Truman Burbank as Sacrificial Victim
The Truman Show (1998) satirizes reality television, but it debuted just prior to the Survivor and Big Brother, reality tv’s breakout shows. The genre started in the mid-1990s with The Real World. Indeed, The Truman Show anticipates how the public will be captivated by “real” personal conflict.
I bring this up, in part, to brush aside the satire and focus on what the film is saying about television itself and the deeper implications of watching a life unfold before us as an entertainment.
I have always been disturbed by the, excitement, thrill, and gratification experienced by the viewers in the film who watch “The Truman Show”, especially during the final moments. Truman (Jim Carrey) decides to leave the only world he has known and effectively ends the show. Even the film audience feels great that Truman has overcome the forces led by the show’s creator, Cristof (Ed Harris), that have conspired to perpetrate such a cruel hoax on a man.
Truman is free. He can experience the real world for himself without all the manipulation and voyeurism. Yes, the world he is entering may also be manipulative and voyeuristic, but he has made an existential choice. Hooray for Truman. Even if gets mugged as he’s leaving the television set. Even if he invests his life savings with Bernie Madoff.
The joy and elation of both audiences obliterate an important fact: the television audience basically kept Truman captive for thirty years. They, more than Cristof and the companies advertising on the show, are responsible for keeping Truman in Seahaven (played by Seaside, Florida) and validating Cristof’s odd idea of utopia free from the problems of the real world.
While watching the show, the audience is unaware that they’ve made Truman a victim. Why should they be aware or care? Aren’t people universally encouraged to watch television? Aren’t we going to get some gratification from watching it? Won’t we reject it if it doesn’t entertain us? What have we done wrong?
At worst, perhaps, he is a victim of our collective desire to have and hold onto something forever. Maybe we cling to watching the show because others are watching and we want to have the same feeling of holding onto something. That’s part of the promotion. Everyone will be watching. As is mentioned in the film, one billion people watched when Truman got married. Can so many people be wrong or willingly hurtful?
Yes, a few people in the film, including Truman’s ideal woman, Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), start a “free Truman” campaign. Their numbers are unknown but they make enough noise to be considered nuisances but aren’t very effective. I find them analogous to people in the 19th century who objected to the government’s treatment of the Indians. They acted as a conscience and not much else. Otherwise, the majority never thought much about it, agreeing with the government’s policy (e.g., the Indian Removal Act).
To reject the sacrifice of Truman’s life to the greater good feelings of the public, the audiences must stop watching the show. They only stop when Truman pulls the plug himself.
Theoretically, all television subjects – fictional (CSI techs and SVU cops) and real (David Letterman and Diane Sawyer) – are confined to their worlds by the audience’s will. The actors and celebrities all may be willing to put themselves in this situation because it is lucrative and they can leave more easily than Truman ever could. Also, hundreds of thousands of people would trade their lives in the real world for television stardom.
In an earlier blog, I compared Psycho’s Norman Bates to Truman Burbank. Norman (Anthony Perkins) says to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) that he was born is his trap but he doesn’t mind. He is ostensibly referring to his taking care of his mother. We learn later the complexity of this trap.
Truman is also born is his trap. This was the show’s first episode. He never has a chance to recognize this. His real reality is elaborately kept hidden. He doesn’t know he’s in a trap but has sensed, perhaps for a while, that something is wrong with his world.
The film allows us to observe ourselves as an audience, or potential audience, to a well-liked television show. We might see ourselves doing more than just getting an evening’s entertainment.
The next Movie Club selection will be The Truman Show, Tuesday, January 28, 6:00 P.M., at the Collingswood Library.
I also would like to remind readers that I am offering a course at Haddon Twp. Adult Night School, GREAT FILMS, Wednesday nights from 7:00 – 9:00, starting February 5, and lasting 9 weeks. This winter/spring the course will focus on the Coen Brothers.