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CINEMA-USA: All the World’s a Stage in ‘The Truman Show’

NEW YORK, Jun 16 1998 (IPS) - The modern United States in some ways is Franz Kafka’s strangest vision come to life: a nation in which someone can be plucked from obscurity, like Monica Lewinsky, and then analysed, hounded and investigated by the pervasive inquisitors around them.

For Lewinsky – a major figure in the sex scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton – and the likes of O.J. Simpson, freed on charges of killing his wife, there now is a film encapsulating both the terrifying and amusing aspects of being seen constantly on TV. The movie is ‘The Truman Show’ (Fox Films), the most existentialist look at modern celebrity so far.

Fittingly, the celebrity at the core of the film is Canadian comedian Jim Carrey, who seemingly has been in the public consciousness constantly since he starred as ‘Ace Ventura, Pet Detective’ four years ago. In his new film, Carrey plays Truman Burbank (the surname is a sly reference to the Californian town where many television shows are made), an ordinary man who is unaware that he is part of a 24-hour television show.

If that concept seems strange, director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol do a magnificent job of making it all appear natural. Just like Kafka’s heroes surrounded by a world of unusually inquisitive or repressive figures, Truman’s world consists entirely of actors: he is the only non-actor on what is actually the world’s largest stage set.

While he goes about his dull life as an insurance agent and dreams of travelling to Fiji – where Truman imagines his dream girl resides – his annoyingly perky wife (Laura Linney) discusses products with him in an effort to bring advertising revenue to the show. Truman, oblivious to the ads all around him, at one point simply responds, “What the hell are you saying?” when his wife uses an argument to talk about the wonders of a brand of Nicaraguan coffee.

Beyond the amusing aspects of the film’s premise, however, are disquieting musings about totalitarianism and existentialism. Truman’s every move is dictated, without his knowledge, by the show’s creator, the patriarchal Christof (Ed Harris), and promptly relayed to all the denizens of Truman’s island town.

Christof imagines himself to be a benign ruler of Truman’s world, at one point telling a critic that what she cannot understand is that Truman prefers his highly regulated, completely monitored life to any alternative.

But even Christof does not believe that: a formidable battery of obstacles, from the advice of friends to the brute force of police and even of the artificially-controlled waves that buffet the island, are deployed to prevent Truman from walking off the show.

In a satisfying twist, ‘The Truman Show’ soon ceases to be simply about television and celebrity culture – the horror of being watched and analysed all the time – to become one of the more subtle films about fascism in recent years. Unlike many films about totalitarianism, Weir’s bright, deceptively cheerful vision is effective because it shows how fascism maintains a superficial appeal in offering an orderly, regulated life.

Jim Carrey, a normally broad actor who is refreshingly low-key in showing Truman’s uneasiness, initially seems more confused than upset when the artificiality of his world becomes plain. A stage light crashes to the ground from above, the people around him quickly take their positions as he enters a room – but for a while, at least, Truman remains affable in the face of such anarchy.

Bit by bit, however, Truman’s world literally falls apart, and he discovers to his terror that he cannot leave even if he wants (as is made clear in one funny bit, in which an effort to drive off the island is blocked by sudden traffic jams, a forest fire and a nuclear accident).

Just as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa awakens to the terrifying reality that he has been transformed into a giant insect, Truman voices with terror his confusion at being a television character: “It seems like everything revolves around me.”

Unlike Kafka’s unfortunate protagonists, of course, Truman has the good luck to be a character in a Hollywood movie, where the chances for escape and a happy ending always remain good – which is ironic given the movie’s cynicism about such unrealistic plots.

‘The Truman Show’ is a risky venture: One wonders how many people will go to a Jim Carrey comedy to see concepts like false consciousness, alienation and existential angst applied to the modern world of 24-hour television and walled-off suburbs.

Then again, at least Monica Lewinsky might watch and feel touched by a kindred spirit – and the millions of people worldwide who are either watched or manipulated by other would-be benevolent authorities will likely share that feeling.

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