Monday, July 27, 2020

Behavior Modification as Illustrated by The Truman Show

"We've become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We're tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts. No cue cards. It isn't always Shakespeare but it's genuine."
--Ed Harris as Christof, The Truman Show


The Truman Show has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it. Released in 1998, it won numerous awards for its original screenplay, perfect pitch acting and fabulous soundtrack, much of it scored by Philip Glass.

The concept is simply this. Truman Burbank has from birth been the central character of a 24/7 live reality show. The city of Seahaven where he grows up and now lives is essentially a simulated reality, a massive Hollywood set in which everyone except he himself is an actor. The show generates its revenue by product placement with all products available for purchase via the Truman Catalog. ("Operators are standing by.")

The show's creator and director is Christof, played by Ed Harris. Truman, the first child legally adopted by a corporation, is played by Jim Carrey.

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The film raises numerous issues. For example, is turning a human life into a character on a TV show even ethical? On another level, Truman's whole life has been shaped by the director and the artificial world he lives in, what he reads in the artificial newspapers, hears on the fake radio station, sees on the fake television programming. He has no real sense of what the world is like or what life is like. He is in the happiest city on earth. What it actually is is a massive studio set, so large it is visible from the moon as a dome.

After a brief setup, the movie we're watching begins when Truman is married, a somewhat happy young adult with a desk job. Three minutes into the film a studio light falls "from the sky" and shatters on the street 50 feet from where Truman is walking. It's bizarre and he is confused. What was it? Where did it come from?

The next day's newspaper interprets the event for him. It fell off a plane.

At 5:45 into the movie the newspaper headline reads: "Seahaven Voted Planet's Top Town."

Every person in his life is playing a role, including his best friend Marlon.

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Truman: Don't you ever get itchy feet?
Marlon: Where is there to go?

In another scene Truman is down by on a beach by the waterfront and a shower begins, but it is only ten feet wide, and misses him. Then it moves to where he is standing, but still very narrow. A thunderclap triggers a full-scale heavy rain, but it's clearly a technical glitch that hasn't escaped Truman's notice. He just doesn't yet know how to interpret it.

The return of his father creates another complication for the show's director. Truman's dad had supposedly died, eliminating him from the script. Television does this all the time when an actor becomes a problem. But in this story his father sneaks onto the set and Truman sees him before he's whisked away, and the media explains this incident away.

If you watch enough movies you know that at 27-29 minutes into a film there will be a major plot pivot and it's no different here. First, there is a bit of backstory on how Truman fell in love with an extra named Sylvia, but was manipulated to marry Meryl. After this yet another glitch occurs--the radio in his car accidentally gets jarred to a station in which a set director is telling all the other players where Truman is at the moment.

In light of all the other anomalies, Truman is thrust into a personal existential crisis. What is going on? He begins to pay closer attention to the people around him and begins to question the authenticity of what he's seeing.

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Mastermind Ed Harris (center) flanked by assistant Paul Giamatti.
So, what do you think about the present state of our country? Are you paying attention? It seems like more and more people are questioning the narrative we're being fed through our media about so many things. 

Every aspect of Truman's world was designed to manipulate his thinking. He wants to go to Fiji, but the poster on the wall in the travel agency is of a plane being struck by lightning. "It could happen to you!"

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Later in the film Christof is being interviewed by a journalist who asks. "Why hasn't Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?"

Christof: We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It's as simple as that."

* * * *
Truman confides to Marlon. "I think I'm being followed."
After the car radio incident, Truman seeks out his best friend Marlon, who makes a living stocking vending machines.

Truman: I think I'm being followed.
Marlon: Who?
Truman: It's hard to tell. They look just like regular people.

A little further on we see the two buddies since childhood out on the end of the dock where they sometimes hang out.

Marlon: I mean, think about it, Truman. If everybody is in on it, I'd have to be in on it, too.
Marlon: I'm not in on it, Truman, because... there is no 'it'.

Marlon, you lied! There are so many great lines in the film. I like this pair as well:

Truman: Maybe I'm losing my mind. It feels like the whole world revolves around me.
Marlon: That's a lot of world for one man, Truman.

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There's still another way to look at this film, as a story of spiritual awakening. In Eastern religions there is a concept called "Maya" or illusion. All this world is itself an illusion, a veil that conceals the real.

The Incredible String Band once had a song about Maya with a chorus that went like this: "Maya, Maya. All the world is but and play and I am but a player." Sounds a lot like the Truman show.

In another ISB song the chorus becomes a cheerful proclamation, "Farewell darkness, Praise God the open door, I ain't gonna live in this world any more."

This is the choice Truman makes, once he has seen the light. And I couldn't help but think of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" as Truman ascended those stairs in the final scene.

He realized the limits of his power
when Truman went off script.
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In that final scene Christof makes himself known to Truman for the first time. This dialogue exchange takes place just before Truman's final exit.

Truman: Who are you?
Christof: I am the creator of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.
Truman: Then who am I?
Christof: You're the star.

Truman chooses to take a bow and bow out. He's lost interest in being part of someone else's game, tired of being manipulated for someone else's purposes.

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On a final note, the soundtrack is superb, much of it produced by the mastery of Philip Glass. This last comment is an anti-climax, but had to be underscored. So powerful, so inspired, so rich, so perfect throughout.

Related Link
He Who Controls the Narrative Controls the People

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