The Truman Show
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.
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.