By Peter Versteeg. “We accept the world with which we are presented” is probably the best summary of The Truman Show, a modern classic film from 1998. We, however, only become aware of this once we start to know the secret of the film. So, everything that can be said about this film should really get an instant SPOILER ALERT.
Unfortunately, just like the original studio-advertising, the organizers of the recent re-screening in an Amsterdam cinema did not make any effort to keep things secret. Which was a pity because there was one lady in the room who hadn’t heard of the film yet. And I bet there are still readers who haven’t seen it – stop reading and go watch it first! Because when we know the secret, we can never look at the world as it was. There is no second naivety. The fact that I had forgotten whether I had been unaware of the secret or not, proved this to me.
So, what’s it all about? The Truman Show is the story of a man who plays the central role in his own reality soap show. Without knowing, he lives his life in an artificial world called Seahaven, built in a huge television studio. Day, night, and weather are simulated. School, work and friendship are staged. Even his marriage is performed, with his wife occasionally addressing the television audience to promote a particular product (soaps are called soaps for a reason, as you may know). The whole set is also arranged in such a way that Truman is discouraged to leave the town where he lives.
At certain points, however, he gets a glimpse of a hidden reality. This happens most strikingly in high school, when he meets Sylvia, a woman who falls out of her role and tries to reveal Truman what is really going on. But Sylvia is removed from the show and Truman’s reality is restored.
Gradually, however, he becomes aware of the cracks in the Seahaven world and he sails away to find what is beyond the world as he knows it. The director of the show, Christof, who is in fact called ‘creator’ in the opening credits, orders to cause a storm, eventually capsizing Truman’s boat. But Truman survives and sails his boat into the wall of the set, where a stairs leads him to a door. Christof tries to persuade him to stay in his world, where everything is okay. But Truman decides to leave; he literally steps into the darkness behind the door.
The world of the Truman Show exists by virtue of acting. The actors on the show know the façade and the reality behind it; they are aware that they are playing. The only one not playing is the main character, but he is not aware of what is going on behind the scenes, because the scene is his reality; he cannot look behind it. We see this in the first frames, which tell us that Truman Burbank – you may want to Google all the real world references – plays himself. In other words, Truman doesn’t know; he is innocent as a young child.
Truman sounds to us as ‘true man’, and some have suggested that this refers to human beings in their natural state. However, the original meaning of this Anglo-Saxon name may highlight more significant traits of the main character. Truman is the ‘faithful man’, he is the one who stays true and is loyal to the world he lives in, including the people he interacts with, people who betray him all the time.
All the time we see Truman Show fans watching the reality soap, performed in a nostalgic setting. Nostalgia can be seen as soothing, an escape to a safe and predictable world. For a short while, viewers take part in Truman’s innocent wholehearted commitment to this reality. As such, the show itself wants to comfort people; they look at a human being who is completely open-minded and pure, albeit in a completely controlled and constructed imaginary world. The fans’ response to Truman’s exiting the show seems therefore unexpected: they cheer and rejoice because their hero has beaten the system. The spell is broken and apparently Truman’s fans like this much better than watching their star live on in his innocent fake universe. At this point viewers on the screen and viewers in the cinema become one in their joy about Truman’s breakthrough.
This reviewing made me realize how rich The Truman Show is, with its layers of identification and its references to many aspects of cultural history. In the discussion afterwards – the viewing was organized by a spiritual ‘platform’ – the audience shared their thoughts. People referred to vlogging, playing real life on the Internet, camera surveillance, and the power of Facebook to construct reality. The discussion leader was quick to steer the talk in a spiritual direction: we got to break free from that part of reality in which we are controlled and choose to live in the illusion that we want to play with.
These ideas seemed far removed from my own interpretation schemas: false consciousness, the real disrupting the symbolic order, and contemporary Christ allegories. Or weren’t they? Was I not able to listen more ethnographically and instead subject everything to my own ‘metascripts’? It occurred to me that I was both interpreting the film and the experiences of the audience, which had become another layer of the film. But clearly this reading implied reading myself as a viewer as well, making sense of the world in which we play and are being played.
Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He likes to reflect on cultural products and the things people do with them.