Table Of Contents
2. The movie
3. The Truman Show with regard to Weir’s complete works
4. Docu-soaps and their appeal
5. Docu-soap elements in The Truman Show
6. Creating and perceiving reality
7. The Truman Show as a satire of the media
9. Works cited
11. Filmography of Peter Weir
Through a spy hole in a bathroom cabinet we see a man in pajamas talking to himself in the mirror. Or is he talking to us? After a while, we hear a voice of a woman, telling him that he will be late. With a sigh, the man turns around and leaves the bathroom. There is an insertion: on a black screen, we read the white letters “Day 10, 909”- then we see the man through another spy hole, dressed in a business suit, leaving his house for work. He greets his neighbors with a wide grin, and the neighbors enthusiastically greet back. As he adds “Oh, and in case I don’t see ye: Good afternoon, good evening and good night!”, they react as though they think this was extremely funny. When the dog of his next-door neighbor comes to greet him, the man freezes, on his face an expression of terror. He waits till the dog moves back and is about to get in his car when the camera suddenly pans and we see a theatrical light falling out of the sunny sky. Suspiciously, the man goes to examine what has crashed down on the street in front of his house. He does not know what to think of the light, which has a tag on it, designating it as “Sirius”. In disbelief, he gazes into the sky- is this how stars look like?
The man is called Truman Burbank, and we are watching Peter Weir’s movie The Truman Show (1998). The movie is not a typical feature film as it mixes feature film elements and docu-soap elements. By confronting his audience with elements of its daily TV-programming, the docu-soap, Peter Weir establishes a satire of the media that leaves its viewers with the uneasy feeling that reality is not always what it appears to be.
To show this, I will first give a short summary of the movie, depict its style and structure, and explain Peter Weir’s thematic concerns. Then, I will describe docu-soaps and their appeal in order to explain which features of the docu-soap we can find in The Truman Show. After that, I will analyze the different levels of reality in the movie and the role of the audiences, that is, the tension between the perception of the viewers of the TV show inside the movie and the perception of the movie audience. Finally, I will discuss what Weir criticizes in The Truman Show, and what makes this movie a satire of the media.
2. The movie
The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) tells the story of the 29-year-old insurance agent Truman Burbank who has been legally adopted by a TV station and, unbeknownst to him, is the star of a 24 hour-TV show. He lives in the idyllic island town Seahaven, which in truth is an immense stage set enclosed in a giant dome with a ceiling that creates the illusion of a sky. Any kind of weather you can think of, wind, rain, moon, and sun, is created by a high-tech special effects program. Truman’s wife Meryl, his mother, his best friend Marlon, and every Seahaven ‘citizen’ are actors designed to make Truman’s world seem real. He is being watched by a multitude of cameras and is kept on the island by a clever psychological programming. As a child, he lost what he believed was his father in a storm on a boating trip near the island. In reality, of course, the storm was generated by technology and the ‘father’ was an actor pretending to die. The incident implanted in Truman a sort of aquaphobia, a fear of going on or over water. In this way, he is kept from leaving Seahaven, and discovering that beyond the water are the walls of the studio dome that encloses his world.
However, mistakes made by the crew and cast cause the illusion to break down. Slowly, Truman begins to worry that he is being watched and tries to verify that his fears are well-founded. Recognizing that there is a plot against him (even though he still does not know the true nature of it), he makes a number of unsuccessful attempts to escape. After that, he pretends to adjust back into his daily routine to then use a trick to get away undiscovered. He sets sail on the water that once terrified him for what he believes is the horizon of freedom. But the producer Christof, who has been playing God with Truman’s life, is not willing to give him an easy way out of the show. He generates a storm over the boat and would not hesitate to kill him. Truman persists, but, as he travels towards the open sky, his boat suddenly hits the wall of the studio dome. Shakily, he walks along the wall and up some stairs till he comes to a door. Christof then speaks to Truman as a voice from above and reveals the truth to him, at the same time trying to keep him inside the show. He tells him that life is safer in the world he created for him, where he is a star. Truman, though, does not give in and walks through the door to the outside world. What expects him there is left open, and one can only guess that he might get a chance to live an authentic life in the ‘real’ world.
