The film, being reflective of the problematics of the postmodern condition in contemporary culture and life, raises the crucial question of the direction New Hollywood has taken towards the spectacular and the glitz of show-business.
This phenomenon reflects a fundamental shift in the notion of consumption in our consumer society, which as Featherstone points out, is no longer “considered as a mere reflex of production” but has assumed a central role to “social reproduction” (75); that is, the term consumer culture does not simply signify the increasing proliferation of products as commodities, but also the fact that cultural activities themselves are permeated by a consumption of signs and images.
…the term consumer culture points to the ways in which consumption ceases to be a simple appropriation of utilities, or use values, to become a consumption of signs and images in which the emphasis upon the capacity to endlessly reshape the cultural or symbolic aspect of the commodity makes it more appropriate to speak of commodity signs. The culture of a consumer society is therefore held to be a vast floating complex of fragmentary signs and images, which produces an endless sign-play which destabilize[s] long-held symbolic meanings and cultural order.
The premise on which the imaginative screenplay of The Truman Show depends reflects the commodification of culture itself as explained above. Everything in the televisual setting of “The Truman Show” is on sale, not for its use-value but for its exchange value; items like the Elk Rotor Mower or the Mococoa drink on the Truman catalogue are sold because they appear on the Show, but what is actually on sale is life itself; for the audience of the “Truman Show,” Truman’s life is the hottest commodity. It is so announced right from the beginning of the film. Peter Weir begins the movie with talking-head close-ups of Christof, Marlon and Meryl who offer off-hand remarks on the quality of their show, allegedly speaking to their audience, but actually addressing directly the film spectators. In the technospeak, characteristic of the slightly exaggerated expedience of most advertising discourse, Christof claims in the opening lines of the film:
We’ve become bored with watching actors giving us phony emotions. We’re tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there is nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue-cons. It’s not always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.
There is a point hidden in Christof’s remark above about people being tired of “phony emotions” and “pyrotechnics” and “special effects,” which is an indirect indictment of the spectacular entertainment offered by the contemporary blockbuster. The implication being made is that what people really need is genuine human experience that cannot be catered for by the obviously contrived contemporary (cinematic) fiction of special effects; an “authentic” experience that only live television can offer. They have hit the jackpot capitalizing on the public’s starving for authentic human experience.
Marlon (as Louis Coltrane) and Meryl (as Hannah Gill)6 also speak in a similar vein, stressing the real-life experience emitted as a result of Truman’s spontaneity: “It’s all true, it’s all real. Nothing about it is fake, it’s merely controlled.” But we, the actual film viewers, as well the television audience within the film, know that Truman’s life is manipulated, that “The Truman Show” is exactly like the countless docu-dramas and real-life soap operas we gorge daily on our own TV screens.
Peter Weir’s self referential film-within-a-film structure encourages responders bemusement as they watch the reactions of the “real people” onscreen, the fictional audience of the television show. As Chris Bolton says, “A handful of them become familiar. The man who never seems to leave his bathtub; the parking garage attendants who would rather watch the show than retrieve your car; the patrons and employees at a place called “The Truman Bar,” where it seems no one ever thinks or talks about anything else”.
This increasing reliance on fabricated rather than real experience highights what Baudrillard terms an “ecstasy of communication” that defines postmodern life and culture. This is the age of simulations and the simulacra, of mediated representations and reproductions, images and signs that have taken up the place of objects and commodities in the fabric of social, everyday life. To Baudrillard, the simulacrum “means an image, the semblance of an image, make-believe, or that which conceals the truth or the real”.
Renee Magritte captions an arrangement of paint on canvas (1928) with the denotative words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe). This can further support Baudrillard’s hypothesis on the “Simulacrum”. Our eyes tell us it is a pipe because we are used to decoding images, colour and perspective; but it is not a pipe for it cannot be smoked.
The process in which representations of things come to replace the things being represented is called “simulation”. Baudrillard coined the term “simulacra”, meaning that signs have no relation to reality; they simulate a simulation:
In the age of hyperreality, the essence of the postmodern moment is the admittance of the bankruptcy of the real, “when the real is no longer what it used to be” (Baudrillard]. Hence this premium on the real and lived experience in live presentation, which as Denzin remarks,
“…only underscores the extent to which the ‘aura’ that previously surrounded lived experience, like the ‘aura’ of the ‘original’ work of art [as defined by] Benjamin (1955/1968: 223), has been erased. They have both become reproductions, separated from their original time and space, they have now become commodities which circulate inside the simulational model of communication.”
