It had been years since I’d watched The Truman Show, but it was recently added to the Netflix instant catalog…so you now know how I spent my Friday afternoon.
There’s a not-so curious phenomenon that I’ve noticed while re-watching films or shows that I loved when I was younger: the take-aways from the work in questions hit me in a totally new way. Why this occurs isn’t particularly dumbfounding—of course time and development change a person’s perspective—but the first time I remember it happening was when I re-watched The Lion King, and it shocked me.
I was around 16 and probably babysitting, and I realized that “hakuna matata” (i.e. no worries for the rest of your days) is not a mindset Disney was advocating for! Timon and Pumbaa were enjoying themselves and their carefree lives, but when Simba joined them, he was shirking his duties as king. The Hakuna Matata Lifestyle was actually meaningless for Simba and only allowed him to further avoid responsibility for the fate of his pride. But as a kid, I thought “no worries” sounded like the thing to have.
This happened again while I watched The Truman Show, a 1998 film about a man whose entire life has been recorded and broadcasted live as a TV show. Truman is played by Jim Carrey (who I normally avoid watching, save this movie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). This opening scene is a nice introduction to the movie’s concept.
When I watched it years ago, I imagined what it would be like to be Truman, to be lied to by everyone I’d ever known, but to simultaneously be loved and watched by the world at large. The conspiracy theory of it all fascinated me.
Watching it now, I noted those aspects, but I also noted the potential problems that arise concerning the media’s ultimate goals and ethics (amongst other things). While I firmly believe that there is little risk of a corporation adopting a baby, building a super-superdome that holds a small country built specifically for that human, and broadcasting its life internationally, I still wonder where the media actually draws the line between documentation and exploitation.
Is it ever alright to document a person without his or her knowledge? As long as the subject is ignorant of the exploitation and the maker of the media is getting a paycheck, how far would media producers be willing to push ethical limits? When we grew tired of scripted TV, we turned to reality TV, so what happens if and when we get tired of that? Is entertainment media only truly comfortable with turning people into objects for our viewing pleasure?
The director of the TV show—the character with easily the most interesting lines—explains why Truman hasn’t figured out the hoax midway through the film, saying, “We accept the reality with which we are presented.” This statement alone and its consequences in the film raise a whole slew of other questions that I’m still thinking my way through.
All of this is to say: I recommend revisiting old favorites with fresh eyes. I also recommend clicking on The Truman Show the next time it pops up on your Netflix queue.
(And then you can let me know if you also see the ending as an allegory for leaving religion/other belief systems, because I saw it that way this time, and it blew my mind a little…)