SO, WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
The Truman Show is certainly a treasure trove for anyone who ventures out to find meaning – after all, that’s what the film itself is about. The premise of the story is essentially an experiment – Truman Burbank, the first child to be adopted by a corporation, grows up entirely within the confinements of a little island-studio. Unbeknownst to him, he is plastered across every other screen in the world as part of a “reality show”, with everyone around him an actor who willingly deceives him. The experiment itself is headed by Christof, a “televisionary”, who brought the “show” to life. We follow Truman’s journey, as he puts together various inconsistencies in his life to come to a slow realisation about the true state of his “world” and his choice to escape it.
The opening scene of the film sets the tone immediately for the consequent narrative. We see the face of a bespectacled man, dressed in a black turtleneck and with a beret on his head, occupy the screen entirely. Immediately, associations with symbols come to mind – a beret and a black turtleneck are often worn by artists, or rather, “auteurs”, while glasses have a connotation of an intelligent mind. These associations are somewhat justified, as we find out that Christof, the creator of the “show”, is indeed both a content creator and an intelligent, albeit a manipulative person. We see this as soon as he proceeds to explain the concept of the show: “While the world [Truman] inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself…it’s genuine, it’s a life.” From the start, this description is disturbing and extremely counterintuitive – surely something that involves actors and production cannot be entirely real. Nevertheless, Christof and the cast members have absolutely pleased faces and their voices are cheerful – their facial expressions in themselves carry strong associations with “authenticity” because they are calm and friendly, traits we often associate with being authentic. We are, of course, proven wrong, as we unpeel their façade together with Truman.
MEANWHILE ON THE TRUMAN SHOW…
With the interviews running in the background, we also see the live montage of Truman’s morning routine. The first shot of Truman is him talking to his reflection/hidden camera in an escapist scenario, ironically reinforcing the idea that every human being seeks mental escape from reality, whatever the reality may be. However, rather than imagining something optimistic as most of us would, what he says is rather disturbing and contrasts with the serene and upbeat mood of the cast interviews. He imagines himself as part of a mountain climbing expedition, where he has to sacrifice himself as an “alternative source of food” in order to save another person. Not only does this bizarre scene set the tone for the uncanny, normal-but-not-quite atmosphere of the film, it also brings to the forefront a strong association with consumerism and the inability to separate a human from a product in a highly consumerist society.
THE THINGS YOU OWN…
Consumerism and commodification are central, crucial topics in the film – topics undoubtedly stirred by the paranoia of big consumption goods corporations taking over so much control in American lives that they might as well own a person or consume them back. This is obvious from every aspect of the film – starting with the suburban, faux 1950s setting associated with the rise of consumerism and ending with the constant out of context ads from the central characters that are supposed to promote show merchandise and sponsored products. They all create symbols, associations both with the Truman show, but also play into archetypes that they are supposed to portray. Marlon is a bachelor best friend, who is supposed to be there to bring fun into Truman’s life and therefore he always shows up with beer – because men drinking together is a way to avoid the married life responsibilities for a little while. Similarly, Meryl only does ads for products which are linked to her housewife duties – whether it be home appliances or food and drinks, such as cocoa, she is meant to represent the commodities that make home life easier. This commercial aspect transcends into the “real” world of the film – not only is everyone so absorbed in the show that they watch it 24/7 and purchase various merchandise but they prioritise it over their own real lives. The guards who are supposed to be looking after the parking lot are so consumed by watching the show that they do not pay attention to their work; the housewife with two children pays more attention to the show than she does to her children even when her youngest baby is crying and even more alarmingly, the walls of her kitchen are full of collages of Truman’s pictures or child drawings of him, with not a single family photo in sight. This heavily contrasts with Truman’s own use of collage – his attempts to recreate Sylvia, the only person he felt any genuine connection.
ALL IN ONE!
