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The Truman Show


Ron Reed
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In the felix culpa PLEASANTVILLE thread I mentioned Adele Reinhartz's chapter on that film, in her book Scripture On The Silver Screen. Today I noticed that her opening chapter considers the book of Genesis and the film THE TRUMAN SHOW. Not only was I fascinated to see her treatment of another film with garden of Eden resonances, I was tickled to find her citing our very own PTC...

Viewed through the lens of the creation stories in Genesis, the film might be seen as a reenactment or, more accurately, a subversion of the expulsion from the garden. Truman, far from being expelled from paradise, can hardly wait to leave it. This desire flies in the face of Christof's insistence on the superiority, indeed, the perfection, of the world he created in comparison to the "real"world outside. If Truman had to leave Seahaven in order to develop and mature, so perhaps the primordial human beings also had to leave the protection and the perfection of the garden in order to lead a fully human existence. In both cases, departure from the ideal world is an expression, or perhaps a consequence, of the quintessentially human characteristic of free will. Truman can only be thruly human, a "true man," by getting out from under Christof's (and Meryl's) thumb, and thereby exercising his natural human curiosity, making his own decisions, and opening himself up to the risk of making mistakes. In a similar manner, Adam and Eve can only get on with the essential business of living - family and work - by living out the consequences that God imposes on them after their act of disobedience.

This use of the second Genesis narrative may seem at odds with the wide-spread Christian reading that views the story as an account of the sin and "fall" of humankind. According to this reading, the story is intended to show that the propensity to sin and disobedience entered humankind when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Hence the expulsion from the garden is to be viewed as tragedy, the consequences of which affect humanity to this very day. The interpretation offered by THE TRUMAN SHOW is a much more positive, life-affirming account that perhaps deliberately reverseds this negative assessment....

The principal differences between the film and the Genesis account, on any interpretation, are the roles of the Creator and his relationship with humankind both within the garden and outside it. Christof's interest is not so much in humanity as a whole but in Truman specifically. On the other hand, his attachment to Truman does not beneift the man but rather satisfies Christof's own needs....

The contrasts between the God of Genesis and the Christof of THE TRUMAN SHOW have led some reviewers to see an anti-Christian, perhaps even a gnostic, message in this film. Peter Chattaway suggests that "like the demiurge, who trapped divine spirit within the material universe according to Gnostic myth, Christof and his co-conspirators have sealed Truman within an artificial world because, through him, they hope to experience the perfect life, albeit vicariously" (BC Christian News). Perhaps, but a more transparent motivation seems to be entertainment and profit. Elsewhere, Chattaway suggests that Christof, a "rip-off" of Christ, may be a metaphor for false God (BC Report 9, No. 44, 1998). Christof is evil, as is the world that he has created. But there is little evidence within the film to support this conclusion. The film is neither pro- nor anti-Christian. Rather, the Genesis imagery encourages viewers to reflect on themes that are fundamental to the human experience in the late twentieth century, including the role of the media and the shaping of individual identity.

pp 20-22

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Oh, weird. She cited my comments in two B.C. publications but not my review for Christianity Today, which I would have assumed was higher-profile? Um, okay.

Adele Reinhartz wrote:

: The principal differences between the film and the Genesis account, on any

: interpretation, are the roles of the Creator and his relationship with humankind

: both within the garden and outside it. Christof's interest is not so much in

: humanity as a whole but in Truman specifically.

Um, well, for starters, there is the fact that, in Genesis, there are NO humans outside the garden. The better analogy here is NOT between humanity in Eden and humanity in Seahaven, but between the spark of divinity trapped within human flesh in Eden (as the Gnostics perceived it) and the spark of true humanity trapped within Truman's body in Seahaven. One might ask whether the Demiurge's interest was in divinity as a whole or only in that part of it which he trapped within the created world specifically.

: The contrasts between the God of Genesis and the Christof of THE TRUMAN SHOW

: have led some reviewers to see an anti-Christian, perhaps even a gnostic,

: message in this film.

She's got it backwards -- I don't see the film as specifically anti-Christian, but I do see the film as promulgating a Gnostic mythological worldview. As I state in the BC Christian News review, in a sentence she apparently did not quote: "Seen in that light, Truman's story is one of self-actualization, of asserting one's humanity purely on one's own and escaping from the created world. It is not quite the story of salvation, whereby the true God steps into the world to redeem it from within..." Note that I do not specifically say that the film opposes any specific religion here. I am more concerned with a bias of SENSIBILITY here -- i.e., the fact that the film espouses a do-your-own-thing-and-let-the-rest-of-the-world-go-to-hell outlook, and justifies it by saying that Everybody Else Lied To You.

: Perhaps, but a more transparent motivation seems to be entertainment and profit.

It seems to me Reinhartz is trying to have it both ways, here -- one moment, she's approaching the film as myth or metaphor, the next, she's suddenly approaching the film from a more banal and literal angle.

: Chattaway suggests that Christof, a "rip-off" of Christ, may be a metaphor for

: false God (BC Report 9, No. 44, 1998). Christof is evil, as is the world that he has

: created. But there is little evidence within the film to support this conclusion.

I dunno, I think Andrew Niccol is very aware of what he's up to when he names the characters in his films. Names like "Truman" and "Meryl" and "Marlon" are hardly accidental in this film, and names like "Freeman" and "Morrow" are hardly accidental in Gattaca, so why should "Christof" not hint at something too?

Curiously, BTW, I cannot find a copy of this article in my archives -- either on my hard drive or in my folder or in my magazine boxes -- though I DO remember discussing this film with the magazine's editor over the phone (though that might have been when I was pitching another article to him).

