We Are All In Our Own Truman Show

Paper by Lola Chen.

Politics have always been prevalent in film, and often reflect our lives. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), is a great example of this concept. Throughout the film, there are several instances in which we see Truman being manipulated, his life is being exploited for the entertainment of others. One scene in particular, which truly shapes the narrative of the film, can be found shortly after the halfway point of the film. In the scene, Christof takes phone calls from viewers around the world, and ends up speaking to Sylvia, who doesn’t support “The Truman Show” and how Truman is being manipulated. In the scene, Christof reveals how he tricks the audience into believing whatever he wants them to believe. This can be seen through elements of the scene such as lighting, camera angles, and tone. Television producers are god-like in that they have the power to impact American society by spreading false information and subtly telling people what to think. In The Truman Show, the god-like producers of the show manipulate Truman’s perception of his environment from the moment he is born. The way in which Truman is manipulated by the television producers reflects the way in which American television producers presently shape how Americans perceive reality.

In a way, The Truman Show predicted the rise of American reality television shows. Before the film was released, there were several reality television shows, such as MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules. Within a few years after The Truman Show was released in 1998, reality television started to become very popular. According to Julie Miller of Vanity Fair, “In 2015 alone, there were roughly 750 reality series on television. As an audience, we didn’t just blow past The Truman Show’s cautionary subtext; we’ve elected a reality star as our president” (vanityfair.com). It is evident that reality television has consumed America. Throughout The Truman Show, there are several clips of viewers watching “The Truman Show.” These viewers are not just watching absent-mindedly, but are shown completely engaged while watching. These clips include a man in his bathtub watching the show instead of actually taking a bath, a clip of two security guards ignoring the people who ask them for help, a mother ignoring her crying baby, and waiters from a restaurant ignoring their customers, all because they are so consumed by the show. This is similar to The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007) when “Wiesler gets so involved in other people’s lives that he cannot do his job” (Matthew H. Bernstein). Wiesler is just like the viewers in the film watching “The Truman Show” in that they are both so consumed by other people’s lives that they stop living their own.

The first time one watches The Truman Show film, they may not understand the message behind why these clips of people were included throughout the film, but after watching the film a second or third time, it becomes clearer that the message the film is trying to portray is that American society is mirrored by the viewers of The Truman Show in the film.
The scene that I have chosen to analyze contains an exchange between two characters; Sylvia, an ex-cast member who Truman fell in-love with, and Christof, the director of the Truman show. In the scene, Sylvia confronts Christof about how what he is doing to Truman—broadcasting every moment of his life—is wrong. Christof listens to Sylvia, but dismisses her opinions, arguing that if Truman did not want to be on the show, he could have left.

The Truman show runs 24/7, which means Truman is always being filmed, and everyone is always watching. Even during this interview scene, Truman is shown drinking his coffee in a small corner of the screen the entire time. Truman has no idea that he is being recorded. This presents an issue of both ethics and voyeurism, similarly to the way in which the people of East Germany are recorded by the Stasi “…in ways they cannot know,” as portrayed in the film The Lives of Others (Matthew H. Bernstein). The issues of ethics and voyeurism are present in The Truman Show because Truman is always being recorded without permission. By doing this, the directors of the show are manipulating American viewers in the film to believe that recording people without consent is acceptable. Throughout the interview scene, the way in which the cameras capture Sylvia and Christof, as well as the settings behind them, depict the positions of power each character holds as well as where they stand in society. In the scene, there are two ways in which the camera shows Christof. When we first see Christof in the scene, he is portrayed as god-like in that his face is a little fuzzy, but in a sort of angelic way. His face is also shown as a close-up on a very large screen, and it appears as though he is looking down on everyone else. This is symbolic of a god in a way, in that he is looking down on all of the people and the world which he created. In one close up shot of Christof on the big screen, a blurred out character facing the screen is shown watching Christof, his back turned to the camera. The blurred out character also appears to be much smaller than Christof due to the way in which the cameras capture both of them. Depicting Christof in this way, shows that he is all-power, showing that it is easy for him to change the perceptions of others.

The second way which Christof is shown in the scene is sitting at a desk with his hands intertwined in front of him. This is a very powerful and authoritative hand gesture, showing that Christof is in charge and in power. During these shots, he is also the only one in the frame and is directly in the center of it. When he speaks to his viewers, he also has a very intense stare, looking directly at the camera. Through his direct eye contact with the camera, Christof is showing that everything is in his control and that he is capable of easily manipulating others.