Slogans are an important part of the world created for the show and they carry a lot of additional, subtle meaning that submerges us into the film’s intended atmosphere. I would like to look into one such slogan that actually contributes to the major shift of the plotline from homely and comfortable to alienating and unsettling. For this, I would like to contrast two scenes. The first scene opens with Meryl in her nurse attire, white dress and a nurse cap, arriving home on her bike. This attire is supposed to create a soft, healing association which combined with her housewife persona culminates in an image of a traditional woman, innocent, defenceless and completely devoted to her family. After she greets Truman, she immediately starts talking about the new product she bought, which is a “Dicer, Grater, Peeler – all in one!” As soon as she starts advertising it, talking about it in an agitated way, the camera shows the close up of her holding the product with a bright smile on her face and then the close up of the product itself. It is undoubtedly strange, but because Truman does not really mind this behaviour we are not as taken aback by it either.
However, when this scene is later mirrored after Truman and Meryl’s failed “adventure”, everything spirals out of control. After Meryl realises that Truman is not following the expected script, she tries to suggest he get some mental help. When that does not work effectively, she tries to go to her comfort zone as an actor – to advertising, which is why she starts talking about the Mococoa. Truman, whose paranoia is at its peak, gets irritated and for the first time starts shouting at her. In fact, both Truman and Meryl seem to have a simultaneous break-down, each terrified of the other. Meryl is afraid of Truman because she thinks he will physically harm her, while he is afraid of her because he is now convinced that his entire identity as a human is being compromised with her help. This is then the turning point, where Truman uses Meryl’s tool as a character against her: when she threatens him with the home appliance she had “bought” in the previous scene, he recites the slogan back at her, this time in a sinister context. He asks her whether she is going to “slice him, dice him or peel him.” Not only, however, is this a reference to the previous scene but also to the monologue in front of the mirror at the beginning of the film, where Truman imagined sacrificing himself to be eaten as part of the expedition. Truman isn’t just a simple commodity – he feels like a literal consumption product, like his identity is being ripped up and swallowed by others against his will.
When it comes to commodification, we can also see how Truman is treated like an animal. Not only is Truman constantly watched but he is also a subject to regular patronising attitude, perfectly exemplified by the little pat on the head that Christof gives him through the screen while Truman is asleep. This is made clear through various symbols throughout the film, one of the most prominent being in the scene, where Truman sees his “father” in a vagabond, before he is whisked away from his sight. As Truman tries to get hold of his father, the ensemble cast nonchalantly do anything to get in his way without being too obvious. When Truman sees his “father” pushed into the bus, he runs after it and in the background, we can also see a puppy running away from its owner with its leash still on – as if to symbolise the beginning of Truman’s escape and how he has been kept like a dog on a leash. After Truman gives up chasing the bus, the puppy re-appears and runs in front of him, as Truman looks on, still confused by what is happening in the world around him. This scene is also important for another reason – it reveals a rhetoric by which this society is supposed to function. As the bus drives away, we see two arches with the town’s motto on them – one says, “unus pro omnibus”, another one “omnes pro uno” – together they translate from Latin as, “one for all and all for one”. It is a phrase that is usually used in the context of noble pursuits, where the individual works for the society as the society works for the individual. However, in this context, it yet again becomes unsettling – it means that even though the world revolves around Truman, Truman himself, ultimately, is owned by everyone in this world.
THE ULTIMATE CLOTHING TO SEE THE WORLD IN
The film is also a great source of metonymy material (i.e. subliminal associations carried by certain objects) – in fact, it relies on those associations quite heavily. For example, one of the most consistent symbols is the yuppie fashion featured throughout the cast, both primary and the ensemble. Yuppie style, coming from the words “young upwardly mobile professional”, emerged in the 1980s; it became heavily associated with men and women who dressed smart and had stable jobs in the office. Most of the cast seem to belong to this class based on their fashion, which is why Truman’s “father” stood out as a homeless man. While the yuppie style was mostly associated with bigger cities, it is important to note that the Truman Show set has a very inconsistent stylistic timeline, in order to embody the vacuum-like state that it exists in. For example, Meryl’s style, as well as the home interior, is inspired heavily by the suburban 1950s, while the town’s architecture is described as “colonial” in one of the billboard ads, which dates to at least the 19th century. It is interesting that both the suburban 1950s and the “colonial” style are now associated with strict societal rules and oppression, despite the aesthetically appealing surface so that certainly reflects the phoney beauty of Seahaven.
