“Are we trapped like Truman? Is this why we want him to leave his world? Then what will we do? Turn off the set? Leave our society with its endless consumer culture and production of ‘things’?”
I. Born in a Trap
One day in my film class I spoke about the group of films we had watched the last three months trying to stimulate the students to writing better, more analytically interpretive papers. Perhaps they take specific lines as a way to burrow into the films and find unexpected connections and meanings? I referred to the long dialogue between Marion Crane and Norman Bates. The second time watching Psycho (1960), Norman saying “mother wasn’t quite herself,” “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” and “a son is a poor substitute for a lover” takes on other, sinister meanings. I then quoted a part of that dialogue:
Norman: You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.
Marion: Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.
Norman: I was born in mine. I don’t mind it any more.
We had watched The Truman Show (1998) a week before, and, seemingly from nowhere, I remarked that Truman Burbank had been born in a trap by being the subject of a television show his entire life. As long as the show’s ratings were high, he could not leave it. While Truman grew up, his creator, Christof (Ed Harris), created circumstances to keep him trapped psychologically on the island town of Seahaven. The major difference between Truman and Norman is that Truman started to mind being in his trap.
What could we make of this? What meaning, if any, did this parallel situation of characters in widely different films have?
At the time, I had no real answer, nor did the students respond to the connection. That’s the problem with these kinds of connections. There’s no ready-made answer. One can make something of it – that is, “find” meaning – or drop it as a curiosity and not worth the effort.
I encouraged the students to interpret one film through the lens of another. If we liken Truman Burbank to Norman Bates, how far do we want to take it? Norman’s mental state, we are told, is the result of possessive, domineering mother. We have little or no objective evidence of this, save for a psychologist’s report and the voice of the Mother in Norman’s head. At best, we can say Norman was psychologically smothered and entered an unfathomable psychotic state.
Truman’s upbringing is no less smothering but is primarily a sociological asphyxiation. Every relationship in his life is false. He responds to players who are fed lines in order to prompt Truman’s behavior in a particular direction. Christof believes this direction is salutary and utopian. Truman will get what he desires and, subsequently, satisfy the viewing desires of a billion watchers.
The perversity of Truman’s situation may be less obvious than Norman’s. The suggestion of incest within the Bates family immediately implants horrific images in the viewer’s imagination. Whereas, the television viewers can convince themselves that Truman lives in the best of all possible worlds. Norman is a serial killer, creating an even stronger feeling of revulsion in us. Truman, at worst, wears mismatched clothes and is afraid of water. He can be laughed at. Maybe he’s a tad neurotic.
Finally, Norman gets locked away. He can’t disentangle himself from his mother-self. Truman has developed a healthy skepticism toward his world and leaves it voluntarily. It is imperative he get out of the trap of the television show. It won’t be as easy as it looks. What Truman doesn’t know is that there’s another, harsher society out there waiting to engulf him again. He will become the celebrity, Truman Burbank, star for thirty years of “The Truman Show.” He will be trapped by his former life and hounded by people who have developed neurotic fixations about him. I doubt he would want to return to Seahaven under any circumstance.
I am glad there was never a sequel to The Truman Show, something that can’t be said for Psycho. If there was, I wonder how much more awful his experiences in the world would be compared to his former prison-trap. Yes, he chose freedom and maybe he could never go back to Seaview, but the strong jubilance by the public at the end of The Truman Show might be a little premature.
In a previous article, I examined the sociology of The Truman Show as an exemplary form of Erving Goffman’s sociological model: Society is the sum of roles played for each other by society’s members. One could say that Goffman depicts humans trapped in their roles and often have a sense of not being “real” or exhibiting their real self. Also, Goffman gives us the sense that society itself is false in the way it molds and provides automatic responses to our circumstances. The nature of the article did not permit me to examine the people watching in the film watching “The Truman Show.”
