Artifact Analysis: The Truman Show

In 1998, director Peter Weir, and writer, Andrew Niccol, created the movie, The Truman Show, which went on to win, and become nominated for, a number of impressive awards that ranged from best screenplay, best director, and best motion picture throughout several accolade associations. The Truman Show is the kind of movie that attempts to challenge the audience by using the medium of film, the technology that society strongly depends upon, to critique itself and its viewers. The movie is named after The Truman Show within the film that revolves around the life of a man who was adopted by a corporation at birth. Throughout his life, Truman is being filmed and forcibly kept on an enormous television set called Seahaven, which Truman believes is no different from the rest of the world. In the film, the director Christof becomes the Godly figure that designs and controls almost every aspect of Truman’s world. However, just as he adopts a kind of totalitarian rule over Truman’s life, he also plays the God-like figure of authority for the worldwide audience of The Truman Show as well. The Truman Show itself becomes a kind of implicit religion that the audience has become so dependent and involved in that their idea of reality also becomes just as controlled by the show’s director, Christof. This understanding of The Truman Show allows Chritsof to justify his exploitation of a human being for commodity and entertainment, and the show itself turns into a religion through the manifestation of the collective (Klassen, 10).

Christof takes on the role of a Godly figure by controlling the life of Truman and creating a new reality for the shows audience.

One specific scene in the movie that truly reveals just how far The Truman Show has developed in the process of being an implicit religion for its global audience is the moment where Christof appears in a “rare interview” with the show’s host, Mike Michaelson. While Christof and Michaelson discuss various aspects of The Truman Show’s production, the movie’s point of view cuts to the audience members around the world and how they watch the show within their own lives. These small clips that reveal the activity of the show’s audience are essential to understanding how the show itself has become an implicit religion for them. For example, a clip during the introduction of the interview shows a whole stadium packed with thousands of people watching as Truman and his wife, Meryl, get married. Other scenes show a crowd of people gathered around the television at a bar, two men (assumed to be security guards) distracted during their shift, and a mom and her daughter shushing a crying baby as they intently watch the interview. A closer look at the last example shows the daughter holding what looks to be a Meryl doll, and behind her is a large collage with pictures of “characters” from the show that covers their entire door. Through these scenes the three definitions that Chris Klassen describes in his book, Religion and Popular Culture, are realized. Klassen states that commitment, integrating foci, and intensive concerns with extensive effects are necessary factors within an implicit religion (Ibid, 161). The most prevalent of these factors at work here is the very obvious intensive concerns that these viewers project in regard to the show. The daughter is visual proof of how the show has transcended and integrated itself into the lives of the audience members. Michaelson notes during the interview that: “Since the show is on twenty-four hours a day, without commercial interruption, all those staggering revenues are generated by product placement.” Christof answers and says: “That’s true. Everything on the show is for sale, from the actor’s wardrobe, to the food products, to the very homes they live in.” This reveals how a whole fandom has developed around The Truman Show, within the world of the movie. These people can take products they’ve seen and desired on their screens, and use it within their own lives as a reflection of their explicit dedication. These scenes are not unlike how people in the real world respond to their own types of fandom, and how they dedicate hours of their lives toward that specific interest. However, while this obvious devotedness is crucial to the presentation of the show as an implicit religion, the factor that truly acts as a catalyst for the development of the show as a “religion” is the mobilization of community that has developed within its audience.

Product placement in The Truman Show, which encourages viewers to purchase products that the stars use.

Emile Durkheim, one of the early theologists that attempted to define religion had believed that: “Religion is not fundamentally about gods, it is about the group and how the group defines its own good. Thus, as long as there is society, there will be religion: the making sacred of a given society’s collective good”(Klassen, 11). For Durkheim, it is the social cohesion and collective activity of the community that inevitably mobilizes the formation of religion and creates the meaning making behind the “sacred”. If we use this lens as a way to look at the actions of the audience in this film, The Truman Show could be identified as the collective good that is being made sacred, not only through Christof’s influence, but largely by the audience themselves. After all, one of the three functions of religion is the social function, which is defined by the power of the collective and how shared social experiences create bonds and form attachments toward each other and the experience itself (Bancroft). These scenes, where the movie’s audience gets glimpses of how The Truman Show’s audience absorbs and responds to the show, demonstrates the show functioning as a religion through the collective. These people gather together in stadiums, bars, and other public places, and use the show as a bonding experience that results in an extreme attachment to the show.

Devoted fans watching The Truman Show.

However, while the audience views The Truman Show as an implicit religion, this does not mean the show should be looked at as a sacred and moral artifact. The creation and depiction of implicit religion within the movie is used to comment on the way in which our realities of the world are constantly being controlled by higher forces, which does not necessarily mean the divine.

