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The Truman Show
Have you ever wondered whether everyone talks about you behind your back? Whether they are all keeping something from you? John McGuire discusses the Cartesian nightmare that is The Truman Show.
Every good dumpster-diver knows that there are treasures to be found in trash, and the same can be said of the cultural garbage produced by the Hollywood entertainment industry. One wouldn’t expect to find important philosophical themes being treated with sophistication in a Hollywood movie starring Jim Carrey, goof-ball extraordinaire, but that is exactly what I found in The Truman Show. The purpose of this article is to expose some of the philosophical depth to this fascinating film. In the end, I will also have much better things to say about Jim Carrey.
Let’s begin with a brief description of the plot. The story is about a man named Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey), who is born and raised inside an extremely large television studio that has been designed to resemble the real world. Indeed, the studio is so large and designed so well that Truman grows up unaware of the fact that he is inside a studio. He simply believes that his little community, known as Sea Haven, is a part of the real world just like any other. The illusion is not merely temporary, but rather extends throughout Truman’s life, from his birth until the time we meet him at the age of twenty-nine.
The illusion is fostered and sustained by several things in addition to the realistic studio. In the first place, all of the people around Truman, including his ‘mother’, ‘wife’, and ‘best friend’, are actors, who have agreed to conspire against Truman in reinforcing the idea that there is nothing unusual about his life. Secondly, Sea Haven is designed as an island so that in order to venture beyond his hometown Truman must travel over water. However, a carefully staged incident in his childhood has left Truman with a morbid fear of water, which helps to prevent him from venturing beyond his hometown. Finally, Sea Haven contains a sophisticated network of 5000 hidden TV cameras by means of which Truman’s every movement is monitored by a team of cameramen working under the supervision of a man named Christof (played by Ed Harris). Christof’s cameramen are themselves in constant communication with an elaborate group of set designers and actors, who ensure that Truman’s experiences form a seamless, though illusory, whole.
The images that are relayed back to the control room are also broadcast live, 24 hours a day, to the outside world – this being the ultimate purpose of the grand illusion. Truman Burbank’s life is, unbeknownst to him, the subject of a TV show that the rest of the world watches with fascination, rather like scientists observing rats in a maze. Thus, Christof is not only the supervisor of Truman’s illusion, he is also the creator, director, and producer of a TV show called “The Truman Show”. (Throughout this article, I use italics to designate the movie and quotation marks to designate the TV show in the movie).
This, perhaps, is enough of the plot to appreciate the first point of philosophical significance to the movie, which is its treatment of the problem of skepticism. Like so many other philosophical issues, the problem of skepticism can be traced back as far as the ancient Greeks. Nevertheless, it was Descartes who placed this problem at the very heart of modern philosophy when he used it as a foil in his attempt to provide a firm foundation for scientific knowledge, which was only beginning to flourish in his day. In his Meditations, Descartes invoked the idea of an evil genius – an omnipotent but malignant being whose sole purpose is to deceive us in all of our perceptual experiences and beliefs – to challenge the idea that we have certain knowledge of the world around us. Given the logical possibility that such a creature exists, how can we be certain that our beliefs about the world are not radically mistaken? How, Descartes asked, can we be certain that we are all not utterly deceived?
The Truman Show presents a similar skeptical problem, but in the most convincing of ways. Christof is clearly analogous to the evil genius that Descartes posited, but whereas Descartes’ malignant demon is a creature of pure fantasy, the character of Christof and the conspiracy that he orchestrates seem dangerously real. Indeed, it is worth asking the question of what would prevent such a conspiracy from actually occurring? Of course, there never has been a TV show such as “The Truman Show,” but that is not the question. The question is whether there could be such a show.
From a purely technical point of view, there is little doubt that “The Truman Show,” with its massive studio and vast network of hidden cameras, cameramen, set designers, and actors, could be produced. The only real obstacle, it seems, would relate to the conspiratorial element involved. If “The Truman Show” were impossible or even implausible it would seem to be for moral, rather than technical, reasons. How, one may ask, could such a large group of actors ever conspire to deceive another person on such an enormous scale? More importantly, how could the rest of society, the viewing public, ever stand by and tacitly tolerate such a flagrant disregard for one man’s privacy and autonomy?
These are good questions, but I suggest that it is not, after all, so difficult to imagine this sort of thing happening in our society. It is true that, in some sense at least, privacy and autonomy are important values in most contemporary societies, although there are notable exceptions, such as North Korea. However, even in lands where we think personal freedom reigns supreme, privacy and autonomy often come into conflict with other values and principles, and when they do, the results of such conflicts are not always clear. In the world of medicine, for example, respect for personal autonomy often clashes with, and in some cases is overridden by, the principles of beneficence or justice. The case of Sue Rodriguez, in Canada, is a classic example of this.