I have always been troubled at the film’s end when the people watching the show burst into excited applause when Truman exits the world built by Christof. I also noticed how my student audiences responded similarly. The two audiences had merged in their joyful emotions over Truman’s escape. What difference, I wondered, is there between the television and movie audiences? Shouldn’t the movie audience understand that the television audience was responsible for keeping Truman Burbank in his trap? Does the film actually differentiate between the two?
Throughout the last half of the film, we are shown various audiences, the biggest at a bar, the smallest a man in his bathtub. They are consistently viewed sardonically. In one case, a pair of elderly women clutch Truman couch pillows; another shot has a Japanese family trying to recite Truman’s morning greeting to his neighbors. Some of the workers at the bar are shown to be sentimentally involved in Truman’s life. The last look at the audience happens at the end when two car garage attendants look for another program to watch after “The Truman Show” goes off the air for good.
In the performance universe, there are times when the audience roots against its own interests. The world turns on, and consumes, itself, albeit in orgiastic good feeling and satisfaction. The show’s audience not only becomes excited when Truman comes close to discovering the truth and leaving Seahaven, they want him to leave. This will mean no more “Truman Show.” His success will lead to cancellation, pulling the plug. Their self-interest has been trumped by a larger event: the quest for truth becoming dramatic. At times, society allows the mask to be pulled, all motives exposed, and a sort of joyful wisdom explodes like the Big Bang to reorder the universe.
The garage attendants turning to another program I find most telling in regard to director Peter Weir’s intentions. He has linked the attendants’ new television program to “The Truman Show,” which makes the film substantially about television watching, as well as the relationship between the show (and the people on the show) and the audience.1
An earlier scene in the film also suggests the close relationship between show and audience. Christof has just orchestrated Truman’s reunion with his long-lost father after a series of crises in the show that might have led Truman to discovering the truth about his situation. When father and son hug, there’s a shot of the production staff hugging and clapping over Christof’s success. Their response prefigures the audience’s response when Truman escapes. Despite the different if not opposite contexts, their respective emotions are the same. The audience of the show has the same stake in the show as Christof and his team. They must keep Truman trapped for them to be happy. Truman’s escape? As a byproduct of his drama to leave the world of Seahaven, the audience rejoices. They will go to another show, just as the production team will find other shows to work for.
II. The Victim and the Crisis
The Truman Show (1998) satirizes reality television, but the film debuted just prior to Survivor and Big Brother, the genre’s breakout shows. The present version of reality TV started in the mid-1990s with The Real World. Indeed, The Truman Show anticipates how the public will be, and still is, captivated by “real” personal conflict. I bring this up, in part, to deflect 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.
When Truman walks out the studio door, 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 he gets mugged as he’s leaving the television set. Even if he invests his life savings with Bernie Madoff.
The joy and elation of movie and television audiences obliterate an important fact: the television audience basically kept Truman captive for thirty years. They, more than Christof and the companies advertising on the show, are responsible for keeping Truman in Seahaven (played by Seaside, Florida) and validating Christof’s odd idea of a 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 getting gratification from watching it? Won’t we reject it if it doesn’t entertain us? What have we done wrong?
At worst, he is a victim of our collective desire to have and hold onto something forever. Maybe individuals cling to watching the show because others are watching, and they want to share the feeling of holding onto something. That’s part of the program’s promotion. Everyone will be watching. Everyone buys the same product. As is mentioned in the film, one billion people watched when Truman got married. Can so many people be wrong or willingly hurtful?2
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 their television 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. Yet there are actors’ fears of being typecast and known solely for a single role (it happens in the movies too). An actor leaving a show, demonstrating his independence of the audience, may backfire and be seen as hubris and betrayal. David Caruso comes to mind.3
Poetically, it is fitting that his being watched leads to Truman’s crisis (his search for the truth). This is a crisis long in coming.
