The Truman Show successfully mixes entertainment and sadness

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

10. The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998)

“That’s the Big Guy…quite a paintbrush he’s got,” so says Truman Burbank’s designated best friend, as the men sit atop a sandy hill and gaze upon an ultra-high watt lamp setting against a studio sky matte, an image that indicates the allegorical dynamic (Creator/Creation; manipulator/manipulated), as well as the formal and diegetic artificiality, at the heart of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Written by Gattaca’s Andrew Niccol, its vision of an unknowing human placed under the microscope from birth till death for all to see still delivers as entertainment with a dose of food for thought, although its rhythms register as melancholic more now than at the time of release, I suspect.

A surprise box-office hit in retrospect, even considering Jim Carrey’s star power, The Truman Show’s lampooning of reality TV struck a chord with the viewing public, who, despite the explicit prodding, might’ve taken its caustic satire for granted, instead indulging more in the voyeuristic allure yielded by the premise – fitting for a decade wherein the media fell victim to tabloidization. No more than two years separate the release of Weir’s film and that epochal moment when Survivor stormed the airwaves, kicking off the reality TV show craze that’d dominate the aughts. However, The Truman Show wasn’t necessarily the first slice of visual content to hint at our somewhat lurid fascination with peeking in on our fellow beings’ lives. PBS’ notorious series An American Family, which chronicled seven months in the lives of the Louds, reached 10 million viewers per week during its run in 1973, and kickstarted the public discourse concerning how we’re represented in the camera’s eye while exposing the ability for creators to weave narratives out of actuality. However, Truman’s true predecessor arrived in 1979 when Albert Brooks skewered those notions in his cerebral laugh riot, Real Life, crafting a jaundiced view of where its auteur saw society heading – its prescience can’t be overstated.

These earlier works laid the groundwork: An American Family familiarized the public with an innovative form of serialized TV, while Real Lifetook that as springboard to hold up our dirty laundry for all to see. Yet, The Truman Show was the one that really connected with the culture at large; the picture grossed over $250 million worldwide, helped Carrey establish a serious side to his image, and, ultimately, attained the zeitgeist appeal its progenitors (admittedly, both superior) only dreamed of.

Revisiting The Truman Show twenty years after its initial release– and fifteen years following my last viewing – not only reveals that the film has aged rather well, but makes one recall a time when Hollywood still took chances on risky, relatively idiosyncratic projects. That 90s aura of meta-ness and irony run throughout (and certainly dates the movie), but Weir’s lyricism, so integral to his early Australian work (particularly his masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock), helps maintain a lightness amid all the self-reflexivity, effectively downplaying some of the script’s innate smugness. More telling is the fact that many of my chuckles found themselves filtered through a haze of vague sorrow.

The Truman Show’s central conceit, prophesizing the addictiveness and omnipresence of reality TV and exposing the glued-to-the-set culture that aids in the perpetuation of such phenomenon, is now less hyperbolic than woeful fact, a consumerist fixation so embedded in the cultural psyche that it’s past the point of being suppressed altogether. Given all the Big Brothers and Simple Lifes that have clogged up our frequencies over the past two decades, the cancellation of one such program undeniably ensures that, before long, something brand-new, in color and HD, shall be put forth for our consideration. Answering the query posed several years prior by the townsfolk in Pleasantville (“what do we do now?”), The Truman Show articulates the inevitable: “let’s see what else is on.”

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *