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An Ode to the Truman Show, Twenty Years On

Max Harris

[1]

 

At the end of The Truman Show, an exhausted Truman Burbank raises a sail on the small boat he’s taken out to sea. He looks up, drinking in the sun. He’s just survived a terrifying storm. His face is marked by a sense of relief, his life-long fear of water confronted.

And then, without warning, the bow of his boat crashes into the horizon.

The music stops. Truman stares at the blue vista in front of him. He reaches out to the sky, and finds his hand meeting a hard surface: a giant azure wall. What looked like puffy white clouds are nothing more than painted shapes. Wrinkles appear in the wall of the sky where Truman’s boat has ripped ridges into the plaster. All that is air has melted into solid.

***

Truman walks, seemingly on water, and ascends a set of steps. He turns the handle of a door with ‘exit’ written on it. And in that moment he escapes the world where his life is a television show, inhabited by paid actors and extras, and broadcast through a network of 5000 hidden cameras to billions of people.

Truman has been fastening onto the possibility of something being not quite right with his life over the course of the film. Truman’s radio breaks up as he goes into work, and he briefly hears the sound of extras being directed, his own life narrated. He observes that it is very difficult to get hurt: cars seem to stop with foreknowledge that he is walking out in front of them; he can hit people spontaneously with relative impunity. As Truman interrogates his wife about his worries in the privacy of his own home, she cries out for help, as if off-camera support is not far away. But the secret of this scripted life is scrupulously kept from Truman, despite attempts by people to “infiltrate the show”. He is discouraged from any attempt at escape by the (performed) death of his father at sea, which creates a fear of water that prevents Truman from venturing out beyond the borders of the set.

***

The Truman Show was released in 1998, twenty years ago this year. In many ways it is a peculiarly prescient film.

The obvious comparison is between the world of the film and our world of social media.

It is hard not to see in the mastermind of the Truman Show, Christof (played by Ed Harris) – assisted by an unnamed control room director (in an early, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance by Paul Giamatti) – a character that resembles Mark Zuckerberg. Christof is a god-like figure with significant control over Truman’s life. “Cue the sun,” he intones at one point. He is described as the “world’s greatest televisionary”. And he says at the end of the film, “I am the creator … of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.” (The language is eerily reminiscent of Facebook’s marketing-speak; Zuckerberg used some of the same buzzwords in a public post upon the birth of his first daughter, saying: “We wish you a life filled with the same love, hope and joy you give us.”)

The messages heard by Truman on his radio are pre-determined by the show’s directors, just as Facebook advertising is tailored to viewers by the opaque exchanges of digital marketers. The product placement in Truman’s life – his wife’s extended praise of Mococoa Nicaraguan cocoa beans, for example – is only ever so slightly more jarring than the advertisements that fill Instagram feeds or ‘promoted posts’ on Twitter. All of this is reminiscent of what Byung-Chul Han describes in his book, Psychopolitics, as an age in which there has been a shift “from passive surveillance to active steering”.

Watching The Truman Show, for me at least – if I am honest – prompted a mix of horror and awe. There is perhaps a small part of me (not a part that I am proud of, to be sure), perhaps a part of many of us, that wonders self-indulgently what it would be like if life was a show broadcast to billions: if the music we listen to was everyone’s soundtrack. This self-indulgent fantasy of our-life-as-popular-TV-show is not that far from the desire to diarise-in-public that is now realised at scale via Snapchat, Instagram Stories, and Facebook Live.

The Truman Show hints at how warped our social relations can become when they are always public-facing, as so many of our social interactions are now – punctuated by selfies and Facebook updates-in-the-moment and tweets-about-conversations-we’re-in (confession: I’ve done all of these and I’m not outside of any of this). There is a pervasive sense of superficiality in Truman’s interactions with others in the film. And there is also a sense that such superficiality rubs off on Truman. Though Truman himself is at least initially unaware that his life is a show, bounded by studio, he seems always keen to project a thin goodness, perhaps influenced by the falseness of the people around him. Jim Carrey’s plastic facial expressions are the perfect vehicle for this sense of constant performance, this projection, and it is also well captured by Truman’s mantra: “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”

Various social media platforms – but especially Facebook – have offered contorted explanations of how users consent to their use of data. “It is against our policies for developers to share data without people’s consent,” Mark Zuckerberg said to a congressional committee hearing in August 2018. That same reliance on an emaciated notion of consent, or implied consent, is key to Christof’s justification of his enterprise in The Truman Show. “Ultimately Truman prefers his cell,” Christof says with a straight face.

