The Truman Show
Andrew Niccol and Peter Weir, 1998
#6, 1998 Skandies

There's already a spoiler warning on the index page, but since I'm about to discuss the nature of spoilers, here's another one for those of you who otherwise would have yelled at me for lacking a sense of irony.

More than once I have referred to The Truman Show as a movie that was ruined by its marketing campaign. The argument goes like this: the movie itself doesn't spell out its premise — man has unknowingly spent his entire life in a gigantic TV studio surrounded by actors — until its second hour. Thus it seems safe to conclude that the filmmakers intend for us to spend the first hour trying to piece things together from the clues they provide. We're not supposed to walk in knowing the exact scenario beforehand. And yet that's what anyone who had any exposure to the marketing campaign did. How much more effective would this film have been, I wondered, if we'd had a chance to see it cold?

But I guess I needn't have lamented missed opportunities. For instance, I have also mentioned more than once that one of my many problems with The Matrix is that its big twist — the world isn't real! whoa! — is undermined by the fact that the world never seems real in the first place. We get a hasty sketch of the "real world" (which looks more like a near-future sci-fi dystopia than the actual real world) and it's taken apart almost immediately. The same is true for The Truman Show. I had remembered the film as starting off seeming perfectly normal and then steadily escalating the sense that things are not as they seem. But apparently this was wishful thinking. This second viewing revealed that my memory could hardly have been more wrong.

First, the world-within-a-world never seems real. This is a problem. We're told that the reason the Truman TV show is so popular is that "there's nothing fake about Truman himself"; that "it's genuine, it's a life"; that it's "broadcast live and unedited 24 hours a day, 7 days a week"; that, in short, it's the logical extension of Jennicam, the web site that from 1996 to 2003 posted photos every few minutes from the home of a perfectly ordinary American student, Jennifer Ringley. Jennicam succeeded due to the fact that it was truly voyeuristic — less like a peep show booth than like a neighbor's window with open curtains. Yes, if you were lucky, you might see her masturbating or having sex or sitting naked at her computer after a shower, but it was a very different experience from watching a performer on a modern webcam show. These weren't performances. They were simply what you got when someone ignored the camera and behaved like a normal person.

Truman Burbank doesn't behave like a normal person. He acts like a buffoon, makes silly faces, and in general raises the question, "What the hell is the deal with this clown?" Now, personally, it seems to me that this is what you get when the story calls for a normal person and you cast a guy whose career was built on acting like a buffoon, making silly faces, and making people wonder what the deal is with this clown. Jim Carrey is terrible in this movie. He was trying to stretch into dramatic roles, but his idea of dramatic acting seems to have been, "Look like a shellshocked caveman." Some of the film's defenders have argued that Truman's smarminess is part of the point — that he's a product of having effectively been raised in a 1950s sitcom. But wasn't the whole idea of the show that it be a glimpse into the life of an ordinary person, i.e., not some freak raised in a 1950s sitcom? And if he's living in a 1950s sitcom — one in which "you never see anything" of Truman's sex life other than the bedroom curtains blowing in the wind — how does that square with the idea that it's life, "unedited"? I guess you could argue that it's a commentary on Middle America's deluded image of what constitutes "ordinary," the deluded self-image that doesn't have room for a black president and sends ignorant housewives into the streets to shriek, "I want my country back!"... but, as before, now we're talking about a hypothetical better movie rather than the real one. The fact that the script originally called for a foul-mouthed, balding, pudgy guy living in Queens suggests that these false notes are nothing more than the product of trying to hammer this story into a Jim Carrey vehicle.

But say you found Carrey's performance totally convincing and true to life. Again, as in The Matrix, the filmmakers waste no time ripping that illusion apart. The light representing Sirius that falls from the top of the dome? I'd remembered that as the big turning point halfway through the movie that gives away the game. Turns out that it happens three minutes in. And even that's misleading, because we don't get three minutes of building up the illusion. The very first thing we see is Christof discussing the nature of Truman's world! You can call it cryptic, and it isn't spelled out the way it is at the one-hour mark, but it's enough to make it clear that Truman's world is counterfeit and populated by actors. And lest we somehow forget, the movie keeps popping back into the frame story to show people watching the TV show long before Truman learns that that's what it is.

I did some poking around and discovered that neither the early draft floating around the web nor the shooting script started with Christof. His speech about the nature of the TV show is from near the end of the movie, and the switcheroo appears to have been made in the editing room. Meaning someone got nervous about losing the audience. I know how that is. In the project I've been working on there's a sudden left turn that shakes things up fairly substantially. In the written version — the version I have creative control over, at least for now — I plan for it to come completely out of nowhere. For the film version my preferred structure was emphatically vetoed. You cannot pull the rug out from under the audience, I was told. Maybe a Hitchcock or a Tarantino could pull in an audience that would stick with a movie that did this sort of thing, but a regular audience, thinking it's going to see a regular movie? Not a chance. And so the screenplay is peppered with flash-forwards — initially cryptic, eventually not so much — that keep the viewers from getting too invested in what's unfolding in front of them and get them accustomed to where they'll be spending the second half of the film. I was regaled with horror stories about movies that had bombed due to viewers being thrown out of the narrative when that sort of groundwork hadn't been laid. Presumably many of the same horror stories were rattling around in the minds of the people who decided that the movie had to start with Christof or the viewers would look like shellshocked cavemen when he finally appeared.

Which is the sort of thing you have to worry about when you need to maximize viewership and make back a budget. Which in turn is why I prefer media that allow me the luxury of writing for the people who like the sort of thing that I do and not worrying so much about those who don't. Obviously there's a continuum and you don't want to alienate potential fans unnecessarily — I took the word "fuck" out of the Glulx version of Photopia because, while I liked the way it contrasted with the section that followed, that wasn't nearly important enough to continue to lock out those whom it prevented from enjoying the story. But in general I tend to gravitate toward the side of the spectrum that says "the right people will like it." And the people who need to be told up front that Truman Burbank is living in a television show are the sort of people I tend to be less interested in writing for.

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