I happened, just before leaving to go see “The Truman Show”, to catch a promo-mercial for the same movie on the E! Channel. There was Jim Carrey, mugging it up, doing celebrity impressions in-between plugs for the movie (his Charlton Heston was pretty good). He was earnestly cheerful, in underscoring the dark “riskiness” of this project, projecting a “courage” in his participating in such a ground-breaking film – in which (he implied) he portrays an actual human being (indeed risky) instead of the spastic cartoon which has made him famous. “You have to grow,” he told his chuckling interviewer, “and hope that your audience follows. And if they don’t, wellé” He paused, then gave off a toothy shrug, “daring” yet confident, as though he’d already read the reviews and the ‘Variety’ tallies and knew the movie was a big-titted hit.
It was a weird moment, me watching an ad for a movie which I’d already decided to see. Our culture never stops selling; sort of like when, after signing up with a long-distance carrier, I continued to receive relentless phone calls from that carrier, the chirpy operator promoting the carrier with even more zeal, my only possible response being, “You’ve already got me!” As though our only possible mode of being in this brave new world is acting as a host-cell for this proliferating virus of promotion.
We complain about it though we keep watching, I watched, I did watch the promo/ad, hypnotized, as little-screen Carrey promoted his big-screen creation, complete with clips, teasers for a movie which contains a “story” wherein Carrey the actor plays Truman, himself an actor, his own unreality invisible to him though it is visible to us (is it?), this globally-televised show that passes for reality even though the viewers know it is not, even though it is, in a sense, a non-stop promotion for itself and its unwitting “star”. This “star” is of course Jim Carrey, as Truman, both of them starring on the biggest screen of all – not the wide screen of cinema (which has disappeared) but the self- self-promoting and self-replicating screen of TV.
The film clips echoed, as I watched the actual film, which was by that point irrelevant, because all of the best scenes were given away in the promo. The scenes reminded me of the promo, which reminded me of Carrey’s “courageous” participation in same (as though the guy were not acting in a movie, but teaching history in South-Central). The clips, when I saw them, gave me a sense of what the whole movie was about, though I thought there would be more -there wasn’t, so actually I could have saved myself $8.00 by staying home and reading a novel. In the novel, at least, there might have been a story, but “Truman” doesn’t have a story, and doesn’t need one – because no movie needs one, because stories themselves are no longer relevant. Stories are content, and the postmodern virus prefers its replicants to remain content free. Content, in fact, only inhibits the replication, both onscreen and in print — which is why most critics sloughed off the fact that the movie doesn’t really tell a story, that it’s not even clear what this movie is “about”.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be about anything. No movie no longer has to be about anything. It only has to feed the self-replicating virus of promotion. When I actually watched ‘Truman’, after hearing so much about it (starting with the gushy David Thompson review in ‘Esquire’ which my local cineplex displayed like a banner – The movie of the decade! ), the promotion and even the reviews had so completely merged with the product that I could no longer tell anything apart. Hype becomes movie becomes review becomes promotion, an exploding orgasm of replication. It’s all the same, culture is now this process of seamless promotion, as so often happens these days, in politics, fashion, even sportsélike NBA games, where something appears to be at stake, it appears there will be a winner and a loser, but in fact the game itself is merely a context for the Michæl Jordan ads (Jordan himself an image that replicates), images which become indistinguishable from images of the “real” performance. Image is nothing, thirst is everything, and what we all want to swallow (more and more, faster and faster) are content-free images, from TV or movies or books or on the web. (Is there a difference?)
Imagine for a moment that “Truman” is a fable, a myth told to a child before bed. (Let’s say, for argument, that the kid is somewhat savvy, as most kids are.) We begin, grinning, eager to share this exciting story, “Once there was a man named Truman, who lived in a kingdom ruled by an almighty but invisible king. The king put Truman on a TV show which everyone in the world liked to watch. But Truman didn’t know it was fake because everyone around him pretended it was real and he never knew it was just a show.” (The kid might reasonably ask why the king did this, why everyone around him pretended it was “real”, why everyone liked to watch. Because they’re morons, we’re tempted to say, since the movie begs this question. It seems afraid to confront the specters it raises. This is fortunate for us, because we are the actual specters, walking through our own lives, staring at screens which portray a reality which we know is false yet which replicates in our brains. We are the characters, these onscreen people who, except for Truman and his unwavering sunniness and Christof and his vague control issues, are themselves content-free. The movie of the decade!)
