“He’s not going to Chicago.”
What the choreography of everyday life in The Truman Show tells us about culturally defined identities
Once upon a time, the Big Brother fantasies of Orwellian philosophers seemed nothing but science fiction. Nowadays, one knows better. We are globally surrounded by a vaguely institutionalized set of CCTV systems, registering almost every aspect of everyday life and scrutinizing the ordinary human being in a way that reminds of the burlesque ‘eyeholes-in-a-newspaper’ private detective. The entanglement of our physical world and modern media has an undeniable influence on the construction of cultural identities and related cultural themes. Boundaries have been stretched or even broken, and the modern world finds itself somewhere between past, present and future.
In 1998, Australian director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness) addressed these red-hot topics with his prospective film The Truman Show, starring among others Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, and Laura Linney. Beneath the surface of American blockbuster entertainment, The Truman Show reflected on a wide range of issues the world was confronted with at the doorstep of the fin-de-siècle. Themes of race and ethnicity, nation, globalisation, and religion are explored within a one-hundred-and-three minutes duration.
This essay will examine which lights The Truman Show sheds on the issues of whiteness, community, ‘home’ and identity performance, all of which are considerably affected by modern day globalisation processes. To illustrate this analyse, the words will be attended with a series of film stills depicting one single – but exemplary – scene in The Truman Show. After all, how can one examine visual art without closely scrutinizing the imagery?
The choreography of everyday life
The Truman Show welcomes the viewer to a world where every act, every movement and every slice of life surrounding the protagonist is being staged. Literally every part of Truman Burbank’s world is aware of the artificiality of this microcosm – except, of course, Truman himself. For Truman is, as we, the audience, know, in global limelight since the day he was born. He is the ignorant centre of a world-wide – but, at the same time, undoubtedly American – television reality show that observes his daily practices twenty-four hours a day. To follow the film’s tagline: Truman is ‘on the air – unaware’[i].
The show’s creator, Christof, has been heading Truman’s life for great television moments. In a God-like way, Christof has been pulling the strings of every man, woman and object present in the world of Truman (which is, by the way, an enormous, hermetically closed dome, ‘the only man-made structure besides the Great Wall of China visible from outer space’[ii]). The world of Truman is constructed, counterfeit, artificial; on the other hand, Truman himself is not at all fake or scripted. As Christof comments in the film’s opening sequence: “It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”[iii]
In the course of the film, Truman starts to discover the real identity of the world he inhabits. The façade begins to show some cracks, and these fissures are reason for Truman to start investigating what is truly going on around him. For the cast and crew involved with the show, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up their poses for the attentive and (not groundlessly) paranoid Truman.
The scene depicted on this essay’s edge concerns one of the first attempts of Truman to go against the grain (as defined by Christof and his). Truman “secretly” follows his wife Meryl to the hospital where she works. After both personnel and patients peculiarly have tried to stop him, Truman takes off to a travel agency to book an immediate flight to the Fiji Islands. However, all the flights to Fiji turn out to be sold out for the coming month, and therefore Truman decides to take a direct bus to Chicago. Unfortunately for Truman, the bus is, oddly enough, unable to leave. As one of the viewers of the television show reluctantly comments (still no. 14): “He’s not going to Chicago. He’s not going anywhere.”
White roofs over white people
Since The Truman Show presents us a distinctively constructed world, one is enabled to see clearly the way this world is designed and defined. As opposed to the complexities of the ‘real’ world, Truman’s microcosm serves as a kind of herbarium, that explicitly unfolds what is ‘non-obvious’ in our daily life, in other words: ‘everything we [normally] don’t notice’[iv]. Therefore, we can examine the choices that are made by the fictional character Christof, the show’s creator, and, on a higher level, by the filmmakers themselves. Which elements of real life does this constructed world inherit, and which parts are (deliberately) left out?
Most strikingly, Truman’s world appears to be principally white. With that, I do not only refer to the visual design of ‘Trumania’ –white houses are the standard, as can be seen in still no. 1 – but mainly to the ethnic composition of the inhabitants of Truman’s world. In short, most of the ‘extras’ around Truman are Caucasian, or simply white. Every pedestrian, every passer-by, every employee and every dog owner – they are all white as far as their skin colour. With that, the ‘white person’ establishes its normative domination, because he ‘colonise[s] the definition of normal’[v].
There is but one noticeable exception to this status-quo: the driver of the Chicago bus (I refer to still no. 12). He makes his first appearance in the sequence where he fakes a technical failure on his bus, to thwart Truman’s plans of escaping the town. It is noteworthy that the only non-white inhabitant of Truman’s world gets directly associated with ignorance, technical malfunction, and failure (still no. 11). (Later in the movie, this same bus driver is commanded to navigate a ferry, but again, he turns out to be a fraud – for he is, like any other extra on the show, an actor.)
This situation has some politically incorrect implications. From a logical point of view, every actor on this show should be unable to disguise there factual lack of knowledge when being confronted with Truman’s deviating behaviour, because they are only pretending to be what they are in the eyes of Truman. Nonetheless, the Afro-American bus driver is the only one whose ignorance is being publicly exposed. Every time a Caucasoid inhabitant is on the verge of making a clean breast of his or her incompetence, someone interferes on behalf of the show’s direction.
A striking example is the fake medical surgery (still no. 5). In this short sequence, we see Truman invading the (again, not so real) hospital to tell his wife he will be flying off to the Fiji Islands. To confine Truman’s doubts and suspicions, the show’s extras have to improvise a medical amputation. However, before the lingering actors stick a knife in their fellow actor’s right leg, Truman is being addressed by a security guard, who orders the protagonist to leave the area (still no. 7). In that way, the incompetence of the white inhabitants of ‘Trumania’ has again been camouflaged literally in front of Truman’s paranoid eyes. In this short sequence, the film establishes the invulnerability of the white hegemony, at the expense of the singular non-white inhabitant. Truman gets indoctrinated by this ideology – to put it rather bluntly: Truman’s world is filled with competent whites and failing blacks, and presents therefore, from the roofs to the people, a ‘racialized form of memory (…) a nostalgia for a time when all the “folk” were white’[vi].
Such a difficult pose to keep up
Since Truman suspiciously investigates, at a certain point, the ‘realness’ of his every-day reality, the television show’s cast and crew are faced with an extended challenge. Under the pressure of Truman’s (not groundless) paranoia (still no. 4), it turns out that being natural is ‘such a very difficult pose to keep up’, as Oscar Wilde so ironically put it[vii]. Everyone’s ‘normalness’ is in fact a performance, more literally than in the gender-oriented appropriation of Judith Butler. Nonetheless, some of Butler’s usages of the performativity concept actually can be applied to the way Truman’s constructed world evolves around him. Truman’s identification with the world he inhabits can almost literally be understood as ‘an enacted fantasy’, where identities are performed, constructed and fabricated by means of hidden, but extremely well designed, discourses.[viii]
Unlike the dominant gender-related ideologies Butler analyses in her work, the construction of identity in The Truman Show is a concretised, unclouded process (though it takes place behind the ‘clouds’ in Truman’s sky). It is fully controlled by creator Christof and his crew, ever since the day Truman was born. Every bit of Truman’s identity is the fruit of an event directed by Christof. A telling example is Truman’s hydrophobia, which derives from a tragic – but staged – sailing trip with Truman’s father, who has been missing ever since. Though this somehow manipulating of Truman’s mind and life is evident to the spectators both of the diegetic television show (see still no. 14) and of Peter Weir’s film, Truman himself is, of course, unaware of this process.
A comic example can be found in the sequence where Truman tries to book a flight to the Fiji Islands (still no. 9). The camera angle draws attention to the way the mise-en-scene ‘subconsciously’ influences Truman’s thinking. Before the travel agent enters the office, we see Truman juxtaposed to a poster warning that ‘It Could Happen To You’ – thereby referring to a bolt of lightning striking an airplane. Another poster (still no. 8) reads ‘Travellers Beware’, followed by a summary of hideous things that could ruin your flight (‘terrorists, disease, wild animals’). Perhaps this plays a part in Truman’s later decision to take the bus.
Two times on the payroll?
Yet, this chess board of identity construction is problematic. Every actor in the world of Truman struggles with what Thomas Elsaesser calls ‘double occupancy’[ix]. Although Elsaesser uses it in the context of new European cinema and the effects of migration and multiculturalism, the term can be applied to all the inhabitants of Truman’s world, who are in fact migrants, albeit temporarily. These people are commuters between their personal lives outside ‘the Dome’, and their fictionalized lives inside ‘Trumania’, the people they pretend to be through their performances. This brings to the fore a kind of schizophrenia, a mental split between who one really is en what one performs to be.
Over the film’s course, there are several occasions where this schizophrenia, this double occupancy, takes its toll. One of the minor examples is the aforementioned medical surgery. There is a moment (see still no. 6) where the patient (again, an actress) acts ‘out of character’. Because it starts to seem that the other actors have to perform an actual surgery (for Truman is observing them), the patient-actress gets suddenly overthrown by a ‘this-was-not-what-we-agreed’ kind of fear. Before Truman fully grasps the disclosing quality of this particular moment, a security guard disables him to continue his observation (still no. 7).
Later in the film, we are presented a flashback to Truman’s ‘secret’ –recorded by cameras, but not necessarily staged – love affair with the blonde Lauren (played by Natasha McElhone). Because she threatens to endanger the planned development for Truman’s ‘narrative’, she is, at one point, removed from Truman’s life – but not from his mind. And apparently, Truman himself did not disappear out of her thoughts either, thus indicate the shots of Sylvia, the real life actress that played Lauren, watching the show at home. Her fictional feelings in the show on the one hand, and her real sentiments on the other, they both seem to have gotten entangled. Lauren’s/Sylvia’s double occupancy made her life ‘toujours occupé’, always occupied, as Elsaesser anecdotally notes[x]. She simply cannot live her ‘real’ life apart from her fictional role in the story of Truman. She is troubled by a ‘paranoid dream of tabula rasa’[xi], but that very dream contains the – again – Wildean logic that ‘no one should be entirely judged by their past’[xii].
One can add several other examples to the abovementioned: Truman’s father returns, unplanned, on an ordinary day, to the show’s crew’s discontent; a fan of the television show tries to invade the world of Truman to tell the protagonist that everything has been made up; the bus driver feels genuinely sorry for Truman (still no. 13); and, on a smaller scale, we can see a fissure of Truman’s world in the entrance of the travel agent, who is clearly raked up while she was having lunch (see still no. 10). All these examples clarify the problematic role of maintaining a constructed world.
No place like ‘home’
Still, this constructed environment is Truman Burbank’s home. For the grand majority of his life, Truman had – influenced by Christof’s directing strategies – no thought of leaving his hometown. Truman changes his attitude when he becomes conscious, slowly but surely, of some unexplainable ‘cracks’ in his every-day life and his ordinary environment. This is where Truman’s world starts to show the consequences of the globalisation in the ‘real world’; Truman’s realm has become, through the media (most notably television), a phantasmagoric place. In this situation, one is continuously confronted with the dialectics of the ‘realm of the near’ (Truman’s familiar life) on the one hand, and the ‘realm of the far’ (the ‘real world’, in particular Christof’s television crew) on the other[xiii].
In this perspective, it is not difficult to understand the ethical crisis Truman lands in when he notices the undeniable imperfections of his environment. At first, an insecure Truman searches for safety in ideas of community (still no. 3), which can be regarded as a natural response in case of post-modern anxieties[xiv]. However, when this community turns out to be the very crux of the problem, Truman subsides in ‘identity panics’[xv]. Driven by an outburst of grounded paranoia, cynical distrust and moral despair, Truman works his way through his world to find the borders, and with that the exit of this realm. He is, as I have said before, thwarted by the television crew via the extras in ‘Trumania’, but nothing can discourage Truman to find a solution for this incomprehensible situation.
In this particular case, it is not the post-modernist disappearing of borders that troubles the notion of ‘home’, but it is the opposite awareness of the existence of those borders. The vast limitation of Truman’s life – that is, the show’s scenario – transforms the ‘home’ into a prison cell. The concept of a trusted base ‘where everybody knows your name’[xvi] has been made far too literal. Truman is confronted with ‘“strangers” of one sort or another’ that invade his ‘symbolic space’, ‘defile’ it and dislocate the status-quo[xvii].
And the entire world is watching
Meanwhile, Truman’s attempts to escape this involuntary isolation are being followed worldwide by the television show’s audience. These spectators indicate a noteworthy paradox within The Truman Show’s perspective on globalisation. On the one hand, we see Truman struggling to be a part of a globalised world, where one can move freely and cross borders without restraint (see still no. 2). On the other, there is a global audience, living in a world of blurring and fading borders, that consumes intensely the nostalgic, non-ambiguous, de-globalised world of Truman Burbank. The television show serves as a ‘mediascape’, presenting narratives and metaphors that arouse a desire to live these imagined lives, and thriving on the anxieties and unspoken needs of the post-modern, even deterritorialized worldwide population[xviii]. The show-within-the-film bases itself on ‘the belief that society [is] naturally organized around and under high centres’[xix], therefore offering a stable, impervious grip that is so deeply missed in the post-modern, anarchic world. That ‘centre of the universe’, epitomized by creator Christof, reaches almost divine proportions.
For what happens in the end? Truman overcomes his hydrophobia and sets sail towards the horizon – which he finds to be a massive wall, namely that of ‘the Dome’. Caught in this surreal imagery, Truman finds himself a stairs leading to an exit door. Then, ‘the sun’ – that is, Christof in front of a small screen – starts conversing with Truman, leading to a scene abundantly filled with biblical references (a voice from above, a man walking on water, a man as an inspiration for so many people). Finally, and unexpectedly, Truman utters his meanwhile famous words: “And in case I don’t see ya: good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”[xx] Then, Truman bows to the camera, turns around and leaves through the exit door.
Remarkably, this is where Peter Weir’s film ends. Truman leaves the nostalgic, clearly defined and restricted community, to enter the realm of post-modern anxieties. It is, we should not forget, the year 1998, the fin-de-siècle, the eve of the new millennium, the culminating of worldwide angst. Perhaps, Truman will become one of the show’s spectators, longing for a world where boundaries were strict and communities were tight. That can arguably be the reason director Weir ends his film like this – for we can imagine what Truman will become: one of us, anxious people, out of our depth.
Maybe it would have been better if Truman had not wanted to go to Chicago after all.
References and notes
The original essay contained a full strip of film stills, that had to be reduced to a microscopic selection, due to WordPress restraints and technical malfunctions. If you want to view the original essay (and I truly recommend you do), please request it by sending me an e-mail.
Due to design restraints, the strip of film stills on this essay’s edge had to be shortened. Therefore, some shots have been omitted to serve both the lay-out and the shots’ relevance within this essay.
The stills cover 00:37:39 – 00:43:49 of The Truman Show.
Anderson, Benedict. ‘Introduction’. In: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983: 37-46.
Appadurai, Arjun. ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’. In: Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996: 27-47.
Butler, Judith. ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions’. In: Sara Salih, Judith Butler, ed. The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005: 90-115.
Dyer, Richard. ‘White’. In: Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall, ed. Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage, 1999: 457-467.
Elsaesser, Thomas. ‘Double Occupancy and Small Adjustments: Space, Place and Policy in the New European Cinema since the 1990s’. In: Thomas Elsaesser et al., red. European cinema. Face to face with Hollywood. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005: 108-130.
Federman, Mark. ‘What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?’ (2004). <http://individual.utoronto.ca/
Morley, David. ‘Belongings: Place, Space, and Identity in a Mediated World’. In: European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 4 (2001): 425-448.
Nairn, Tom. ‘Demonising Nationality’. In: Tom Nairn, Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited. London: Verso, 1997: 57-68.
Wilde, Oscar. An Ideal Husband. (1895). With contribution by Laurie Wolf. London: Nick Hern Books, 1999.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir. Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, 1998.
Google Books. Google. 01-06-2009 <http://books.google.com>.
Metroactive.com. Metro Publishing, Inc. 28-5-2009 <http://www.metroactive.com>.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Amazon.com. 28-5-2009 <http://www.imdb.com>.
All of the film stills have been made by this essay’s author.
[i] ‘The Truman Show (1998) – Taglines’. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Amazon.com. 28-5-2009 <http://www.imdb.com/title/
[iv] Federman 2004: 1.
[v] Dyer 1999: 458.
[vi] Morley 2001: 433.
[vii] Wilde 1895 (ed. 1999): 9.
[viii] Butler 2005: 110.
[ix] Elsaesser 2005: 108-109.
[xii] Wilde 1895 (ed. 1999): 28.
[xiii] Morley 2001: 428.
[xiv] Morley 2001: 431.
[xv] Etiënne Balibar, quoted in Nairn 1993: 65.
[xvi] Morley 2001: 425.
[xvii] Morley 2001: 433.
[xviii] Appadurai 1996: 35-36, 38.
[xix] Anderson 1983: 40.