In the film, Christof directs and controls the show from what Truman sees as the moon. While Christof speaks, the viewers of “The Truman Show” can see the craters of the fake moon behind him. This is also very symbolic of a god in that it appears as though he is up in the sky, above everyone else, holding all power.

When Sylvia is on the phone with Christof, we do not see her at first. We hear her voice, but the camera just focuses on a wall in her room that is covered in pictures and notes relating to the Truman show, such as a map of Seahaven Island, character’s pictures with their names next to them and their recent actions in the show, a paper pinned to the board with a list of where the different cameras are located in Truman’s home, and a large poster which stands out in the middle of the board that reads “SAY NO TO THE TRUMAN SHOW.” Something interesting to note about Sylvia is that she is depicted as a normal person in a real world setting, whereas Christof is depicted as a sort of a celestial being in a futuristic, alien, setting. Each time that Sylvia is seen speaking during the rest of the scene, she is shown in several different frames, angrily pacing in her room. As she paces, we see several more anti-”Truman Show” posters. One large poster, which the camera focuses on for a moment in Sylvia’s room, says “Free Truman Rally” showing Truman as a child and as an adult behind bars. Another poster in her room reads, “who’s next? out children?” Several other posters in her room say, “say no” in big, capital letters. Aside from posters around her room, it is shown that the rest of her room is covered in more anti-’Truman Show” memorabilia, as well as many other papers and notes about different characters. After watching the camera angles closely, it is clear that they give Christof the appearance of a powerful, divine being, while they make Sylvia appear as a powerless, ordinary citizen. This mirrors the way in which American producers in modern-day society can so easily can make political statements and convince people to believe in something, while regular citizens have difficulty making the smallest of changes.

Aside from the camera angles and setting adding meaning to both the scene and the film as a whole, the ways in which the characters are dressed as well as their physical appearances also represent the power dynamic between American viewers and producers. In the scene, Christof is seen wearing a black coat, and a director’s cap. Black is a very serious color and is often associated with negative things such as death. The color reflects the evilness of Christof in that he is holding Truman captive in the show, and manipulating his audience into believing that Truman is happy. On the other hand, Sylvia’s outfit can be looked at in one of two ways. At a glance, one can see that Sylvia is wearing white, which is often viewed as a color representing goodness or innocence. This reflects her character in that her goal throughout the film is to free Truman. On the other hand, at a closer glance, one can see that her outfit has stripes on it. One can interpret this as a representation of someone who is imprisoned. Sylvia tells Christof that Truman is being imprisoned, while she herself can be seen as imprisoned as well in that she is imprisoned in a reality without the man that she loves; Truman. Sylvia’s hair also reflects her character’s emotion in that it is down, un-kept, and slightly tangled. This reflects how Sylvia is not at ease with the fact that Truman is still on the show.

Both the tone of the character’s voice as well as the dialogue in the scene help the viewers of the film understand the situation that Truman is in, as well as how the characters feel about it. In the scene, Christof is asked “why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now,” to this he responds by saying that “we accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” This line is so important to the scene, and the rest of the film in that it shows that Christof has been manipulating Truman his whole life, and also shows how easily people can be manipulated. This line also reflects our lives, in that it shows what producers are doing to American viewers; presenting them with what they want to see, changing their perspectives on life. During the scene, Sylvia says things to Christof such as “[Truman’s] not a performer. He’s a prisoner,” but with each comment she makes that goes against Christof and what he is doing, Christof simply dismisses her claims saying things to make his audience believe that they have nothing to be concerned about such as “Truman prefers his cell” and that “[Truman] could leave at anytime.” To make the audience believe that Truman is in a good place, Christof goes as far as saying that the world in which his viewers live in (the real world) “…is the sick place.” Not only does this manipulate his audiences into believing that Truman is truly happy being on the show, but it also manipulates his viewers into believing that their world is sick.

In terms of the tone of their voices, Christof speaks very softly. This also adds to his god-like persona, By speaking in a calm manner, it is convincing his audience that everything is happy, fine, and under control. Something about Christof’s tone also gives off a sense of cruelty, similar to the cruel tone in The Lives of Others. Gerry Coulter writes in “Visual Story Telling and History As A Great Toy – The Lives of Others” that The Lives of Others coolly keeps us distant but no less compelled through its cruel tonalities.” This is exactly why we are compelled to listen closely to Christof; his cruel tone and is why American viewers are so compelled to accept what they see on television.