Christof creates a reality for his audience.

As the director and overall brain behind The Truman Show, Christof acts like a God figure. Not only does Christof control ever aspect of Truman’s world but he also controls the audience and what they see. He has created a world for Truman to live in and a world in which audience members have become ritually devoted to. Christof has created a reality for audience members, one that they accept so certainly. Audience members are devoted, engaged and even buy products seen on The Truman Show in order to become that much more involved. In this sense, the actual film’s creators also act like God-like figures: creating a story, casting actors, making final decisions on the means of production. The director, Peter Weir even considered playing the character Christof (Cormier).

The production behind Christof’s, The Truman Show.

The discussion regarding the production of the movie, The Truman Show, is very interesting seeing as the television show within the actual movie depicts some detail of production also. As previously stated, The Truman Show was written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir. Paramount Pictures, a film and television production company is behind the distribution of the film. The company was and remains very successful in producing and distributing countless popular films and television shows.

Andrew Niccol is a well-known screenwriter and producer from New Zealand. Niccol is praised for being extremely imaginative and for writing pieces of work that deal with futuristic problems, many of which have caught up to us in present day. We currently live in a society where watching television shows, specifically reality shows has become a ritual. Seventeen years ago through the film The Truman Show, Niccol predicted our culture’s obsession and devotion toward reality television.

Australian born Peter Weir is known for directing famous films such as The Truman Show and Dead Poets Society. Similar to Niccol, Weir is also very creative and unique in his work. According to his IMDb, many of Weir’s films such as The Truman Show involve character interaction with technology and ultimately this form of technology harms a single or multiple characters. It is evident through their work that Weir and Niccol both shared the idea that technology and television hinder a characters and viewers well being.

Niccol and Weir had several ideas of production that were never executed. In an interview conducted by Jack Giroux, Niccol discusses some of his original ideas that were not used in the film. Originally, Niccol wrote the story with no budget in mind and with high expectations. The story was set to take place in New York City with a much darker tone (Giroux). However, once teamed up with Weir and Paramount, the budget was reduced and instead the setting took place in the picturesque community of Seaside, Florida. Furthermore, Weir originally wanted to include theatre audiences into The Truman Show. Roger Cormier’s article the, 15 Truths About ‘The Truman Show’, explains how Weir wanted to implement this original plan. He planned to turn off the film during all screenings at the same time, and cut to footage from every theatre of the audiences’ reactions (Cormier). This experiment that Weir wanted to conduct on real audience members, was performed in the actual movie. As discussed earlier, during Christof’s interview with Michaelson, the film cuts to several shots of audience members watching The Truman Show. Perhaps the same way Weir depicted The Truman Show as an implicit religion for its audience, he wanted to do the same with a real audience.

Interestingly enough The Truman Show depicts a society that is dependent on a television show. The scene in which Truman finally decides to go to Fiji, is a breaking point for him, the actors and his audience. They have all become so dependent and involved in Truman’s life that the line between reality and television begins to fade. Further in the scene, Meryl is trying to calm Truman down, while also engaging with fans and selling them her favorite ‘hot chocolate.’ This society, which can also be referred to as a fandom or fan cult, is able to purchase the products they see on The Truman Show.

Product placement in The Truman Show.

Similarly, Paramount Pictures has created a plethora of products, souvenirs and even an amusement park for fans to indulge in. These products, movies and amusement parks allure audiences and fans into a world in which many become devoted to. Through their production of The Truman Show, Niccol and Weir have created a world that is not much different than ours today.

Ever since The Truman Show was released in 1998, it has been quite successful. The film made over $264 million at the Box Office (Daily Mail, 2014). It received 94% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 88% positive reviews from the audience. These ratings based on hundreds of critics and it is a trusted measurement of quality for million of moviegoers. Recurring comments included how the film was funny yet authentic, thought-provoking, insightful, and provocative. The movie was also positively reviewed on the Internet Movie Database (IMBD), which is the world’s most popular, reliable, accurate, and authoritative source for films. The Truman Show received an average rating of 8.1 out of 10 from over 611,000 users. The movie also made the “Top 250 movies” list, clinching spot 213. In addition, The Truman Show has won 35 awards and has been nominated 64 times. Notable highlights include winning three Golden Globes, and being nominated for three Oscars.

The Truman Show received positive ratings from Rotten Tomatoes.

Surprisingly, religious communities and institutions did not criticize the movie despite it having obvious religious overtones. The most obvious one would be the show creator being named “Christof” and playing a god-like role. However, a number of other individuals have written a critique on The Truman Show, and most brought up intriguing ideas. Pangburn (2013) from Motherhboard (A news and media website) described the film as prophetic. He was interested in how the film accurately predicted the future. Today, we face the great debate of security vs. liberty in a Big Brother surveillance culture. We want to be protected, yet free. Pangburn (2013) says most of us we are like Truman, in the sense that normally we do not question reality, and just accept it without resisting. For example, we assume that our lives are not under a Truman-style surveillance. We spend more time being distracted by quick pleasure and gratification, especially with the internet being more powerful than ever. This is a concern to Pangburn (2013) because we are collectively addicted.