The Truman Show is mainly built of close and medium shots, there are hardly any long shots. It mixes feature film elements with elements of docu-soaps. At the beginning, there are mainly docu-soap shots so that the movie audience is part of the show inside the show, that is, it is part of the voyeurs that follow Truman wherever he goes. Later on, the audience is increasingly kept off-balance as there is a frequent change between docu-soap shots and feature film shots, the latter mostly showing the creators of the TV show and the TV audience in front of their TV sets. The fact that the shots showing Truman’s daily life are kept in pastel colors and that the actors wear outdated clothes help the movie audience to distinguish between the different levels of reality. The pastel color world of Truman resembles an America in the 1950s or 1960s, and Seahaven is a pleasant and idyllic place where everything seems to be perfect and nice.
3. The Truman Show with regard to Weir’s complete works
Peter Weir started making short films in the 1970s, before that, he studied art and law at the University of Sydney, worked as a theatrical booking agent in London, and as a stagehand for a TV station. His first film The Cars that Ate Paris came out in 1974. Among his other films, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), his first all-American movie Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), and The Truman Show (1998) are maybe the most popular ones.
With The Truman Show, Peter Weir has made a movie that goes alongside with other movies he has directed. Though he did not originated all the movies he has directed, there are recurring thematic concerns in his works.
In all of his movies, the given reality that faces his protagonists [...] is opposed by a vision of an alternative reality, almost always a reality that demands of the individuals that they allow their dreams to inform their lives and that they follow their instincts, which will lead to their liberation in one way or another. However, [...] the path [...] is a very difficult and treacherous one and society will do its best to defeat you (Shiach 7).
Although Shiach’s book The films of Peter Weir: visions of alternative realities came out in 1993 and The Truman Show in 1998, this can be easily transferred to this movie. There, Truman, as well, is opposed by a vision of an alternative reality. For the first time, this happens at college when he falls in love with a girl called Silvia. In a flashback, the audience is able to recall what happened when Truman met her one day at the library. On this day, Silvia manages to take Truman away from the cameras for a few moments. At the beach they are on air again, and she tells him that the world he lives in is a fake. As he kisses her, however, a man comes to take her away from him. He says he is her father and tells him that they are moving to Fiji (sequence 2). This encounter has such an impact on Truman that he keeps the cardigan which Silvia forgot at the beach along with other things in a box in the basement all his life. In the box are also a map of the world, photos of his ‘father’, and on the back of a photo of his wife, Truman has been trying to model the face of Silvia with pieces torn out of magazines. So his dreams of going to Fiji, where he thinks Silvia lives, inform his life in the sense that he keeps them with him all the time, even though they are secretly locked up in a box in the basement. At the end, he is finally able to use his instincts and let his dreams inform his life, and his quest for liberation starts. The society who tries to defeat Truman in this case are the creators of the TV show and to some extent the audience of the show. Christof does not want Truman to leave and puts obstacles in his path in order to stop him in his quest for freedom.
Furthermore, as in other Weir movies, we find a sort of psychic reality in The Truman Show that triggers the protagonist’s quest. In a way, all of Weir’s movies show quests that start in the inner mind. In these quests, the protagonists have to find out about themselves in order to find out about the ‘true’ world.
In more than one respect, Truman is looking for a sense of genuineness, which he will only be able to find, not in the world of Seahaven, but in his subconscious, which takes the symbolic form of his basement. Truman has to go down there to plumb the depths of his personality because it’s where he (figuratively) keeps it hidden, locked inside a box. The basement scenes’ secretive tone suggests that Truman has to hide his true self from the unrelentingly invasive, mock affability of the town and his wife (Bliss 174).