We enter his life when he’s in his thirties. It’s a work day. He walks outside and says hellos to his next-door neighbor and the African American family across the street. It is the same greeting each day and feels hollow. Truman seems to go through the motions enthusiastically. Before getting in his car, a stage light fixture falls to the street. Truman timidly approaches it. Written on it is “Sirius.” It had represented a star in the night sky above Seahaven.
Phony greetings plus the phony heavenly body. It’s hard not to see precipitants to Truman’s breakdown; namely, he can no longer put up with the reality with which he is presented every day. But what can he do? Indeed, what can we do when a society is so inauthentic that we want to crawl out of our skin? Yet all we can do is make it through another day of life. We have no apparent exit. Truman must bide his time. He’s uncertain about the exact nature of the falseness.
No one wants to believe one’s life is a lie. Truman sticks with his wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), and accepts his overbearing mother (Holland Taylor). The traumatic loss of his father created a psychological toll on him, but his father’s death amounted to a practical course of action by Christof to create a reason for Truman to fear water and never want to leave the island.
The show’s strategy gets to the heart of the problematic relationship between individuals and society. The reasons why we do what we do are molded or engineered by an invisible “them”: the world around us, society. And what is society? A force weighing on us to act in ways that often seem coercive. In a sense it is unknowable or intangible, making it very suspect and lacking authenticity, because society itself cannot be brought to account.
Another example of the “manipulation” in Truman’s life is the way he met Meryl. Truman is actually interested in Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), and she returns the favor – her “reason” is also less honest, since she belongs to an organization that protests the way Truman is being deceived by the show. As he watches Sylvia, Meryl lunges into Truman with a faux sprained ankle. Before you can think, they’re dancing together. But Sylvia’s still around and Truman’s still trying to make some contact. The forces behind the show must forcibly take Sylvia away from Truman’s desires.
He is left with Meryl, whom he marries and becomes increasingly frustrated with. She seems to be stifling his real desire: namely, to get out of Seahaven. She’s like a cloak of falseness on his life that he cannot take off. His frustrations, unsurprisingly, extend to his job. He sells insurance and is trying to save money. When he insists that they go away, Meryl reminds him of how he’ll use all of the money they were saving to start a family.
Truman’s circumstances and inhibited dreams reflect strongly our own. Watching his life, we see society conspiring against him. His favorite television show is one that reinforces the value of staying at home. Our worst fears are realized. We could not achieve what we really wanted, we could not become our own person, because the world prevents us. Society is at war against individual human happiness. And, apparently, everyone around us, friends and family and colleagues, is against us despite what they say.
I am reminded of Jules Henry’s Culture Against Man. One of his single largest targets is the world of advertising, which stimulates individual desires for things that are relatively unnecessary. He sees a pervasive attack on our individuality through social conditioning – in a world before the wholesale proliferation of product placement in films and television. Truman lives in a world inundated with product placement, starting with his wife and best friend. Truman’s fighting a war for the control of his individual self, and he’s being undermined by friends and family.
Enough things begin happening to Truman, starting with the falling light (star), that he becomes convinced something is wrong. He tells his best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), there is a conspiracy. He sees people keeping tabs on him. He enters a fake elevator and sees people/actors talking and eating lunch. In a shop, he claps his hands and yells, but nobody takes special notice of him.
It is important, however, that he can’t name or quite get his head around what’s really happening. Who could conceive it?4 But he’s on to something when he states that a conspiracy centers on himself, his life. The crisis in his life (and for the show itself) is reaching critical mass. This leads to showing Christof’s remarkable abilities to improvise and bring the show to a new crescendo.
Marlon and Truman are drinking beers at the end of an incomplete causeway. Marlon tries to allay any suspicions. The movie audience is then privileged to see how the show works. Marlon reassures Truman that their world must be authentic, and that if it is false, then everything he and Truman went through for more than twenty years was false. The movie privileges us by showing Christof saying the lines that will be uttered by Marlon. All leading to the reunion of Truman and his long-lost father.5
The reunion appears to save the show. Meryl has left Truman, and a new woman, working in his office, is introduced to him. She gives him a knowingly innocent glance, and he’s taken for a moment. The production staff and the audience believe all is normal. Everyone relaxes.