... Aha, mystery solved! In my e-mail archives, I discovered an article on this film by BC Report editor Terry O'Neill, which I sent to a friend of mine on July 24 1998 -- in this article, O'Neill quotes a variety of Christian critics, including me (he merely quotes my article, not anything I said to him in person), but the "rip-off" comment is made by someone ELSE who happens to have a name rather similar to mine:

On the other hand, B.C. Catholic film reviewer Alan Charlton argues that The Truman Show can be viewed in a way that is actually pro-Christian. In this interpretation, Christof is a rip-off of Christ -- a Christ-off. "If anything, [the movie] is making an argument that you should turn your back on the false god [of security and materialism]," says Mr. Charlton. "That's what we've got to reject. It's limiting your humanity...Christof is evil. And the world he set up was evil."

And note that Charlton apparently uses the "false god" analogy to argue that the film is PRO-Christian! So not only has Reinhartz incorrectly attributed someone else's ideas to me, but she may have misrepresented the intent behind those ideas!

: Rather, the Genesis imagery encourages viewers to reflect on themes that are

: fundamental to the human experience in the late twentieth century, including the

: role of the media and the shaping of individual identity.

I can see why reporters would have harped on the media angle when covering this film ("Hey, look! It's all about US!"), but I have never believed that that was the most important thing about this film, myself. As I said in my review of the later film edTV, which was a remake of Louis 19 (the top-grossing Canadian film of 1994): "When The Truman Show came out last year, many people saw in it a critique of the modern media and celebrity culture. Although there were elements of that in the film, I did not think that was its most salient feature, since Truman Burbank himself was neither obsessed with the media nor aware of his own celebrity. Rather, for him, the film was a romantic tale in which he learned to reject the artificial safety of friendship, marriage and community in order to follow the yearnings of his heart."

So ... should I send a note to Reinhartz and/or her editors letting them know they should fix this factual error if the book is ever re-printed?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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: Um, well, for starters, there is the fact that, in Genesis, there are NO humans outside the garden.

Except that their son goes off and founds a city (Gen 4v19), which at least implies other people, not to mention he is concerned that "whoever finds me will kill me" (gen 4v14f) which also kind of implies there was more than just him & Mum and Dad around IMHO

Matt

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Possibly, though I'm looking at the Eden myth on its own, without connecting it to other myths that may have been connected to it at a later date.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 10 months later...

Jeff Rioux wrote:

: I disagree that The Truman show does this. Truman's world was a world of lies (there

: was a world outside of the dome that did exist - it wasn't heaven, but it was a real,

: physical world). To reject Christof's world of lies and leave the TV set seems more

: akin to rejecting the principalities and powers which try to define for us a life outside of

: the Kingdom of God than to escaping the real world.

Well, according to the Gnostics, this world is a world of lies, too, and the real world is the world of our own inner divinity that the demiurge has made us forget.

: Indeed, at the moment Truman is about to walk out the door, Christof warns him of

: the life of pain and disappointment waiting him on the other side (hardly what the

: Gnostics were striving for in their seeking to escape the world).

Just another one of Christof's efforts to control Truman. (As Shakespeare said, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.") And we don't see any "pain and disappointment" waiting for Truman on the other side -- all we see is this beautiful girlfriend.

: He does need to reject the world of lies, and in doing so in front of millions of people

: (in my opinion), teaches them to reject the role (false identity) that Christof has

: given them (ie, mindless consumer of television).

Does anything in the film lead us to believe that ANYbody LEARNS to reject the role of mindless consumerism? Quite the opposite -- the film ends, IIRC, with one of the viewers saying something like, "Let's see what's playing on another channel."

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 6 years later...

Wow, only five comments?!? (They're meaty comments though.)

Is it just me, or is this on anyone else's "favorite films" list?

I think the different interpretations debated above get at one reason why it's so great - because this film is so complex.

Yes, it's about religion, and a conception of God as manipulative and controlling.

Yes it's about media and how media shapes and controls our desires.

Yes it's about the nature of storytelling.

etc. etc.

That's why I love it. It's complex. It's a meta-narrative, but it's operating on a lot of different levels.

I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen many of Weir's films? Where should I start?

Also, I've been watching this with an eye for what exactly Niccol gets right here that he doesn't get right in so many of his other films (Gattaca being the notable exception, although, having watched that a few weeks ago, I'd say it's significantly flawed in a way The Truman Show

Maybe because, according to wikipedia, Weir had Niccol write 16 drafts of the script before he filmed it?

I also think the fact that Niccol is directing all of his own material, and is presumably more 'in charge' of it might be a consideration. I know I'd love to see another film from Niccol as brilliant as this. (Probably not The Host . . . but you never know.)

@Timzila

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen many of Weir's films? Where should I start?

Gallipoli was my first exposure to Peter Weir, and has remained a favorite of mine for the past 30 years. It's slow moving, and the 80's soundtrack moments seem more jarring now than when I first watched it. If you can get past Mel Gibson's current image, you'll be reminded by this film of what a terrific actor he can be.

Witness and The Mosquito Coast might introduce you to a side of Harrison Ford that you've never seen before. Watching those two films often leaves me scratching my head as to why he didn't pepper his career with some more serious material, in between the franchise roles.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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Links to our first and second general threads on Peter Weir. We have individual threads for most of his movies, too, but I haven't got time to track 'em down yet.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is mighty effective.

I haven't seen the Truman Show since it first hit DVD. (Sheesh. It could've been VHS!) The dissection it receives in here has me thinking I should check it out again with a fresh set of eyes.

I'm not drinking alone. I'm drinking with the Lord.

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  • 1 year later...

Tyler wrote:
: Paramount is planning to relaunch a bunch of other properties as TV shows, too.

 

Noah!

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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