So only when Truman finds out who he is and what he is truly capable of doing will he be able to find that other reality outside of Seahaven. Furthermore, he has to fight his innermost fears to gain his freedom. On his way to freedom, he, like other protagonists in Weir’s movies, has to manage a journey that ends with a kind of enlightenment.
All of Weir’s films can be seen as descents into the unconscious, encounters with death. Additionally, in one sense or another, Weir’s films often involve a night journey that results in some form of enlightenment. [...] We can see this structure of descent or passage into an unfamiliar realm present in many of Weir’s films [for example] the students’ evening trips to the cave in Dead Poets Society [or] Truman’s retreats to his basement in Truman Show [...] qualify as night journeys that act as preludes to self-knowledge (Bliss 30).
As can be seen from these examples, we find recurring themes in Weir’s movies, that can also be found in The Truman Show. However, Weir “is reluctant to be singled out as having a prominent signature” (Bliss 33). Rather, Weir says he is a filmmaker of ideas and that he knows that he has to provide entertainment. Thus, he embeds his ideas (recurring or not) in entertaining movies. “He feels that he has to provide a certain amount of ‘sauce’ to make ‘the fish’ go down easier” (Bliss 169).
4. Docu-soaps and their appeal
Generally, a documentary is a factual film about actual events and real people. John Grierson later defined documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality” (cf. Kilborn/ Izod 64 ff.). Throughout documentary history, various types of documentaries have emerged, the boundaries between these different modes are not fixed. That is why it is often not possible to make a clear distinction between them.
After World War II, there was little space for documentaries in the cinema. With growing television audiences, however, the genre of observational documentaries emerged. As the TV is a medium that “delivers its programs directly to the living-room” (Kilborn/ Izod 65) and in this way “fosters a desire for intimacy” (Kilborn/ Izod 65), the film makers wanted documentaries that were not as distanced as traditional documentaries, but ones that showed people’s actions in the places where they lived and worked. In the early 1990s, the docu-soaps emerged as a sub-genre of observational documentaries. Docu-soaps are often regarded as a hybrid genre. They combine features associated with classic observational documentary with structuring techniques of soap-opera narratives, and put an emphasis on entertainment and character interaction. This stands in contrast to classical documentaries who aim to criticize an issue.
The characteristics that have come to represent the docusoap subgenre of observational documentary are its emphasis on the entertainment as opposed to serious or instructive value of documentary, the importance of personalities, who enjoy performing for the camera, soap-like fast editing, a prominent, guiding voice-over, a focus on everyday lives rather than underlying social issues (Bruzzi 76).
Soap opera narratives are distinguished from other narrative forms in the way that they lack a distinct beginning, middle, and end (cf. Harrington/ Bielby 12). They consist of episodes, in which the story lines are never resolved, that is, there are a number of subplots but the story itself goes on forever. Soap characters are perceived as real people and soaps mostly treat domestic concerns that real people seem to deal with. Critics have characterized soap operas as “curiously distorted reflections of empirical social reality” (Harrington/ Bielby 12). Docu-soaps, as well, put an emphasis on everyday life, and “the core attraction of docu-soaps is [...] that viewers will be given the chance of witnessing ordinary folk” (Kilborn 112). Series such as Driving School or Animal Hospital are examples for docu-soaps in which the TV audience is able to watch people doing their driving tests or veterinary surgeons at work.
According to Stella Bruzzi, docu- soaps are the result of an increasing interest to extend the active interaction between “film, filmmakers and spectator” (Bruzzi 76). Moreover,
[...] they also relax some of the boundaries between documentary and fiction [...], a factor that has raised awkward questions about falsification and reconstruction. Docusoaps pose interesting and, at times problematic, questions about degrees of acceptable intervention by the filmmakers into his or her subject material; they continue in the tradition of John Grierson [...] and exemplify the ‘creative treatment of actuality’[...] (Bruzzi 76).
 see transcript, p. 23
 The style and the compositions of the frames will be analyzed in detail later on.
 see filmography, p. 25