The question of how much responsibility social media administrators have for harm that is filmed or projected to the world is also raised in The Truman Show. Paul Giamatti’s control room director pleads with Christof to do something as the storm at sea threatens Truman’s life. “He’s gonna drown and he doesn’t even care,” Giamatti’s character exclaims. “He can’t die in front of a live audience,” he adds. Watching this in 2018, one cannot help but think of the tragic suicides filmed for the world on YouTube.

In some ways, as with Black Mirror (the Charlie Brooker-created series that would premiere some 13 years later), The Truman Show seems to involve a world of more control and more absurdity than our world today. Mention is made of how Truman was the “first child to be legally adopted by a corporation”. That line might initially provoke laughter, and perhaps some comfort that there is some distance between Truman’s world and our own.

But maybe – in a world of Instagram ownership of our images, and de facto social media ownership of our information – that comfort isn’t quite so justified.

***

The Truman Show also very clearly invites parallels with reality TV. As Kelefa Sanneh points out in a perceptive essay [2] for The New Yorker, it was not until 2000 that Big Brother and Survivor became successful shows on US primetime, convincing “viewers and executives alike that television could provide action without actors”. That means that The Truman Show, with its release in 1998, was also in some ways ahead of its time in highlighting the popularity of a live broadcast of a person’s everyday life. (Of course, sitcoms can be regarded as a version of reality TV, and reality TV shows did pre-date 2000, but amongst English-speaking audiences these tended to have no more than niche appeal.)

Truman’s world is one in which, as on reality TV shows, the expansion of the realm of the ‘public’ – of what is ‘shared’ – leads to a corresponding withering of privacy. “There is no difference between my private life and my public life,” insists Meryl Burbank (Laura Linney), Truman’s wife, recalling Mark Andrejevic’s claim (paraphrased by Kelefa Sanneh) that reality TV’s “success is symptomatic of an age in which labor and leisure are growing ever harder to separate”.

Reality TV has contributed to the rise of the ‘everyday celebrity’ – the notion that any person could be famous – and that concept lies close to the core of The Truman Show’s allure. What if (the reality TV show suggests to us) anybody could be famous, anybody could have an enormous social media following, anybody’s regular activities could be the subject of awed attention? I was reminded by my sister in the course of writing this essay that we had persuaded our cousin that her life was being filmed, à la The Truman Show, and that this had not been not a source of shock for her – rather a source of quiet excitement. Mark Greif says of reality TV, in an essay [3] for n+1, that “‘voyeurism’ was never the right word for what it means to watch these shows”, and that “[y]ou feel some identification with the participants, and even more sympathy with the situation.” The same is surely true of the billions of viewers of the Truman Show in the film, and of us as viewers of the film. Truman’s inkling that he’s “being set up for something” and that “the whole world revolves around me somehow” captures our sense of being at once central to the world and powerless in it. This is a potent combination that can lead, and has led, people down different paths: towards delusions of grandeur, status-oriented ambitions, and self-aggrandisement, as well as towards conspiracy theories, alienation, and loneliness.

But how ‘real’ is the reality TV of The Truman Show, and the reality TV that still dominates our channels? Maggie Nelson explores with extraordinary nuance in The Art of Cruelty theatre and visual art’s claims to ‘realness’ onstage. The Truman Show can be a little didactic in how it addresses this theme. It’s hard not to think that Truman is given that name deliberately: a reminder that he is a true-man in a world of performance. And the relationship between Truman and Sylvia (played wonderfully by Natascha McElhone, albeit with a ropey American accent) – they meet briefly, without scripting by Christof or others, and have a rare moment of authentic human and romantic connection – is a device for suggesting that all in the studio world is fake, and all outside of it somehow more real. But a more subtle perspective is offered through a comment by Marlon, Truman’s notional best friend (played by Noah Emmerich), who says: “It’s all true … It’s merely controlled.”