In the world of entertainment, on the other hand, respect for privacy and autonomy clashes with a very different set of values: the public’s insatiable craving for information and what some people call ‘real entertainment’. Thus, while many people deplore the gross invasions, on the part of the popular media, into the lives of the royal family in England, for example, we must admit that such invasions take place only because there is such enormous public demand for this sort of information or entertainment. Nor is it only the lives of the rich and famous that attract us. TV shows like “The Jerry Springer Show,” “Survivor”, “Cops,” or “The People’s Court” clearly demonstrate that we are happy enough viewing the secrets and tragedies of the most anonymous individuals.
There is a clear trend in Western, and especially U.S., popular culture away from ‘acting’ and towards ‘real life’. It is no longer merely beautiful faces or skilled actors that seduce us. What grabs our attention at this point, more than anything else, is the idea that whatever we are watching is actually happening to someone. Of course, it is not always the case that what we think is real (on TV or in the movies) is real, but the important thing is that we are willing to believe that it is real. Consider, thus, the Blair Witch Project. How is it that this movie, which was so poorly produced that it is almost unbearable to watch – our stomachs churn as the hand-held video camera is constantly tossed around amidst a chorus of incessant, idiotic swearing – how is it that this movie was so wildly successful? Part of the answer surely has to do with the fact that the movie blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, between documentary and drama. Many people, including myself, were simply confused as to whether or not the Blair Witch Project was a documentary. The fact that the acting and production was so bad only seemed to confirm the suspicion that this was not acting. So we were willing to believe that it was real, which is obviously what most of us wanted to believe. For we saw the movie in record numbers.
In this cultural context it is not difficult to imagine a show like “The Truman Show” taking place, not only because of the enormous public demand for “real entertainment,” but also because of the confusion that already exists in our society over the distinction between reality and fiction. If, for example, I ever turned on the TV to find a show like “The Truman Show,” I simply would not know whether or not it was real, just as I don’t know whether or not the people that present their confessionals on “The Jerry Springer Show” are actors who are paid to make fools of themselves. The same can be said for “The People’s Court” and about a dozen other TV shows I can think of. In each case, I simply follow along, partly believing, partly doubting. I used to believe that the stories on “60 Minutes” were true until I read that even they pay actors to provide material for their “documentaries.” Now, like many other people, I simply don’t know what to believe on TV or in the movies.
The Coen brothers capitalize on this general confusion in their movie Fargo, which begins with the comment that, “This is a true story” but ends with the remark that, “The characters and events in this movie are purely fictional and bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.” What does the average viewer end up believing? The average viewer, I submit, is likely to be just as confused as I am. Similarly, most of us would be confused if we were ever actually to see a show like “The Truman Show.” But very few of us would likely write to our politicians, demanding that they launch an investigation. And even fewer would expect such action to have any effect.
So the first point of philosophical significance in The Truman Show is that it presents an intriguing example of how a person could be radically mistaken in his beliefs about the world. I am not suggesting that any of us currently are experiencing, or ever will experience, the sort of deception that Truman did. But even if we never will experience such deception, it is worth asking the question of how we know this to be true. How can you be certain that you are not the unwitting star of a television drama that the rest of the world watches for their amusement? More generally, in virtue of what can you be certain that the people around you are not conspiring to deceive you about who you are? These are, perhaps, purely philosophical questions, but they are also good questions insofar as they lead us to reflect upon our concepts of knowledge, certainty, and belief.
In order to appreciate the second point of philosophical significance to the movie, we need to consider an important transition that occurs in the story. Through a series of mistakes made by Christof’s production team, Truman comes to suspect that something is wrong with his understanding of the world. The further he digs, the more suspicious he becomes until, finally, he is certain that he is being deceived, though he does not yet know why. Truman therefore resolves to escape from the community of Sea Haven. The escape that he plans involves ingenuity and bravery. For he must, in the first place, accept that almost all of his previous beliefs about himself, his world, and the people around him are false. Secondly, in leaving this community, Truman is breaking all ties with the only people he has ever known, and venturing out into a world of which he has no knowledge. Thirdly, since any escape involves travelling over water, Truman must overcome his fear of water.
Somehow Truman musters the courage to board a sail boat and leave Sea Haven. Christof, however, is not prepared to let Truman escape so easily, since such an escape will mean the end of the TV show, Christof’s great artistic creation. If the show is indeed to end, it must be on his terms. Christof therefore orders his production team to fabricate a storm that will either force Truman to turn back or, if not, cause him to drown. The storm fails to deter Truman, though it does nearly kill him. Nevertheless, Truman ultimately survives and reaches the limits of his world, the periphery of the TV studio. At the periphery Truman finds a door, which opens out into complete darkness, representing the unknown for Truman. Christof speaks to Truman directly at this point, and attempts to persuade him not to leave. Truman ignores this plea and exits the TV studio, stepping into the darkness of the real world.