IN THE NAME OF FORD
Another significant metonymy imagery is the use of the Ford and Volkswagen cars as the cars that everybody in the town drives, whether it be Truman’s or Marlon’s different models of Ford or the Volkswagen Beetle that drives on the loop around the Burbank house. Ford and Volkswagen are cars that were historically invented for mass-production, so that everybody could afford to drive one. In fact, an intertextual association that immediately springs to mind is the association with the world of the Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Not only does The Truman Show evoke the overall atmosphere of a dystopian society but in Huxley’s world, people worship Ford because he founded mass-manufacturing and therefore made consumerism mainstream. Ultimately, however, it was done at the price of personal freedom, since the citizens of the Brave New World had their lives artificially pre-conditioned for them since conception. Similarly, Truman seems to be provided with everything he needs: a house, a car, a stable job but he lacks the most important aspect – the freedom to think for himself.
IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU!
This further leads me to the topic of propaganda, which goes hand in hand with advertising in the film. Posters, billboards and newspapers are often used as ways to convince Truman that there is no place superior to Seahaven. This is exemplified by how every time Truman questions some particular aspect of his society, a newspaper publishes news that refute his doubts or a poster emerged on the wall. For example, when he talks about wanting to travel, the newspapers start praising Seahaven as the “number one town in the world”, publish an article about a Swedish scientist who chose to move to Seahaven due to better facilities and put on posters about the danger of flying on the plane. Or when he questions the “kidnapping” of his “father” when he was dressed as a homeless man, the newspapers write that all homeless people had to be dealt with because they were getting out of hand, even though we never saw any other homeless people. This is used as a tool by the production team so that Truman ends up in a paranoid cycle, questioning his own sanity before that of the world – although eventually Truman manages to escape it.
THE SHOW WITHIN THE SHOW
Finally, I want to look at a very important scene – the scene of the first exclusive interview that Christof ever gives to anyone. Through this interview, we find out all of the details about the conception of the “show”. We learn that Truman was one of the five disowned babies to be chosen for the show but arrived at the most convenient time. The idea, that Truman arrived “on cue”, as Christof calls it, suggests that a person is commodified from the moment they are born because they are “convenient” for others. When the interviewer asks a very important question, “Why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?” Christof answers, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.” As he says it, we see two loyal viewers nodding absent-mindedly to this profound statement, ironically just making it feel all the truer. Even more ironic is this statement, when we realise that it does not apply to Truman. In fact, it never applied to him.
EXIT “TRUE MAN”
From the start, we find out that Truman was so “eager to come out” that he arrived two weeks before the due date, hinting that from birth, Truman was excited to explore the world. This is something that followed him into his toddler years, when he was not afraid to climb large rocks, his school years, when he declared in class he wanted to be an explorer or when he insisted on going out on a boat with his “father”. Furthermore, the “water” metaphor, too, has been ever-present in Truman’s life as a challenge he overcomes effectively. He arrived two weeks before his due date, which means that he left the safe “water” of the womb and in a similar fashion, he challenged himself at the end of the film, where he sailed into the sea despite his aquaphobia when he wanted to escape into the world again. He justifies his name, “True Man”, to the core and he reclaims it by giving it a new meaning altogether when he ventures into the new world, completely honest to himself.
Thank you for reading and in case I don’t see ya…good afternoon, good evening and good night!
Tina Abashidze – MA Student of Media Psychology & Communications at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University