Space Ramblings

The Truman Show and Reality TV

In “The Truman Show”, its creator Christof (Ed Harris) boasts that while Truman’s (Jim Carrey) world is artificial, there is nothing fake about Truman himself. Andy Warhol stated that in the future everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. In a world where American Idol, Survivor and Big Brother contestants become instant celebrities, where social networking encourages each and every person to act like a celebrity seeking out friends and contacts, where someone who uploads an attention getting YouTube video becomes a star and in which the line between celebrity and reality tv has been blurred almost to the point of non-existence; that world is closer than ever.

Truman Burbank himself is an unwitting celebrity. His life is a carefully managed script. His memories, his childhood, his parents, his wife and his friends are all actors. Is Truman then real or fake? If life experience defines who you are, then Truman should be a fake. Truman’s genuineness stems from who he is inside. Christof sees himself as having created an ideal paradise for Truman, one without real conflict, pain, crime or evil. A digital garden of eden in which Truman can be forever innocent, forever pure. Chrstof’s delusions of godhood lead him to believe that in doing so he has created who Truman is. As in Dark City or The Matrix or any number of movies made at the time dealing with the question of reality, controlling the memories does not mean you control the soul.

Truman’s liberation of the soul comes from embracing the love for the woman he once saw, before she was taken away from him. His quest for her, using the simple tools of photographs of women in fashion magazines clipped and rearranged into her face, shows the triumph of his quest for her, over the physical material he is presented with.

Truman is a prisoner of his own ignorance. Again as in Dark City and The Matrix, he lives in an artificial world without knowing it. A virtual reality that is not digital, but the work of an elaborate Hollywood stage set, from the sea to the painted sky. If he demanded to leave, there is little that could keep him, but he cannot conceive of the idea that the world he is inhabiting is fake. Unable to ask the question, deceived and lied to by an elaborate system with five thousand cameras, a stage set reaching for miles and a cast of thousands, Truman Burbank knows only that his life is wrong, but not why.

Increasingly we live in a Truman universe, our ideas of life coming from television and cinematic products just as artificial and phony as the world around Truman. We are saturated by advertisements and brands and by reality tv, which is itself stage managed and staged, shot and reshot and scripted. The internet and reality tv simply help transform us from observers to the observed. The media we listened to on the radio, watched in theaters and finally on televisions in our homes and then on computers, had turned around and the hunter became the hunted.

While Truman struggled to escape his celebrity, his life in a media prison, as a society we are increasingly hammering to get in. Massive lines are present to audition for American Idol and any reality TV show. Every Web 2.0 site seems centered on building communities and social networks, blogrolls, MySpace friends lists, contacts and all of them serving a common purpose, popularity.

At the close of “The Truman Show”, Truman himself finds freedom, bidding the audience and Christof goodbye and exiting the stage, and the bored viewers who had been consuming his televised life, move on searching for something else. Truman has escaped, but they are still imprisoned and continue living in a media universe. Christof’s powers came from his ability to feed the public what appeared to be a pure and genuine product. From this he gained the ability to command a budget in the hundreds of millions and construct a reality of the world as he wanted it. Truman however was not his creation, the Truman universe was.

Reality TV promises a real experience, yet our daily everyday lives are real. What Reality TV truly offers is a highly dramatized structured and artificial life. Reality TV bridges the gap between fiction and life by fusing the two, creating verite performances that are nevertheless surrounded by scripted elements. “The Truman Show” feeds everyone but Truman himself a script, but Truman’s script is invisible, created by managing everyone else’s dialogue to limit the possibility of Truman’s choices. Nothing in the invisible prison Christoff has created actually forces Truman to do anything directly. That would be illegal. Instead Christoff plays chess master, creating scenarios directing Truman one way or another. This reduces Truman’s interactions with every other human being in his life into the artificial, except for the two people who go off script, his father and the love of his life. His attachment to these people is genuine, because their attachment to him is genuine. All the rest is completely artificial. Sensing this artificiality, Truman discards the artificial relationships and seeks genuine ones, pursuing his father and Lauren, whom he saw briefly, but nevertheless loves.

Reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” pretend to script love, but love cannot be scripted. Love comes from the heart and soul and while Christof can control everything Truman sees, eats and hears, much as he refuses to accept that, he cannot control what Truman thinks. The freedom of the mind is the only freedom a man can maintain in a tyranny. The set of “The Truman Show” is the ultimate totalitarian regime, in which everyone answers to a central dictator, where even the sun rises on the whim of that dictator\director and cars move and storms rage and lightning strikes by his command. For Truman to escape it he has to embrace the motivations that drive him to seek the genuine over the artificial, to seek freedom over a sterile world.

Reality TV degrades human instincts and entertainment, by refusing to be anyone’s entertainment and choosing a world that may be dangerous and threatening, but is also real, Truman chooses reality and freedom over the enslavement of entertainment. When he leaves, Truman has found freedom. Those viewers still watching have not.

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