What, if anything, is the point of this movie? Enough has been said so far to show that a central theme is surely the struggle to overcome ignorance and illusion in the quest for truth. While none of us are very likely to experience the sort of massive conspiracy orchestrated against Truman, all of us, to one extent or another, are in a state of ignorance and illusion. People around us lead us to believe things about themselves and ourselves that simply aren’t true. Companies, who want our money, seduce us with lies about their products. Politicians, who want our votes, make promises they don’t intend to keep. It was Shakespeare who said that, “All the world’s a stage,” and though he was speaking metaphorically, there is an important truth in his remark. Our lives are filled with lies and illusions, and it behooves us to overcome these in the quest for truth, just as Truman did.
If this were all there were to The Truman Show it would still be a good story, but I interpret the movie as delivering, or at least encouraging us to reflect upon, a much more specific and more important message. Of all the sources of deception and illusion in our contemporary lives, none is more potent and pervasive than the popular media in general and television in particular. In this century, in the western world at least, television has been more important than any other technology in shaping our views about the world. It is the medium through which the majority of people receive the majority of their beliefs. And yet the medium is clearly deceptive, not just superficially, but fundamentally, perhaps not in and of itself, but at least in the socio-political context in which it exists. The fact that the TV is, and has been for some time, the most effective vehicle for advertising and marketing, is a fact that must not be, but so often is, ignored. The TV is much more than a communications device; it is a means by which broadcasting companies sell viewers to their advertisers.
The precise ways in which the commercial interests that control the popular media affect our beliefs is an extremely complex subject, much too complex to be fully addressed here. However, the basic point is clear and credible enough: when TV shows and broadcasting companies are owned directly and financed indirectly (through advertising) by multinational corporations with enormous financial interests involved in what the viewing public believes and desires, it is not surprising to find that truth is not an important concept in the world of TV. There would be no surprise, for example, to learn that a TV network, whose basketball games are sponsored by a company like Nike, would fail to expose the truth, on their evening news, about the Nike empire of sweatshops in south-east Asia. To a very large extent, such multinational corporations control what we do and don’t see and also how what we do see is presented.
What Truman Burbank leaves behind at the end of The Truman Show is not only a grand illusion – a conspiracy that usurped his autonomy – it is, more specifically, the world of television. It is, quite literally, a TV studio that Truman exits, and in doing so he puts an end to a TV show that has captivated the viewing public for 29 years. This is the point that must not go unnoticed, the ultimate point of the story. If we really do care about truth, autonomy, and freedom of thought, then we must, like Truman Burbank, walk away from the world of television.
One of the most striking images in The Truman Show is of the people, the viewing public, who are so ‘captivated’ by “The Truman Show” that they are, one could say, ‘glued’ to their TV sets. A thought that came to my mind upon seeing this was of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato’s story depicts a group of prisoners chained in a dark cave, constrained by their chains to stare at a wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire that casts shadows on the wall in front of them, these shadows being the prisoners’ only source of knowledge of the world. The knowledge of reality that can be gleaned in this way is obviously limited and vastly inferior to the sort of knowledge that one could get by breaking free of one’s chains and exiting the cave to glimpse the real world in the full light of day.
Part of the reason why Plato presented this allegory, of course, was to reinforce his idea that there are in fact two worlds: the real world and the world of illusion. And it is the philosopher, Plato believed, who turns his gaze from the deformed images that populate the world of illusion to contemplate the pure ideas of the real world. Plato also believed that it was the role of education to effect this conversion, from illusion to truth. Substituting the TV for Plato’s world of illusion, we can say that Truman Burbank is a paradigmatic philosopher and teacher, one that even Plato would applaud. And until we follow Truman in freeing our minds by renouncing television, we the members of the TV nation are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave.
A final thought. That the leading role in this highly philosophical movie is played by Jim Carrey may at first seem odd. For Carrey’s previous roles, such as in Dumb and Dumber or The Cable Guy, are so ridiculous that he makes Jerry Lewis look like a philosopher. However, on second thought, Carrey was an excellent choice for this role precisely because his previous roles have been so ridiculous. For The Truman Show is ultimately about a transition that takes place in the main character’s life, a transition from ignorance to wisdom, and this is a transition that Carrey seems to make not only, as an actor, in The Truman Show, but also, as a person, in doing The Truman Show. Imagine that: Jim Carrey, the philosopher king!
© John McGuire 2001
John McGuire comes from Canada. He now lives in South Korea, where he lectures in philosophy at Hoseo University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.