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Everyman's Jim Carrey examines TV's omnipotence in The Truman Show

The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, is the zeitgeist movie of the hour. How could it not be? It's all about the omnipotence of television and how our lives seem scripted by some unseen force -- a TV producer, perhaps? Zeitgeist movies, almost by definition, get written about not only by film critics but also by "pundits" and op-ed pontificators. And a movie that supposedly zeros in on the way television has transformed our reality is a double bonus -- it allows the media to carry on about the media.

Paramount Pictures, the film's releasing company, is certainly pushing the zeitgeist approach, with costly full-page reprints in major press outlets of a deep-think Esquire rave calling it the "movie of the decade" -- not to mention the verbiage in its own press kit. It tells us the film "reflects the hopes and anxieties that grip us all as the century lurches to a close." Jim Carrey as a poster boy for the millennium? Get used to it.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) is introduced to us as a hyper-straight insurance adjuster who lives in the peachy-keen town of Seahaven with his Clairol-blond, hyper-sweet wife, Meryl (Laura Linney). Everything about Truman's world is honeyed -- it's like a '50s sitcom crossed with a Norman Rockwell townscape. It's all too good to be true, of course, and sure enough, it turns out to be a fabrication. Unknown to Truman as the film opens is that, from the moment of his birth, he has been the star of a 24-hour-a-day TV show.

Seahaven is, in fact, an immense soundstage, and its inhabitants, excepting Truman, are all actors. Over the 30 years of Truman's existence, the number of cameras covertly trained on him has gone from one to 5,000. Virtually his entire life is documented from every angle. Seen around the world, with an audience in the billions, his TV show is the longest-running "real-life" soap opera on the airwaves. And because Seahaven is an island and Truman has conveniently been made to have a fear of crossing water, he has never left his village. He doesn't know what everybody else knows about him. He's a star without the realization of his own stardom -- which, of course, is the essence of his immense appeal.

The orchestrator of this opera is the television director Christof (Ed Harris), who conceived the show and has become such a God-like manipulator that, for the unwitting Truman at least, he might as well be God. Christof -- he has just that one name, like a cult leader or a Beverly Hills hairdresser -- wears a beret and the intense, purposeful look of a messiah. He's demonic in his industriousness, and yet -- you've got to admit it -- he puts on a terrific show. And he genuinely loves Truman, in the way a puppeteer prizes his prime marionette.

The conflict comes when Truman, about a third of the way into the movie, finally figures out what's really going on. Comprehending the made-up nature of his life, he struggles to escape Seahaven. Christof, ever the director-genius, even manages to turn Truman's attempts to flee into a ratings-grabber. And yet he doesn't want the show to climax; he doesn't want his star to break away even after it's clear Truman has found him out.

What probably makes this film resonate for the zeitgeisters is that Truman's realization of his own stardom is presented as tragic. He's an Everyman who realizes he's a Nowhere Man. Truman is, almost literally, a child of the media. Directed by Peter Weir from a screenplay by Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show is anything but a celebration of media-made culture. If it were, Truman's discovery would be not a tragedy but a triumph. Imagine! He doesn't just have 15 seconds of fame, he's had 30 years of it! How ungrateful can you get?

From a strictly filmic point of view, The Truman Show is remarkable. Weir sets up Seahaven -- actually a 90-acre planned community on the northern Florida coast -- as the kind of storybook suburb so "perfect" it's surrealistic. An Australian with a penchant for delivering the cold creeps to audiences -- The Last Wave is his most renowned excursion into high-toned heebie-jeebies -- Weir understands fear. We've seen a variation on these twinkly suburbs before in, for example, the films of Steven Spielberg, especially E.T., and in Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future series. But those directors offered up their higgledy-piggledy communities with great affection. To a large degree, Spielberg and Zemeckis were formed by the '50s culture of strait-laced sitcoms; what they chose to present is not so much an accurate rendition of that era as a nostalgia for it. Like Truman, these directors are children of the media but unlike him, they also control its expression. They're Truman on the inside, but on the outside they're Christof.

