Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Musing Pictures: The Truman Show

Peter Weir caught my attention a little late. When I saw "Master and Commander" several years ago, I was struck by his ability to tell a swashbuckler of a story with hefty visual effects (and with both visual and narrative confinement) without losing track of the characters. At the time, Weir's name was fairly new to me -- I had not seen any of his earlier, equally well-known films (like "Witness" and "Galipoli"), and "Dead Poets Society" never really struck me as being all that great (I remember it as being engaging, but really quite slow. I wonder how I'd feel about it now that I am probably a decade or so older than I was when I saw it last). "The Truman Show" was one of his more popular films which I had also not seen. (I admit, I did see "The Mosquito Coast", and I found it quite odd... I've only now realized the connection, though.)

It was interesting, seeing "The Truman Show" in the age of 'Reality TV', especially considering the film was released two years before "Survivor" took American television by storm. I liked that it was not as angry a film as it would be today -- there is a clear "good" and "bad", but not a polarization of it. Here's what I mean:

Truman lives his little life in relative comfort in front of all those (5000 or so) cameras. His producer, Christof (Ed Harris), seems to love him, and not just because of all the ratings and all the money and all the power. Yes, it is clear that Truman's life is a bad thing, ultimately, and that when Christof finally loses his power over Truman (i.e., when Truman finally leaves), that is a good, positive development in the grand scheme of things. But it is also clear that Truman is walking in to a world where he will never again be able to lead a private, small-town life (of all ironies... he's stepping away from the cameras, only to face an international mob...) When Christof tells him that the world beyond the TV "set" (not the television, but the set on which the show is shot) is cruel and dangerous, he's right. And the fascinating thing is that he's speaking almost as an overprotective father (and in some ways, he is more a father to Truman than the man Truman believes is his father -- that father, after all, is just an actor. Christof really means it.) Yes, there are moments when the good/evil line seems more clearly drawn... but only barely. Truman, on a boat, racing towards the edge of his world, inspires Christof to call down a storm (get off the boat, Jonah!) which threatens Truman's very life. Are we to believe from this that Christof wants Truman dead? I think not. Ed Harris pulls off an excellently understated performance here... he's not just an overprotective father, but he is a proud one. Earlier in the film, he concedes that if Truman were ambitious enough, the gig would be up absolutely. Here, Christof does that very traditional father-son thing -- he throws Truman in to the water to see if he'll swim.

And Truman swims, and Truman finds the end of the world, and crosses its threshold. Christof looks disappointed, but not in the usual supervillain sort of way. There's no thrashing about, no angry retorts, no firing the guys whose neglegence allowed Truman to escape... There's just a sigh of sorts. His son has grown up, has left the house, has gone beyond his control... and his show just ended. Time for retirement, I guess. It's resignation that I see in the performance, and I really like that -- it's something we can all identify with, in a way.

I'm afraid that today, there is so much animosity towards "reality TV", especially in the realm of fiction-narrative filmmaking, that "The Truman Show" could never be made well now. Christof would be too cynical, too uncaring about anything other than revenue, and Truman's life would be too pitiful...

Movies with a message are tricky. I tend to gravitate towards those where the message is mild, and as such, real. When films are too angry, or too ham-fisted about the point they seem to want to convey, I get nervous. They are coins with only one side. I don't mind good and evil -- heck, there are some great films out there with good and evil -- but even Vader has some good in him, and Luke Skywalker knows more of the dark side than he'd like to believe...

And of course, the philosopher in me loves all the metacinematic possibilities in "The Truman Show"... there's even a TV-show-within-a-TV-show-within-a-movie... and there's an actor who is playing a non-actor surrounded by actors... an actor as a non-actor? Fascinating! It calls to mind that usual question of how much of cinema is real, and how much is imagined? It's a trickier question than you might think.