However, Christof’s coup de grace only accelerates Truman’s escape plan. He turns toward the sea, overcoming his dominant anxiety while simultaneously fooling his watchers. When Christof finally realizes it, he calls forth a storm and nearly drowns Truman, willing to kill his creation and end the show. Truman the live victim nearly becomes the dead sacrifice. Everyone in the studio and television audience is horrified.
Also weird is the fact that killing Truman and Truman leaving the show amount to the same thing. No more supremely real reality television. Tens of thousands of workers will lose their jobs. Christof knows, at some level, that the show is over. He rationalizes that such a death would be an entertainment supernova.
Then you examine what Christof offers Truman at the end. It is a desperate move. He’s telling Truman to continue playing himself, but, unlike before, Truman will know his world is not real. The show cannot continue even if he doesn’t leave. Almost like a professional wrestler, Truman ceases to be authentic. It is the authentic man that audiences wanted to keep “believing in.” The act of watching the show would become a self-conscious one, a less palatable exercise. Television abhors the vacuum of a reflective audience. Something would feel dirty about it, like discovering blood on one’s hands.6
III. No Way Out
In a special feature on the DVD, Koyaanisqatsi‘s director, Godfrey Reggio, indicates that his film is not about the effects of technology; rather, everything in our world exists within the technology. People are no longer conscious of technology’s presence. Then, at the end of the film, Reggio acknowledges several writers as having influenced the film, one of whom was Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society. Ellul’s major thesis is that the old world of separate and manageable technologies has developed into an all-encompassing Technology, guided by the principle of efficiency, which is antipathetic to anyone or any people or anything that does not support this Technology.
There are several meanings for the Hopi Indian word “koyaanisqatsi”: life out of balance; crazy life; and (my favorite) a state of life that calls for another way of living. The last conforms to Reggio’s above-stated theme. His film means to awaken its viewers to a revelation.
This caused me to reflect on The Truman Show.
If you take the world of Seahaven as representing our world (and, for the moment, not the televised world within our world), the actors become real people who live and work around Truman Burbank. Truman knows only these people and a little of the outside world that the television producers allow him to know.
Essentially, this is the exact world depicted, analyzed, and critiqued in Koyaanisqatsi. Seahaven is the television equivalent of a technologically monolithic society. All values in this world are dictated by Television. Not incidentally, German philosopher Martin Heidegger had called television “the essence of technology.”7
Another writer, Leopold Kohr, who is also mentioned at the end of Koyaanisqatsi, focuses on the crisis of bigness. This refers to the more and more centralized (and subsequently bigger) governments of modern nations, as well as the growing number of very big corporations. He believes organizations and economies have optimal size and subsequently become more stultifying and limiting the greater they grow. Christof mentions that “The Truman Show” is larger than many of the economies of nations.
The television world doesn’t differ much from the world “outside” it. In Seahaven, thousands of cameras record Truman’s every move, and the template of surveillance in our own society is approaching Seahaven’s. Everywhere we turn, a hat, shirt, headband, highway, and stadium promote some product or business. Selling is an unrelenting, 24/7 activity in our world. It’s inescapable, such that we take it for granted and stop noticing it. Likewise, as Reggio mentions, we are no longer conscious of Technology’s presence. Nor do we reflect on the saturation of, say, advertising in our society unless we obsess over it when rating the Super Bowl’s commercials.
Similarly, the world of national politics is subsumed by television. Presidential campaigns are perpetuated by news-hungry organizations. The news in political campaigns is often about campaign advertising, the funding (PACs) for such advertising, and how the news media cover the campaigns. And campaigns are watched specifically for errors in the way candidates misspeak on the news.