Baudrillard’s theory of communication helps trace “the three historical orders of appearance where images and signs changed their relationship to reality” in western culture, as Denzin explains:
These orders of appearance are:
(1) The Counterfeit, the ‘dominant scheme of the “classical” period, from the Renaissance to the industrial revolution,’ where signs reflected and then perverted a basic reality, art imitated life (Baudrillard 1988a: 83);
(2) Production: the dominant scheme of the industrial age, where signs masked the absence of a basic reality, as in the age of mass reproduction;
(3) Simulation, the reigning ‘scheme of the current phase,’ where signs now bear no relationship to any reality.
Arguably, The Truman Show is reflective not only of the postmodern condition of hyperreality, but it can also be conceived as playing up with the three-stage evolution of the sign in the history of representation:
(1) Counterfeit, in its sense of being a nostalgic narrative of the ’50s. Truman’s world is such a faithful representation of a period that appears as if “freshly-scrubbed”. It is always fair weather on Seahaven island, the streets are spotless, the people are smiling—a heavenly paradise. As Richard Corliss observes, “the film’s light is so soothing, beckoning a near life-experience. Its cool glow is so intense, you may feel you’re getting a gentle tan as you watch the film” Admiring an incredibly fabulous sunset Marlon exclaims: “That’s the Big Guy. Quite a big paint-brush he’s got.” As a period piece (of the ’50s), with a realism observed to the tiniest detail, Truman’s world is perfect: art imitating life. But since it never ceases being a reproduction or a copy, it offers by definition a perverted picture of an era, so dear to a hippie-generation of filmmakers that keep on revisiting it in nostalgia narratives.
Incidentally, nostalgia films have been given special attention by postmodern theorists as symptomatic of “a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history”. However, others maintain that such films, whether mainstream or self-reflexive, “do more than colonize the present in a way that symbolizes an inability to ‘focus on our own present.’ More than that, Lash continues, “such non-discursive, figural texts problematize and make unstable the very ability to represent, hence capture the ‘real’.” “They appropriate,” Denzin adds, “the residual past through pop images which simultaneously mock the past and the present”.
(2) Production. Truman’s story is so refreshing and riveting that as Anthony Leong puts it, it ends before we have the chance “to explore the logistical nightmare of running such a television show. Actors’ demands for higher salaries, rehearsals, story development, what the cast members do outside the show”, let alone the manpower and the finance that the production design of such a gigantic project requires. Christof controls the 5000 hidden cameras and other sophisticated electronic equipment from the control room, strategically placed on top of the dome, on the moon of Truman’s universe. When we consider the immensity of the network and the dissemination of visual information around the globe, we are left with a sense of time and space fragmentation, and an electronic space can not be inhabited. It denies or prosthetically transforms the spectator’s physical body so that subjectivity and affect free-float or free-fall or free-flow across a horizontal / vertical grid. We find ourselves in an existential limbo, trying to recuperate from a pervasive sense of derealization, effected by the impact of the electronic image upon our subjectivity. This decentering of the self in the two-dimensional, spatio-temporal fluidity of electronic space is perfectly conveyed in cinematic form by Peter Weir.
In just a single shot he manages to combine the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of three textual levels: in the True-talk interview the camera captures, in the same frame, Sylvia looking at Christof on her TV screen, which includes an insert small “window” of Truman having breakfast. Thus, narratively speaking, we are presented with three distinct ontological levels: Truman’s world at the hypodiegetic level, subject to the gaze of Sylvia’s and Christof’s world, as they occupy the diegetic level, and a hyperdiegetic or metadiegetic level, effected by the gaze of Christof’s panoptic tower, a gaze which controls both the hypodiegetic and the diegetic worlds, and coincides with that of the actual spectator. Thus this welter of different perspectives and perceptual sites signals an uncertain subject position vis-a-vis narrative space and time; as spectators, we are confused in our engagement with the world, say choosing between the comfortable stability of the Seahaven utopia and the flat, free-floating, disembodied space of network communication.