***

The Truman Show made me think about another, more nefarious form of surveillance that involves a ‘controlled truth’: the practice of police officers entering romantic relationships as part of undercover policing. In 2015, an inquiry was announced into undercover policing in the United Kingdom. Soon after the inquiry was announced, the police apologised – and paid compensation to – seven women who had been in intimate relationships with individuals who, it transpired, had entered into those relationships for the purpose of undercover policing. One of the most prominent of these undercover officers was Mark Kennedy, a police officer who infiltrated environmental groups and concealed his true identity from people with whom he was in close relationships. Various legal cases have been launched arguing that women affected were, in effect, sexually assaulted since they could not be said to have consented to a relationship with a person whose identity was deliberately distorted.

The Truman Show does not explore these issues in detail, and does not capture (or attempt to capture) the unique horror faced by women in romantic relationships with individuals whose true police identities were concealed. But it gestures towards the deceit, vulnerability, and humiliation inherent in performed human relationships. We see in Truman’s relationship to Meryl a marriage that is created for the cameras. Most mendaciously, Truman’s friend Marlon says (in words that he is asked to utter): “the last thing I’d ever do is lie to you”, lying through his teeth as he says this. Sylvia tells Truman at one point, “Everybody’s pretending,” but does not have time to explain. Truman cannot process this, and as a viewer one can almost track the racing of his mind: is this simply a statement of the pretence of so much interaction? Or is this a reference to a grander pretence at work, a more insidious framework of control? And if that more systematic control exists, how does one make sense of the different layers of artifice, the cross-cutting and reinforcing ways in which basic human intimacy is being curated and acted out?

The film also nods to the complexity of memory in a world that is controlled and curated. Some memories are created for Truman: in the more ordinary sense that situations are entered into with a view that they will become future memories, and more sinisterly in the way that Truman is encouraged (including by his ‘family’ in the film) to remember things that may never have happened. This exploration of how memories can be refashioned or re-enacted is in some ways nothing new: it is a central theme of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and a motif taken up more recently by Tom McCarthy in Remainder and in the Charlie Kaufman film, Synecdoche, New York. Another Kaufman screenplay (and another Jim Carrey lead role), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, examines how much we can trust and rescue memories. But what is interesting about The Truman Show is not just its account of how memory can be manipulated, but also its ambivalence about the role of created memory in present-day identity. ‘Facebook photo albums’ and selfies-for-the-sake-of-posterity today can be similarly ambivalent. And one does not have to romanticise authentic offline relationships to think that these device-enabled memory-creators sometimes leave us cold.

***

When I first watched The Truman Show, I remember it leaving a real mark on me: perhaps, initially, simply because I wanted to be a screenwriter, aged 10 or 11, growing up in New Zealand, and I remember finding out that it was written by a fellow New Zealander, Andrew Niccol (and because it was the first time I’d heard music by Phillip Glass). Watching it again, almost 20 years later, I was again surprised by what a deep chord the film struck with me (and not just, I don’t think, because Truman and I now share being 30 years old). This time, it was the political salience of the film that stood out.

The Truman Show seems to capture so well that sense of restricted possibility that has defined Anglo-American politics and society in the past 20 years: what Mark Fisher has described as ‘capitalist realism’, and what others have described as the closure of the Overton Window, the realisation of Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism. The Truman Show presents a world that is perhaps not unlike the world of Anglo-American ‘middle-’ or ‘upper’-income societies of the nineties, noughties, and 2010s: a world that appears ordered, collegial, and affluent, but is at the same time founded on confinement, conformity, and deception. It is a world of false certainties (Truman works in insurance, that industry which attaches certainty to uncertainty) and of lies told with a straight face.

But Truman’s actions at the end of the film leave us with a crumb of hope. It is not clear what he will find on the other side of the door marked ‘exit’. But in his charting of a boat through choppy swells, his bumping up against the edge of the set of his life, and his ascending the steps of the studio that bounds his world, to Christof’s consternation, he looks ahead to these words, written by James Bridle in 2018 in New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future:

“We are not powerless, not without agency, and not limited by darkness. We only have to think, and think again, and keep thinking. The network – us and our machines and the things we think and discover together – demand it.”

Maybe one of the things we have to do, The Truman Show tells us, in our age of climate breakdown and gaping inequality, where real action outside of predetermined constraints seems so futile sometimes, is not just to think, but to take our stuff, to head towards those limits – and to go crashing into the horizon.

Max Harris [4] is a campaigner, writer, and DPhil (PhD) student at All Souls College