Returning to Seahaven. Truman’s world, for Christof, represents an ideal, a utopia, that has filtered out the problems of the real world. One of these, by virtue of its absence in “The Truman Show,” is politics. Another is religion. Obvious points for antagonism, arguments, and intolerance. Seahaven trades these sources of conflict for phoniness and inauthenticity.
Christof and his actors would counter-argue that everything that happens in the show is real. It’s the common if not compelling attraction for audiences: they desire to experience something “real.” But the film seems to be saying that the world depicted in Seahaven is the world we live in, and everything in it is canned and preplanned and lacking any spontaneity (or suppresses attempts to be spontaneous).
Taking this a step farther. The television audience in our world seeks the “real” partly to satisfy a desire for something that seems to be lacking generally in our world. Seahaven-as-our-world scenario suggests that this desire itself falsifies the world even more. The audience becomes enveloped in an entertainment cocoon that promises to, but never does, metamorphose into something truly fulfilling,
- I am less concerned here with the idea of the media dominating our culture by surrounding it with a world of illusion. [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- The standard thought is: we like to build up celebrities so we can take them down. The Caruso case presents us with someone provoking the public. I wouldn’t say he left NYPD Blue like Truman left his show. He hadn’t become enough of a television or social pet. He had not sacrificed himself enough for the show. The public reaction to his leaving was relatively savage. His “coming down” as a celebrated actor was swift and unequivocal.
Dick Van Dyke left his show at the peak of success. He escaped the trap and did not suffer consequences. He was a “nice” man who didn’t provoke the public. He had modest movie success, as far as his talents could take him, and he moved back to television. Curiously, he stayed in a less successful show, Diagnosis Murder, longer than he had The Dick Van Dyke Show. Thirty years older and the trap looks much better. [↩]
- Rene Girard, whose books inform some of the basic ideas of this article, often speaks about things hidden from public view. One of his titles, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, makes directly the point that we, our society and culture, have hidden some of the awful violence that all cultures are based on. Truman has hidden from him the awful truth of his existence. At best, he thinks someone or group is focused on his life. Likewise, the viewers of television shows cannot face the reality of their seemingly innocent participation in entertainment. The moral equivalent of human sacrifice is seeking entertainment. It sounds awful to say aloud if, indeed, it is comprehended by anyone. [↩]
- Christof’s feeding Marlon his lines creates an analogue for a process described by sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1959 book Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman describes social interaction as if we are role-playing and in everyday situations we are “fed” lines and gestures to lubricate our dealings with other people. He likens it to having the words whispered in our ears. The book’s impact on life in the 1960s cannot be overestimated. His theories were interpreted by many in the counterculture as prima facie evidence that the establishment was bogus and plastic.
A few generations later, the children of the 1960s have grown up and seem to be living if not perpetuating the false world they once deplored. The Truman Show illustrates the density of the problem. We cannot escape society, we cannot simply walk out a door into a world of “truth.” We would have better luck getting out of our own skin. We are simply left to ponder what is authentic, what is our “real self,” and what can we do about it. [↩]
- To suggest that television entertainment at its core represents a form of human sacrifice seems preposterous. I feel that I can only say this in a footnote, virtually hiding it from readers. The sentimentalizing of his escape disguises the reality of the television show: the audience is a willing audience for this sacrifice. The moviegoers who cheer Truman on like the movie’s television audience only shows how deeply television has penetrated our consciousness. Are we trapped like Truman? Is this why we want him to leave his world? Then what will we do? Turn off the set? Leave our society with its endless consumer culture and production of “things”?
“The Truman Show” represents an extreme but most illustrative example of television delivering a ritual sacrifice for the public: a vicarious human sacrifice. Thus, the audience is getting a bit more than entertainment. In Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” the citizens stoning their neighbors to death are going through a conscious ritualistic service. The story appalls us because it exposes the callous way a society unifies itself. We see many extensions of the ritual in our lives. Watching television, I bet, is not one of them. [↩]
- Cf. my article on Being There, which first appeared in BLFJ 77, August 2012. [↩]