The truism show

'The Truman Show' is better than the facile critics who use it to denounce TV.

Published June 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Monday's box-office figures were a shot in the arm for all us hacks who scribble on pop culture; moviegoers coughed up $31.6 million to see a 102-minute work of media criticism. There's trouble in River City, "The Truman Show" tells us: trouble with a capital T and a capital V and that stands for -- well, if you didn't spend so much time watching that damn idiot box you might know how to spell.

That "Truman" should win universal approbation for attacking the single element our fragmented society holds in common is no surprise: If there's one thing we treasure more than the tube, it's the idea that we should be ashamed of ourselves for enjoying it. Thus ABC's "TV Is Good" advertising campaign was hammered not because the ads ("You can talk to your wife anytime") bashed TV viewers with tongue in cheek, but because they didn't bash hard enough; a mini-circle of academics and essayists have made television alarmism into a career; and TV critics treat their subject with so many sheepish caveats you'd think they were writing cigarette reviews.

"The Truman Show" is actually an outstanding film that pulls off a difficult premise (baby bought by corporation is raised in a biodome as the unwitting star of a 24-hour TV show), and it has impressed critics as the movie of the year (Entertainment Weekly), the decade (Esquire) and the era (Salon). More important, though, it has been a useful movie for a train of reviews, op-eds and reviews that read like op-eds -- all of which are heaping the film with cultural baggage.

The appeal of "The Truman Show" as op-ed fodder is that the movie -- at least, as it has been presented by interpreters from Frank Rich to Larry King -- both punishes and absolves us for our TV habit. We want to get our spanking for watching too much TV, and yet we want to believe that we're better than the broadcasts we consume. We want to believe, above all, that we can't help our addiction. It's the system's fault -- those media corporations are just too powerful.

The movie feeds this last conceit by pitting its hero against a fascist Hollywood army that physically restrains him from leaving. No wonder this "subversive" movie hasn't caused the kind of stink in Hollywood that, say, "The Player" did: This is a scenario tailored to the martyrdom fantasies of every star who has launched a hissy fit against "Entertainment Tonight." What could be more attractive to a movie star than to see his or her discomfort with celebrity acted out in a paranoid runaway hit, with the role of the persecuted celeb played by a lovable everyman who earns not dollar one from the prissy fascist who has imprisoned him against his will? You can just see George Clooney or Fran Drescher blinking tearily at the denouement -- "It's moving because it's true! I'm a slave! A prisoner of this damned star-making machine!" -- then shutting off the 200-inch TV and hitting the hay in the master suite.

So we now see Jim Carrey doing press to describe his new vehicle as a cautionary tale of the celebrity machine run amok -- never mind that a year ago Jim Carrey was a cautionary tale of the celebrity machine run amok. To EW, he hyped the film's seriousness in Crazy-Eddie terms: "This film is insane with metaphors." You got that right: They're practically giving them away! And because "Truman's" metaphors concern the trinity of big vague monoliths -- The Media, The Corporation, Society -- it's easy even for normally sharp commentators to fall back on truisms about our helplessness against the machine. Thus we witness such incongruities as Time Warner employee Owen Gleiberman, in EW, writing that "Truman's world ... is portrayed as a hyper-clear dream of our own homogenized, theme-parked lives, with everything from catchphrases to love dictated by the prerogatives of corporate central." (Yeah -- I'm sure Gerald Levin's goons worked Gleiberman over with a tire iron after he snuck that past the censors.)

In fact, "Truman" is more sophisticated about mass culture than its explicators. Take a look at the stage set Truman lives in. A parody of soulless "suburban" America, as various reviews have described it? Look again: It's a walkable, mixed-use community where people bicycle to work and buy newspapers from an independent businessman. In other words, the kind of New Urbanist planned community boosted by folks like James Howard Kunstler who knock ... corporate theme-park homogeneity.

That's called "defying expectations." It's what art does. And what "The Truman Show" is, is a surprising, hilarious, touching, smart, frantic, utterly original work of art.

"The Truman Show" isn't a groundbreaking dissection of today's TV culture. In fact it is probably as effective as it is because its critique of television is so familiar. It draws on set anti-TV beliefs to win us over, lampooning product placements and smarmy infotainment hosts, dressing Truman's wife in the all-American Donna Reed getup that has been an easy visual shorthand for vacuous fakeness for 20 years.

Thus reviewers praise it for "making us aware" of suspicions of television that we have actually held for decades. The movie, writes Esquire's David Thomson in the review that kicked the hype into high gear, "is going to leave you worrying over the authenticity of every spun moment on TV." Like we didn't already? What greater truism does our culture have than that TV is a distorted mirror? What more popular synonym for "dishonesty" does our culture have than "television"?

The comparisons between "The Truman Show" and Frank Capra's films -- often at Capra's expense -- have been plentiful; Salon's Charles Taylor called it the "anti-'It's a Wonderful Life.'" But the parallels may be more direct than the movie's champions would like. Capra established solidarity with his Depression and post-Depression audiences by showing he shared their antipathies: Politicians are liars! Bankers are bloodsuckers! He went from there to make movies that succeeded, if they did, on a universal level. If "It's a Wonderful Life" is a great movie, it's not because of its incisive critique of the American banking system; and likewise, if our anti-TV shibboleths are where "The Truman Show" gets its jokes and its boffo premise, they're not where it draws its resonance, which has to do with a very non-Zeitgeisty story of self-discovery and courage.

After all, if the movie's critique of television is so subversive and disturbing, why does everyone -- critics, TV viewers, entertainment-biz folk -- so comfortably agree with it? Because it's easy for us to picture ourselves on the side of the good guys. In its arrogant televampire Christof, the director of Truman's lifelong show, it has given us a Mr. Potter for our age -- a villain we can all oppose without identifying with him. (I don't buy the idea that the "real villains" are the viewers, an empathetic if lunkheaded lot who cheer Truman on.) The basest television mogul can console himself with the thought that at least he's not enslaving an actual human in a cruel biodome. Call Truman's situation "metaphorical" all you want -- no one has to look at Christof and say, "That's me" -- not you, not me, not Aaron Spelling.

And there's the problem for interpreters of "The Truman Show": What does a movie premised on the enslavement of a man for the entertainment of the masses really tell us about a world where the rest of us gladly line up for the camera?

Beats me, but I can understand why they're trying so hard to get it to say something. At the heart of so much criticism on "The Truman Show" is a frustration with criticism itself. Increasingly convinced that any critique of the pop-culture monoliths is simply absorbed by them and makes them stronger, the "Truman" pundits hope against hope that the movie can strike a blow from within the Media-Corporation-Society biodome. As these commentators drive "The Truman Show" inexorably toward "Forrest Gump"-style iconization, do me a favor and remember one thing: It was a fine, complex movie once, before it got turned into an op-ed piece. If it ultimately fails as the latter, that may be its greatest artistic success.

By Jame Poniewozik

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