Two Kinds of Paranoia: 'The Truman Show' and 'The X-Files.' (Motion Pictures)
Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
The Truman Show is an ingenious toy of a movie, and it's not the fault of its director, Peter Weir, or its writer, Andrew Niccol, that the word "profound" has been attached to their production. Truman is a bauble, but let's not underrate it just because the initial critical response has overestimated it. Why can't a bauble be a little work of art?
As many of you know already, the movie is about a TV program that stars a young man (Jim Carey) who doesn't even know he's on camera. As an unwanted foundling, Truman Burbank was adopted by a media corporation, and a television producer named Christof (Ed Harris) created "The Truman Show" around the child with actors portraying his parents, friends, and fellow townspeople in a community, Seahaven, that synthesizes every small town you've ever seen on Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The fascination of the show is, purportedly, Truman's absolutely sincere, unacted response to every situation Christof fabricates and that the other (professional) actors pretend to be involved by. (Is Truman's actress-wife really sleeping with him? Their bedroom moments are off-camera, but if they're really having sex, the show would be the first squeaky-clean pornography in history, and the wife's portrayer the first known prostitute to be a celebrated prime-time player.) For thirty years the show captivates audiences, but then various accidents arouse Truman's first suspicions that he is living in an unreality. The rest of the movie shows his growing doubts and his efforts to escape.
Intriguingly, the artistry of the movie is almost at one with the artistry that the television people have employed in confecting Truman's world. This artistry is in the service of evil since it has forced a human being to grow up within the bubble of a lie. Yet it is the visual intricacy of this lie that makes The Truman Show as fascinating to us as to the TV audience within the movie. (We get to watch it as well as the show.) Peter Weir commandeered the actual community of Seaside, Florida, to represent "Seahaven," but he and his staff obviously repainted and reconstructed the place to project smile-button cuteness on a monstrous scale. Then they enclosed the place under an artificial sky with a theatrical backdrop on which they painted (or computer-generated) sunsets and stars. In Seahaven, not only human relations but also nature itself is something that exists only within quotation marks. What makes the movie dramatic is that Truman gradually becomes aware of those quotation marks...and then struggles to remove them. "Somebody help me!" screams our hero as he gets ready to careen his car out of Seahaven, "I'm being spontaneous!" The fact that he is screaming proves Truman's inherent canniness, for he already senses the complexity awaiting him in a real world not constructed with him as its coddled center.
The Truman Show suggests three kinds of parable. On the simplest - and for me the most pleasurable - plane, it is a grand justification of paranoia. Paranoiacs believe that all the Powers That Be are concentrating their energies on the paranoiac himself, usually to malevolent ends. But the comic charge of this film comes from the way Seahaven benevolently takes charge of Truman's life: the traffic that all too carefully spares our hero when he recklessly runs into it; the travel bureau that discourages travel whenever our hero contemplates it; the local newspaper's headlines that speak directly to Truman's puzzlements.
Truman also works as a portrait of the Artist-Scientist affronted by the autonomous life his creation takes on. This view, which makes Christof the real protagonist of the story, is reinforced by the tacit power of Ed Harris's performance. Of course, it's Jim Carey's work that has drawn publicity and predictions of an Oscar nomination, and, yes, Carey is generally good at portraying Truman's innocence and yearning. But there is also a residue of whiz-kid knowingness and slickness that keeps his performance from being as directly moving as it might have been. …