Weir, however, doesn't have any nostalgia for the '50s sitcom culture because, among other things, he never was a part of that Ozzie and Harriet generation. Neither, for that matter, was Niccol, the young screenwriter, who grew up in New Zealand. (He wrote and directed the highfalutin, futuristic Gattaca, which also was about a man escaping his destiny.) The film centers on a kind of leisure world of true-blue Americana, but there's a foreignness to what we see. Everything is so idealized that it's eerie.

That eeriness is basic to the movie's game plan. If there is a TV antecedent to The Truman Show, it's not Ozzie and Harriet but the Patrick McGoohan series The Prisoner and the messagey, Rod Serling-scripted Twilight Zone episodes. The Truman Show is a cautionary fable about the televisionization of life, but it draws on our own cozy familiarity with television.

Carrey is the perfect actor to play Truman because he has always seemed not quite flesh and bone. When he stretched like a slinky in The Mask, he was completely fulfilled as a performer; the Pepsodent smile exploded into a toothy terror and he became larger than life. His elasticity gives him a rubberoid quality -- he may be the closest thing to a human cartoon we've ever had in the movies. Carrey fits right into the spic-and-span spookiness of Seahaven because the community mirrors his own empty-shell screen persona. As a comic actor, Carrey plays off his (apparent) bright and shining normality. (It's what Steve Martin used to do.) His all-American, clean-cut features are a put-on. He's such a straight arrow that he's a squiggly line.

I've always enjoyed Carrey in the movies, but there's something a bit unsettling about the way he turns himself into a curlicue. When Jerry Lewis, to whom he's often (inaccurately) compared, went into his rubber-man nutsiness, you weren't particularly jolted by the transformation because Lewis was pretty much zonked from the get-go. The same is true of a wildman comic like Robin Williams, who starts out manic and just gets freakier the more he free-associates. Williams, in his manic mode, would have been the exact wrong actor to play Truman because Williams is the comic embodiment of what television can do to a person; he's like a great, big, buzzing squawk box pouring out the jumble from a thousand TV shows. Carrey's blandness -- before he gets stretchy -- is in some ways more suggestive of what television can do to you than Williams's fireworks displays.

Carrey incarnates the filmmakers' notions of the hollowness of TV. Truman only recognizes he has a soul when it becomes clear to him that, in effect, he's been robbed of it. He figures out that he was the first child to be legally adopted by a corporation, and that his parents, wife and best friend (Noah Emmerich) are just actors hired to play their parts (like everybody else in Seahaven). And yet, on some level, these people really do care about Truman -- more, perhaps, than they might if they were real friends and relatives. That's why the film is a horror comedy of a very peculiar sort. It doesn't set up its pretenders as malevolent beings. They're just doing their jobs.

Carrey must have recognized early in his career that there was something unsettling about his super-clean-cut look. (He looks like Darren in Bewitched.) That's why he's always fiddling with it, stretching it. When he played the creepo in The Cable Guy, he turned off a lot of his usual audience because he wasn't playing nice. He was a cartoon, all right, but a dark one. The movie was a failure, commercially and critically, but it indicated Carrey was at least clued into what was disturbing about him.

He's the best thing about The Truman Show. He doesn't offer up evidence that he's about to deliver the definitive Hamlet of his generation, but what he does in this film is very subtle -- he plays someone with all the heft of a hologram, then proceeds to give it weight. Even though we're way ahead of Truman every step of the way, and even though we're placed in the snooty position of looking askance at his middle-class banality, we never feel superior to him. That's a tribute to Carrey. With a less inventive actor in the part, we might have felt like we were watching a rube getting his comeuppance. We might have identified with Christof. There's still a hefty element of cruelty in the movie's agenda -- we spend a lot of time watching Truman getting whacked by Fate -- but Carrey brings us into a sympathy with the character. He doesn't make us squirm. Instead, we feel for him when he starts squirming.

