proclaimed “reliable sources.” Societal pressures and the desire to conform easily guide even the most perceptive participants. However, as Truman and the fictitious spectators of The Truman Show prove, the consequence of allowing opinionated representations to infiltrate a person’s life is subconscious self-enslavement that eventually leads to exploitation. In modern times, the media is powerful and exploitive, yet it remains alluring to its audiences because it is programmed to their needs. For the sake of selfish enjoyment, the made-up viewers in The Truman Show accept the heavy expense Truman unknowingly pays. They are mentally bribed by the show’s appeal into not opposing the invasion of privacy and the other ethical issues that are inevitably raised. Truman’s vulnerability and defensiveness (as apparent from the numerous high angle shots of him) are ignored. Viewers are oblivious to the irony of a man who “jealously guards his privacy” initiating a program with no restriction to another’s. While many will doubt the likelihood of The Truman Show becoming reality, the fact is that a similar neglect of ethics when fulfilling needs, wants, and fantasies already occurs, whether the public is conscious of it or not. When savvy moviegoers watch TV programs or movies, they enjoy the image the creators are portraying. However inadvertently, as they familiarise themselves with that image, they are embracing the opinions and popular culture displayed in the dominant reading. Because the celluloid audiences of The Truman Show see raw footage of a life instead of an artificial movie, the real viewers are in an advantageous moral position, and it is thus unfair to compare reactions. But when the public indulges in celebrities’ exposed secrets or watch Princess Diana’s private recordings, they are in fact perpetrating the same offence as the viewers in The Truman Show. The film correctly exposes the artificial nature of spectators, who in the process of pursuing entertainment, are hypnotized and suspend their better moral judgement in order to oblige their needs. The millions of imaginary viewers who plug in to intrude upon Truman’s “privacy” in its circular matte are captivated by the perfection of his world and the dramatic events of his life. However, their obsession leads them to abandon their moral responsibilities for the victimized when they tune in, thereby endorsing The Truman Show’s activities. The line between fantasy and reality blurs as the audience’s reliance on the show is prolonged. Everyday obligations are ignored, and the program becomes the epicentre of their lives. This is best demonstrated by the viewers who tune in 24 hours a day, by the young couple who ignore their baby to concentrate on Tru Talk, and by the customers who purchase fragments of Truman’s engineered reality. Instead of endeavouring to attain a more satisfying life of their own, the audience literally lives through Truman. People innocently believe in the media’s integrity because is so delightful. However, the incapacity to remove oneself from a particular media such as The Truman Show is no different to being addicted to gambling, drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. In The Truman Show, Christof is associated with God and his unscrupulously actions are designed to cautions viewers when following the commands of an omnipotent being. The cast and crew obey his instructions almost blindly, except in the scene where he resorts to violent weather to intimidate Truman into returning to Seahaven. They succumb to his whims, dishonesty and sadism and ignore their better values and beliefs. They are obedient and true devotees of a faith. Director Weir questions this absoluteness. Should God be perfect, and restricted by right and wrong? Could he be immoral? Should people permanently accept his teachings or exercise judgement? Is rebellion immoral? In short, is it better to have free choice but also experience dilemmas or better to accept the control imposed by a supreme being with superior wisdom? For most of his life Truman lives in his constructed Utopia with no freedom, and no dilemmas. Yet despite being provided with an environment that is constrained to perfection, Truman is not content because he is ensnared in a town where he is unable to realise his dreams. Weir constantly uses film techniques to create threatening moods, e.g. the low angle shot of Truman been framed by Meryl and his mother suggesting that he is overpowered by the dominant figures in his life and trapped. In his only real choice, Truman decides to abandon The Truman Show, informed that he will ruin investments, destroy the careers of people with genuine affection towards him, and obliterate the pleasure he brings to millions. Nevertheless, the viewers were heartened by Truman’s escape, and Weir signifies Christof’s similar admiration by the low angle shot of Truman silhouetted against the sky: confident, heroic, and in total control. Truman’s proficiency in digesting the earth-shattering news he has received, his preservation of humour in crisis and his courage in entering the uncertainty of the “real world” where he knows there is disease, violence, depression, deception, and poverty endears him further to the audience. His triumph in escaping is also the triump of the people who live through him. From this, it is possible to see that The Truman Show clearly insist on free choice.The Truman Show is the fantasyland of perfection men have searched for since civilisation, yet it’s termination in the end of the film with Truman’s departure shows that such flawlessness cannot exist. For Utopia to survive, mankind itself must be perfect. Yet with gluttony, selfishness, hate, jealousy, arrogance, conflict, differences, boredom, unhappiness, fear, and other human characteristics, this is impossible. The movie illustrates through Truman that even if Utopia did exist, it would ultimately disintegrate. Humans possess a relative amount of intelligence, and intelligence inspires freedom, adventure, competition, change and challenges. Truman’s life of perfection offers him none of these, and therefore his life is imperfect. While perfection is what people crave, it is unsustainable because it is monotonous and can offer no competition, adventure, or challenge, all of which require distinctively human attributes that cannot exist in Utopia. Truman’s plight is a marvellous representation of the extremes incurred when greed encounters no boundaries. Truman Burbank was adopted and raised by his corporate parents for exploitation. In the course of generating massive personal rewards, Truman’s biological parents, Christof, and media executives ignore their own morals and values as well as Truman’s right to truth, reality, and civil liberties. Similarly, the professionals hired to be involved in Truman’s life and convince him of its excellence and legitimacy, as well as the crew involved in the set, design, music, and advertising of the show are bought off, and remain complacent to Truman’s oppression. When this revenue, equivalent to that of a small country, is threatened, these characters are willing to jeopardize Truman’s life to protect it. These actions enforce the hollow nature of human goodness and the strength of greed.In conclusion, The Truman Show contains relevant messages for the future that must be considered. It argues that the media’s debauchery is only possible because viewers themselves are willing – even enthusiastic – to sacrifice their control over themselves in return for pleasure and conformity. Correspondingly, it discourages people from searching for a Utopian-like society and sacrificing ethics for material interests, and encourages people to question the nature of God and other omnipotent figures. Unfortunately, the message, in the current political, social and economic climate, appears not to be reaching its audience.

