Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tuned in

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

For three weeks I told my publisher, David Mackin, that the next article would be about The Truman Show, then instead I wrote about something else (Wild; The Last Days of Disco; Passion in the Desert). Well, those other movies were more in need of the attention. You’d have to be living in an artificially created world, housed inside the planet’s biggest manmade structure, not to be aware of The Truman Show by now. And yet, I guess I can’t let such an acclaimed movie get away without comment.

I’ve already recommended the film: a mighty 8 out of 10 points. So with that stipulated, and since it’d take Columbo to track down any seriously negative commentary on the picture, I’ll concentrate on where the other two points went.

A polite indictment

Part of the reason I found the film hard to write about is that although it seemed meaningful and resonant as I watched it, in retrospect it didn’t seem to have had much of a subtext. You can’t really muse over what it means – that’s kind of obvious – but only over how it says what it means. And on that level it’s tremendously pleasing: it exudes care and attention to detail, and it’s brilliantly sustained. But of a course a lot of the detail is deliberately fake, and what’s being sustained is an illusion. The medium is really the message here in that the film’s intelligence and allusiveness are probably more likely to pull us into the fictional world of the show within the film than to give us analytical distance from it, which cleverly exposes our supposed complicity in this monstrous creation.

Like all satires or fairy stories, we must accept some anachronisms and oddities in what’s provided. In an age of declining attention spans and splintering audience shares, a 30-year reverie on a severely limited, unvarying life wouldn’t seem like an obvious focus of mass appeal. I wonder how many people would really tune in for all those hours of Truman at his desk in the insurance office doing all that insurance paper work. Even as The Truman Show nails us for succumbing to the TV drug, it softens the blow by flattering our patience and civility.

Tweaked nostalgia

In other senses too, the film’s gentle exaggeration allows us to feel good about ourselves. The parodies of product placement – the two aging twins who push Truman against a different billboard every morning, his wife’s cheery blurbs into the camera – are the most unsubtle part of the film; modern-day product placement is much sharper than this. We can appreciate the reference, but would it make us any more likely to avoid being manipulated in the future? I doubt it. The TV show in The Truman Show is soothing and clear, whereas real TV is busy and insidious.

When I first saw the film’s title I assumed it must be something to do with former US president Harry S. Truman. Which it isn’t, and yet…a few years ago Harry Truman came briefly back into vogue as the exemplar of an unassuming, decent competence. Although the film’s sterile vision of suburbia may be more stereotypically linked with Eisenhower than Truman, it’s more or less the right time period.

The movie easily starts to seem like an avalanche of tweaked nostalgia. The notion of a child growing up before the eyes of the world evokes the Dionne sisters and their theme park childhood. And when the townspeople form a night-time search party for the missing Truman, depicted in some strikingly lit images of an eerily coordinated group sweeping the streets, like a meticulous swarm of mutant insects, I instantly thought of Cold War paranoia classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which everyone is revealed to be secretly united against the hero’s (and America’s) interests.

Time is money

The subtext back then was creeping conformity, whether in the form of Commie infiltration or Eisenhower middle-class suffocation. It’s a fascinating echo, because in many senses we’re now more diverse, more multi-cultural, more colourfully fragmented than we could ever have predicted in the 50’s. But of course, the motivation that bounds the search party together in The Truman Show isn’t ideology but money – they’re all employees of the huge corporation, presumably soon to be washed up if the show can’t continue.

It's only when I thought of this that I was able to put the movie to rest in my mind. The Truman Show, of course, is itself an expensive commercial venture, financed by business people rather than philanthropists. Its makers are too smart to throw stones from inside a glass house. The film’s a wonderful satire of a public conformity that doesn’t really exist. So maybe it’s more illuminating (and it usually is) to follow the money. Isn’t the film really about a community that’s held together solely by rampant capitalism? And isn’t it significant that Truman, the only innocent, is also the only guy who never directly made a dime from any of it? But that’s a meaningless message – we can’t opt out of the world we’re born into.

World of voyeurs

Anyway, The Truman Show depends, just as much as television, on our deep-rooted passivity. We like to watch. But so what? Is an artificial activity like watching TV so qualitatively different from a natural one like watching birds? It depends on your system of values. When we watch TV though, our time – as a statistic in the demographic that swells the viewing figures – is money: not for us, but for the cable operator, and the network and so on down the supply chain. We’re worth more doing someone else’s thing than we could ever be worth doing our own. But maybe that’s my naivete in supposing that anything retains its purity. Truth is, the birds are probably carrying ads too.

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