The Truman Show Analysis

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Everything in my reality—the activities I engage in, the friendships I acquire, the family I love, the beliefs I form (about art, politics, religion, morality, the afterlife)—are predicated upon the assumption that my life is truly and authentically mine to live, not something counterfeit or staged. I am the author that gives meaning to my reality. I am, so to speak, the star of the show. In Peter Weir’s film about the ultimate “reality” TV show The Truman Show (1998), the ever ominous “what is real” question begs the assumption that the lives we live are really ours. It is an important text to consider with respect to those other difficult questions we all seem to either explore or avoid: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s it all about? Am I living in a counterfeit world where my choices ultimately bear no significance? If so, is a meaningful life even possible?

These are crucial questions that pertain to humanity, ones that The Truman Show seeks not necessarily to answer directly but rather explore through speculation, inquiry and character/plot subtext. They are also questions that lead us to consider how Truman’s awakening into “the real” is a type of our own awakening, and why opting for reality over appearance is something worth striving for. The great difficulty of the film regards the term “reality”—1). What it means in context of Truman’s world, 2). Christof’s world, 3). The audience-within-the-film’s world, 4). The spectators who watch the film’s world, and 5). The overall statement Weir is making about reality in general. That is five different realities, each which carry delicate nuances about its semantically complex nature. Indeed, spectators are left to question like Truman does when he discovers the fabrication of his existence, “Was nothing real?” Well, what is real in The Truman Show? Who or what social forces construct his/our reality? Weir seems to intentionally leave open gaps in answers to these types of questions to involve spectators more in the process of constructing the film’s textual meaning. He also seems to posit a “real world” of some sort beyond Truman’s manufactured one, but is unclear as to what that “real” one is and why Truman/spectators should want it. The ambiguous challenge of the film therefore inevitably forces us to dive into the precarious realm of metaphysics—the realm where we ponder what reality is like. It is in this realm where Weir asks us to become metaphysicians in order to explore what this nebulous term “reality” even means.

One film theoretician whose ideas can help dissect the subtle nuances of how reality is played with in The Truman Show is Nick Browne. To provide a brief caveat on Browne’s theories, it is pertinent to understand that he explores the ways in which film form (camera angle, mis-en-scene, dialogue, etc.) relates to film content (theme, moral order, etc.). He views the director as a narrator who invites the spectator into the text to partake of a certain relationship not only between the characters and their beliefs, but also the director and his beliefs. According to Browne, certain narrators have been known to override the traditional meaning of filmic codes (e.g. IMR) by using formal methods to make a statement about the film’s moral order. In what he calls “the power of the gaze,” the narrator demonstrates that the person who holds the most powerful point-of-view—or gaze—over another character, according to the traditional codes is, in fact, wrong in his/her judgment. Browne therefore emphasizes the narrator’s role as using the conventional language of film “against itself” in order to make a provocative statement about the film’s content (13).

Peter Weir plays the role of what Browne calls the “narrator-in-the-text,” one who has invited us to ascertain the “moral order” of the film. The moral order of The Truman Show pertains to the five aforementioned levels of reality and how spectators are to interpret them. Using Browne’s updated version...
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