An Exploration of Human Behavior in The Truman Show

Peter Weir’s film, The Truman Show (1998), presents a powerful exploration of ideas and opinions, providing a compelling insight into the human condition. The film embodies insights into the fundamental issues surrounding the manipulative power of the media, the overstepping of individual rights, as well as the distortion between truth and illusion. Ultimately, the film critiques the fragility of human nature when media is presented as a powerful force which manipulates human behavior.

Peter Weir’s depiction of Truman Burbank in The Truman Show serves as a powerful critique on the media’s significant role on our lives, influencing human behavior in order to perpetuate its own existence. Truman Burbank’s life is represented as an extended metaphor for the manipulative power of the media. He is completely unaware that his life is being micro-controlled by a media empire and the viewers. This mirrors media manipulation in reality where society is becoming increasingly shaped by news, commercials, and the radio. In an early scene, Truman is confronted by a studio light which has fallen into the roadway outside his home. A cutaway shot shows the viewers only a lamppost and an empty blue sky. Furthermore, a radio announcer describes an airplane shedding parts, which Truman readily accepts, alluding to the ease with which the media manipulates the public. As the film progresses, certain events cause Truman to question the perception of his alleged reality in Seahaven. Christof is able to almost control his thoughts and dreams in an attempt to keep Truman locked up in the utopian world of Seahaven. The film gives the audience an impression that the media has a powerful grip on our emotions. A prime example of this is the recurring reaction shots of the ‘bathtub man’. He is depicted not leaving his bathtub, with his eyes glued to the television screen continuously. His portrayal exemplifies the manipulative control of the media, being able to fixate their consumers and exploit their attention for fiscal gain. Christof becomes so immersed in the show that his unconstrained actions cause him to break moral rights in order to trap him within Seahaven, willing to even kill him, expressed through one the producers, “He’s going to drown and you don’t even care”. Therefore, through observing the film as an extended metaphor for media power, we are able to perceive how our emotions can be governed by the media.

In The Truman Show, Weir exposes the way in which the media infringes on individual rights to privacy. Truman, being born into an artificial world, has his privacy exploited for the entertainment value of the world. Time and time again, the notion of individual rights is challenged as Christof continues to break moral boundaries in order to make financial gains. For example, a vignette shot with a matte black frame is utilized in the opening scene of the film, with Truman placed in the centre of the frame in his world. He is also situated within a mirror frame, further emphasizing the impression that he is trapped and with his individual rights infringed. By contrast, a mid-shot of the actors Meryl and Marlon is depicted speaking in full sunshine, with diegetic sounds of birds chirping, suggesting a more liberated lifestyle. Truman is often shown through a variety of camera angles, giving the viewers an impression that he is being constantly monitored. For example, a camera is hidden within the car, with a low angle shot looking up at Truman, connoting the idea that his privacy has been breached. As the film progresses, one comes to an understanding the extent to which Truman’s individual rights have been encroached, demonstrated through Christof’s statistic, given on Trutalk: “Somewhere in the vicinity of 5000 cameras”. This is shown as the camera pans across to a cluttered layout of screens depicting the intrusion of Truman’s life. Thus, the use of images have been employed to expose the consequences of individual rights infringement.

The Truman Show illustrates the importance of a balance between what is true and what is counterfeit, and how a distortion between the two discourses can lead to disastrous consequences on the human psyche. For example, in the travel agency, a close up shot of a poster depicting an aircraft crash is shown with the caption ‘This could happen to you’. This is ironic as the purpose of a travel agency is to promote traveling, as opposed to discouraging it, thus demonstrating how simple it is to manipulate the truth. Peter Weir also illustrates the fine line between truth and illusion through the characterization of both Truman and Christof. The name Truman itself is an allusion, while the irony lies in that the world is surrounded by is the opposite of truth. Likewise, the name Christof alludes to God, with the perception that he has almighty control over Truman. This is further emphasized in the closing scene of the film, with Christof’s booming voice projected from the sky, “I am the creator…”, epitomizing the God-like power he possesses. Therefore, through the use of images, Peter Weir discusses how the manipulation of reality can lead to repercussions on the human condition.

Overall, Weir’s film, The Truman Show, serves as a cautionary tale offering critiques on the nature of human behavior. This is conveyed through an exploration of the repercussions of the pervasive power of the media whilst stressing the rights of the individual. Furthermore, the film warns against the ambiguity between what is truthful and eluded. The film offers key themes and opinions of its own which ultimately leads to a heightened appreciation amongst its viewers.