So do the audiences watching his "show" in their living rooms and workplaces. They cheer him in his escape attempts and start up "Free Truman" rallies. It's not just that they love Truman; it's that his story has taken on the contours of high drama. It's an engineered scenario that has burst its bounds and become "real." His odyssey has everything -- an Everyman hero, chases, suspense, "heart." (In a soppy subplot, Truman is provided with a girlfriend from his past who tries to wake him up to the artificial nature of his life.) And just in case his loyal fans want to relive earlier Truman life experiences, there's also the "Greatest Hits" videos.

The Truman Show gets glancingly into the way television series, especially "reality-based" ones, insinuate themselves into the dailiness of our lives. They become lifestyles for their audience. This is the function that movies used to serve in popular culture, but the intimacy of the TV medium is unbeatable -- it brings people and events directly into our home and scales things down to a fine familiarity. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote, "The television audience participates in the inner life of the TV actor as fully as in the outer life of the movie star" -- although most TV actors don't have much inner life.

Television also brings products directly into our lives. That's why it's such a great medium for the sell; the items put up for sale on-screen are, in a sense, already in our homes -- they're right there, in our living rooms, gleaming back at us from the tube and waiting to be pulled in. The Truman Show makes this point rather too bluntly: All through Truman's televised life we're privy to product plugs displayed front and center -- beer labels, kitchen appliances, food brands. That's insidious, all right, but of course, in TV land, what's worse are the plugs you don't see coming.

The Truman Show comes along at a time when television is a particularly hot button to push. Everything from the O.J. Simpson extravaganza to the two Jerrys -- Springer and Seinfeld -- has been put forth by politicos as an example of how zombiefied we are by the box. If television -- so the thinking goes -- can unify the mass audience, then surely it also sets the woefully low tone for its values. "Real" news has blurred into "real" events staged for the news -- such as the recent incident in Los Angeles in which a man killed himself on the freeway for the delectation of the local eyewitness-news skycams. We've gone from thinking that television is a baby sitter, a time-waster, a magic carpet, a drug, to something far more unfathomed. In The Truman Show, television is like some mystical force -- a death ray -- that exists apart from its practitioners. Christof may be the deity of the piece, but ultimately he's only serving the force. Television is an alternate universe that has become our primary universe.

It might be useful to look back at the last movie to really lambaste the tube -- the Paddy Chayefsky-scripted 1976 Network, which also zoomed through the zeitgeist. Like The Truman Show, Network provoked a lot of hand-wringing about the awfulness of television, but it was far more traditional in its attacks. Peter Finch's Howard Beale, the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," rallied his audiences against TV by delivering on-air sermons to his rapt followers.

Here's a sample: "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamn amusement park. It's a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion-tamers, football players. We're in the boredom-killing business so, if you want the truth, go to God, go to your guru, go to yourself, because that's the only place you're going to find any truth."

Beale is in a long line of freaked-out movie messiahs who speak the "truth" -- the latest incarnation is Warren Beatty's Senator Jay Bulworth in Bulworth, who lets it all hang out on television because he's too crazy to lie anymore and ends up a political hero and a sacrificial lamb. (Like Beale, he's finally assassinated for his troubles.) But Chayefsky also gives us William Holden's Max Schumacher, a deposed network news producer who doesn't need to be freaked to tell it like it is. His big kiss-off scene with Faye Dunaway's predatory child-of-the-media TV executive has op-ed stamped all over it. He calls her "television incarnate ... indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy." For her, he says, "all of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are the same as a bottle of beer." He tells her, "I'm real. You can't switch to another station."

The difference between Network and The Truman Show is that Chayefsky still had a soft spot for the good old days of television -- presumably the so-called '50s Golden Age, when he was writing original network dramas like Marty. There's a God hanging over Network, but it's not some Christof-like puppeteer -- it's the spectre of Edward R. Murrow. Chayefsky's weepiness for the bygone greats kept him from totally trouncing the medium. It wasn't television itself that was the enemy, it was the people who had commandeered its power. He was partway to The Truman Show in that film when he has Beale say to his audience, "You're beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal." In The Truman Show, the camouflage is complete. Christof says to an interviewer, "We accept the reality of the world we live in. It's as simple as that." But the movie's "reality" is created for the camera. You can run but you can't hide.