We continue with our tale, happily racing to the conclusion, “Then one day Truman found out it was all fake, that the king was fooling and deceiving him and wouldn’t let him leave. Truman got angry, and bravely tried to leave anyway, by sailing off, but the angry king created a terrible storm which nearly drowned him. But Truman survived the storm and reached the border of the kingdom. The all-powerful king asked him to please stay, but Truman smiled at him and said “nah” and left. The End.”
I remember certain childhood fables, stories, some of which really scared the bejesus out of me – like, for instance, Pinocchio and King Arthur and the Narnia Chronicles and, hell, even “Bambi” (the hunters!) and “Snow White” (the witch!). Stories where actual characters were threatened, where monstrous things happened to nice people (who suffered for more than 10 seconds before the anxious storyteller rushed in to protect them from discomfort ), where death was a threat, where death actually existedébefore we pasteurized it out of our culture, which is partly why stories no longer exist and can no longer exist, since without death there is no life; without the long shadow of death, life is only a sunny cartoon, and “Truman” in the end for all its seriousness is nothing more than a cartoon, a doodle – is in fact, far less portentous and chilling than “Bambi” . It raises some profoundly disturbing questions before holding our hands and telling us, It’s okay (a patronizing move which is bound to irritate any savvy child). Nothing is suffered, nothing is lost, all ends happily and no one is bitter or scarred. The movie attempts to leave us with an eerily “good” feeling, selling us on a pleasantness that is completely contradicted by the Twilight Zone creepiness of the first half. It ends as a Pepsi ad might end, a bit of moral nastiness before we’re reassured by the air-conditioned comfort of happy images.
Never mind that, actually, there is no “real world” for Truman to escape to, his only escape is death, he is and will forever be tarred by his celebrity, can never be anything besides “that guy on the channel”, his psychology charred by 30 years of soulless manipulation and the brainless apathy of a public he is now happily joining. Surely the least little problem will traumatize him (sort of like the rabid way we respond when the least little convenience is taken away from us, only worse). The ending is a black joke, actually, on us, the grinning audience, because when Truman passes through that door he will stumble into our reality, a Hollywood-ized postmodern reality that is even more bizarre than Seahaven . After 30 years of coddling (even his age is barely alluded to, as if the filmmakers decided not to emphasize that their protagonist is “out of the demo” of the crucial teen market), he will not be able to cope with it. He will miss the artificial life of the soundstage, will prefer pre-fabrication to the reality of the “real” world. (Is there a difference?) Since you can never go home again, never return to the Garden of Eden, where reality is pre-arranged, Truman will turn bitter, resentful, possibly homeless. He will go from squeaky-clean celebrity to annoying “squeegee man”, from saccharin-ized hero to villain-of-the-month, soon as he flips out on reality like Michæl Douglas in “Falling Down” and strolls into a McDonald’s and takes out a few kids before the cops finish him off for good. (Hopefully this, too, will be televised.)
There is, really, nowhere to go. As soon as the movie ended, I walked through the entrance to the lobby and was bombarded by promos for more Hollywood movies, whose empty stories would quickly replace this one. The question my friend asked, “What did you think?” was pointless. It didn’t matter; the movie was already a hit, and I could either join the masses, critics and audience all, or be an individual (and therefore disappear). In fact I was already forgetting “Truman”, vaguely thirsting for more images. The corridor of the entertainment-maze happily provided them: screens in the cineplex blasted promos for “Armageddon”, teasers for yet another impending viral explosion. It felt like something was lost, or missing, like sinister forces were at play, but so what? If this is the death of content, it’s really rather pleasant. Who cares that contemporary life has become a soundstage, with storytelling – the subtext of life, the underlying myth of reality, oh total reality – mutated into a cartoon? No prob, long as we get free refills! Like zombies we are only too happy to stuff ourselves at this never-ending salad bar of images, which recycled stories as a main course; we are pigging out, rapidly, on the rotted corpse of myth, singing happy pop slogans as the meat dangles from our teeth. But soon the corpse will be picked clean; and if our hunger is authentic, a “virtual” meal may no longer satisfy. Except by that point, it seems (which is just around the corner), we’ll be so hollow, so ghost-like, that we’ll no longer know the difference.