Another important part of the scene to note is that there is no music during Sylvia and Christof’s conversation. This is interesting because it allows for both Christof’s audience, and the viewers of the film to carefully listen to every word that they say with their full attention. Having no music also makes their words echo, giving more power and meaning to the words. Having no music in the scene also adds tension to the scene. This scene can be seen as a turning point in the film because it is where Sylvia finally gets to speak to Christof and is where Christof subtly reveals what he has been doing to his audience the entire time (manipulating them). Not having music in the scene only adds to this turning point.

When thinking about the writers’ intention in creating this scene for the film, it is clear that it is to show the viewers of the film how television producers are constantly manipulating them. One could say that we are watching something to see how it’s watched. Today, there are so many reality television shows like “The Truman Show” that are influencing us without our knowing. In making the Truman Show Film and this specific scene, we are shown how this is being done. The writers and directors created this film as a wakeup call to show us how we should be more aware of our decisions and thoughts after watching a show. This idea of subtle manipulation through the media can cause people to think about their actions could be the result of watching a reality television show.

The Truman Show is a great example of how films can reflect contemporary American society. The Truman Show predicted how the world would react to reality television as well as how easily shows and media can affect a society and completely change its perception of reality. Today it is so easy for producers to make it seem like what we’re watching is completely real. The battle scenes in Paths of Glory are a great example of this in that “…many reviewers praised the battles scenes [in the film] for their resemblance to war newsreels and photographs” (Andrew Kelly). By watching something that looks so real and believable, it makes it that much easier for producers to sneak in information that they want American viewers to believe, captivating and manipulating us at the same time.

Similarly, the audience that watches “The Truman Show” is so captivated by what they are seeing, that they do not even realize how unethical Truman’s situation actually is. A real world example of this dynamic between directors swaying their audience’s opinions is the documentary Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013). The film was about a “killer whale that killed several people while in captivity” and revealed a lot of information about how SeaWorld treats their animals, which had initially been kept hidden from people (blackfishmovie.com). The whales were made to look happy, but in reality they were not. SeaWorld captivated their audiences and made them “…accept the reality of the world with which [they were] presented (Christof). There had been people like Sylvia who tried to boycott SeaWorld and free the killer whales in the past, just as she tried to free Truman. This is because most people had been convinced by the creators of the show at SeaWorld that everything was fine. The influence of Blackfish was so strong, that there were many people who hadn’t even seen the film, but had just heard of it, and stopped supporting SeaWorld. This shows how the power of media (specifically in film and television) can shift American audience’s perceptions of reality, even to the point of accepting or rejecting unethical practices in the world. This situation is similar to the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) in that the film “helped define the changing relationship between theatres and filmgoers who went to them,” just as Blackfish and The Truman Show revealed important messages to audiences that were once hidden from them (Eric Smoodin).

After watching The Truman Show several times, it had become clear that television producers really do have the ability to completely influence society by subtly placing information into their shows and films. The way in which Christof manipulates Truman shows us how we are being manipulated by television and film producers in the same way, without even knowing. Just as Truman was controlled by the media around him, Americans are swayed by the media they are constantly in contact with. It is frightening to think about how much we are being manipulated without even knowing. This idea makes it feel as though we are in our own “Truman Show.”

Works Cited

“About.” Blackfish, http://www.blackfishmovie.com/about.
Bernstein, Matthew H. “The Lives of Others.” Film Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2007, pp. 30–36., doi:10.1525/fq.2007.61.1.30.
Gerry Coulter. “Visual Story Telling and History As a Great Toy in the Lives of Others.” Wide Screen, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010.
Kelly, Andrew. “The Brutality of Military Incompetence: ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957).” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, vol. 13, no. 2, 1993, pp. 215–215.
Miller, Julie. “Twenty Years Later, Everything Is The Truman Show.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 6 June 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/06/truman-show-anniversary-jim-carrey-peter-weir-laura-linney.
Sharpe, M. E. “The Truman show.” Challenge, vol. 41, no. 5, Sep, 1998, pp. 121-124. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.callutheran.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.callutheran.edu/docview/204824867?accountid=9839, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.callutheran.edu/10.1080/05775132.1998.11472059.
Smoodin, Eric. “‘Compulsory’ Viewing for Every Citizen: ‘Mr. Smith’ and the Rhetoric of Reception.” Cinema Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, 1996, pp. 3–23.
Weir, Peter, director. The Truman Show. Amazon Prime Video , Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/The-Truman-Show-Jim-Carrey/dp/B002SGYPS2.

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