In its own mystic, ethereal way, The Truman Show is as dewy with sentimentality as Network. It says that the only person with the strength to fight back at the banalization of TV-induced life is the one man who is untainted by it -- Truman the innocent. And, boy, is he innocent. There hasn't been a movie hero this wet behind the ears since Forrest Gump. He's practically infantilized. It's significant that Truman is never shown making love to his wife -- it's difficult to imagine him doing so anyway. (The couple is childless.) If we are meant to identify with Truman, it's because he represents all of us before the fall -- before we succumbed to television's siren song.

The Truman Show isn't saying anything that media critics haven't been complaining about for years. It's just saying it in a different, weirder key. TV has long been an all-purpose target for just about everything that's wrong with society. A movie that says it's all narcotizing and corrupt, that our lives have become indistinguishable from the shows we watch, is tonic for people looking for the easy way out. Even before its official release, the film has occasioned a lot of self-righteous posturing. After all, by pointing out the horrors of the tube, you are also implying that you are not fully taken in by them.

The film's take on television is rife with condescension -- it's not so much holier-than-thou as holier-than-them. And yet, ironically, in order to be a hit, the film needs to connect with the very people to whom it condescends -- for example, the planned-community, Middle American boobs who look to a place like Seahaven for refuge. In general, the audiences for Truman, even when they are rallying him on, are shown to be a pretty lumpy lot. They are the consumers -- the sponges -- and they're fickle. When the Truman show finally goes off the air, they just want to know what else is on. Implicit in all this is a class bias that the filmmakers barely acknowledge. Usually when people talk about the ill effects of TV, what they often are really saying is that the mass audience is too stunted to ward off its whammies. Not so with us educated types. We know about stuff like postmodernism. We don't watch The Jerry Springer Show and The Home Shopping Network, we watch Masterpiece Theatre. We only watch the news for the news, not for the sensationalism. We can spot the ways in which television manipulates us.

But the real black comedy of media manipulation is that the marketeers and programmers use the so-called educated audience's cynicism about the process as part of the package. They build in our skepticism, so it's possible that such an audience is even more likely to be hoodwinked by TV's truth-and-reality games than the great unwashed. The Truman Show would have been a smarter and more accurate commentary if it wasn't so busy trying to flatter us about how smart we are. Really, we're not all that smart.

Hollywood movies don't often dabble in "ideas," so when one does, such as The Truman Show, it gets the state-of-the-union treatment. And yet I remember a movie from years back, Albert Brooks's 1979 Real Life, that said just about everything The Truman Show did and was a lot fizzier. Brooks played a pushy TV director who films a year-long documentary about a "real" family and ends up driving them and himself and everybody else crazy. The movie got into the wacked-out love/hate relationship we have with television -- and the absurdity of making the "real" real.

Unlike Real Life, The Truman Show tries to educate us. Education is the essence of that deadweight genre, "the message movie," and despite its new-style flash, that's exactly the genre into which The Truman Show fits. The movie touches a nerve with people who feel guilty -- but perhaps not too guilty -- about soaking up tube time without actually improving themselves.

It touches another nerve as well. The omnipresence of the media has confirmed for many people a paranoid view of life. How can we keep track of all the nefarious conglomerate interconnections anymore? The Truman Show -- financed by one of the world's largest corporate conglomerates -- plays into a populist vogue that says we're all victims. Truman is our martyr. The film is a nightmare, but an oddly comforting one. It absolves us of any responsibility to tune out the buzz -- or turn off the tube. Probably most of us exiting The Truman Show will nod approvingly at its dire warnings, then go right home and switch on our favorite sitcom or tabloid talk show. And our souls will not perish in the process.

The Truman Show.
Rated PG.
Directed by Peter Weir. With Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich and Natascha McElhone.

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