Another unique critique is by a scholar named Tony Jackson. He discussed how and why realistic television is so popular. The audience in The Truman Show were obsessed with the show, they were never shown doing anything else besides from watching the show. The show had an audience of one billion viewers in over 220 countries (Jackson, 2010). There was an entire subculture built around the show, which includes clubs, bars, and festivals.This is similar to Supernatural’s cult fandom. Jackson (2010) describes two contrasting views to explain the addiction to mass-media entertainment of realism. The first one is that realistic television gives us a kind of instruction on how to live. We are influenced and imitate what we see. On the other hand, realism is appealing because it allows us to separate our subjective self from an objective representation (Jackson, 2010). We are independent, thus realism helps construct rather than instruct.

The last unique critique comes from Lavoie (2011) and Cunningham (2005). Both scholars discuss the dominance of “whiteness”. Seahaven was meant to be a utopia for Truman, a paradise that he would never think of leaving. Besides from a handful of African-Americans, the neighbourhood was basically clean of minorities (Cunningham, 2005). A white dominated place implied that it was friendly and safe (Lavoie, 2011). This idea is so normalized that no one else pointed it out. In fact, the targeted audience for The Truman Show was a white one (Cunningham, 2005). Like Disneyland, Seahaven was a place of false happiness and ignorance, a place that blocked out the harsh realities of the world and pretends everything is okay.

Despite these critical criticisms of the film just mentioned, The Truman Show was undeniably a raging success. Although the movie is 17 years old now, Studio Paramount it's looking to turn it into a TV series (Daily Mail, 2014).

Thus, The Truman Show is an effective critique of film and the media, through the use of film. The way Truman has been abused by corporations for wealth and power, blinded since birth by institutions, demonstrates how our society is controlled and manipulated by corporations as well. Furthermore, the audience of the Truman show demonstrates a form of implicit religion as a group of dedicated followers with a shared interest, and their lives are altered around the show. For instance, one scene shows a bar where people gather to watch The Truman Show, which is available 24/7. This constant connection allows people to fulfill their desires and disconnect from their own lives, and be absorbed by the false reality portrayed by the show. This also reflect society’s constant interest in celebrity gossip, which can now be accessed through the internet with smartphones, creating that constant connectivity found in The Truman Show. These celebrities portray fake images which are then implemented into society to benefit corporations. The Truman Show also promotes racism; Seahaven shown as a Utopia features a mainly white population, which further reflects the views of society. Thus, The Truman Show is a lesson in its own paradox.

Bibliography:

Bancroft, Angus and Rogers, Sioned. “Emile Durkheim: The Sociology of Religion.” Cardiff University. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/durkheim6.html.

Cormier, Roger. “15 Truths About ‘The Truman Show.’” Mental Floss. June 4, 2014. Accessed November 26, 2015. http://mentalfloss.com/article/64649/15-truths-about-truman-show

Cunningham, Douglas A. “A Theme Park Built for One: The New Urbanism vs. Disney Design in The Truman Show.” Critical Survey Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 109–30.

Daily Mail Reporter. “Small Screen Reality: The Truman Show ‘set to Be Turned into TV Series by Studio Paramount’” Daily Mail, April 10, 2014, TV & Showbiz sec. Accessed November 26, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2601450/The-Truman-Show-turned-TV-series-studio-Paramount.html.

Giroux, Jack. “Interview: Andrew Niccol Discusses Trucks of Compromise, Humanistic Absurdity, and ‘In Time.’” Film School Rejects. October 24, 2011. Accessed November 26, 2015. http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/interview-andrew-niccol-in-time-jgiro.php

Jackson, Tony. “Televisual Realism: The Truman Show.” Mosaic 43, no. 3 (2010): 135–50.

Klassen, Chris. Religion & Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2014. EBook.

Lavoie, Dusty. “Escaping the Panopticon: Utopia, Hegemony, and Performance in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.” Utopian Studies, 2011, 52–73.

Niccol, Andrew. “The Truman Show.” Accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the-truman-show_shooting.html.

Pangburn. “’The Truman Show’ Was Prophetic.” Motherboard. July 23, 2013. Accessed November 27, 2015. http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/the-truman-show-as-critique-of-the-surveillance-state.

“The Truman Show.” IMDb. Accessed December 1, 2015. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120382/.

“The Truman Show (1998).” Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/truman_show/.