The Meaning of the Truman Show

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In the last few years, America has undergone a significant cultural change. Previously, almost no criticism of the media reached the public, except for some of the complaints of business interests and conservatives. The media controlled the "means of communication" and it used that power to censor virtually all discussion of its own role in shaping events

But now -- at last -- we are starting to get some public debate over the way the media manipulates public opinion and routinely creates fictions that masquerade as facts. The change has taken place in large measure because the media itself has become so powerful and so out of control, there is no longer any way for it to keep what it is doing under wraps.

Ironically, one of the voices that is being raised against it is none other than that of the ultimate media machine, Hollywood. While celebrities take on the tabloid photographers who follow them around, the movie and television industry is giving us depictions of venal reporters and scheming entertainment conglomerates, which pull no punches when it comes to revealing how amoral our culture industry has become.

Recently, there have been two important examples of this trend. In the flawed but interesting movie, Bulworth, Hollywood has given us a depiction of a politician who challenges the phony world of media-politics by offering bluntness in place of rhetorical manipulation. In the brilliantly-conceived (and imperfectly executed) satire, The Truman Show, it shows us a character who also challenges -- and ultimately escapes from -- a contrived world that is an invention of media. Both movies have the same message: we will have to stand up to the manipulators of television and news if we want to protect ourselves from the absurdity and falsehood that now surrounds us at every turn.

As most people know by now, The Truman Show conveys this message by depicting a series of fateful events in the life of Truman Burbank, (played by Jim Carrey) who has grown up, and lives, in a fake town full of actors. The town is enclosed in a giant dome decked out with high-tech simulations of sun and sky, in which the rain and wind are courtesy of the special effects department. Truman alone has no idea he is in a giant TV studio, as the rest of humanity watches him go from one staged situation to another in a nonstop telethon of reality programming that lets audiences enjoy a little pathos and vicarious emotion.

But into this ersatz paradise, there inevitably appears a snake. After the crew makes mistakes that cause the seamlessness of the illusion to break down, Truman figures out that his surroundings are full of staged scenes and events. He then tries to make his escape, only to come up against both his own fears, which keep him from leaving, and the obstacles put in his way by the producer-director who has made billions trapping him in a stage set and playing God with his life.

Thus does the movie offer us a metaphor for our own situation. The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions. Like our media landscape, it is convincing in its realism, with lifelike simulations and story lines, from the high-tech facsimile of a sun that benevolently beams down on Truman to the mock sincerity of the actor he mistakenly believes is his best friend. It is also rewarding and masquerades as something benevolent. And it is seamless -- there are almost no flaws that give away the illusion -- at least until things start to go wrong.

Truman's fear of leaving this invented world, once he realizes it is a fraud, is similarly like our own reluctance to break our symbiotic relationship with media. His growing suspicion that what he is seeing is staged for his benefit is our own suspicions as the media-fabricated illusions around us begin to break down. And the producer-director of this stage-set world, who blocks...
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