FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 24, June 1999

 


 

Alison McMahan

Watching You Watching Me

 


 

 

 

 

_The Truman Show_

Directed by Peter Weir, 1998.

 

_EDTV_

Directed by Ron Howard, 1999.

 

The narrative of _The Truman Show_ is structured like a fairy tale; specifically, it falls into the 'exit from the garden' class of tales which usually feature female heroes. Male heroes usually hear 'calls' to adventure while female heroes have to be 'pushed' from their safe gardens or golden cages. In the last twenty-five years, however, there has been a gradual change in Hollywood's fairly strict equivalency of active agency with masculinity. First we saw a number of female action heroes in films like _The Terminator_ and _Alien_ and ending most recently with _G. I. Jane_. Just enough of these female action hero films have been made for tongue-in-cheek versions like _Long Kiss Goodnight_ to make their appearance. The reverse situation -- for male heroes to appear in fairy-tale films that usually featured female heroes -- have been slower to appear. [1] An early example is the second instalment of the _Star Wars_ trilogy, which shows Luke Skywalker journeying 'into the forest' to find Yoda the teacher, and at a key moment, to go 'into the cave' where he meets 'his worst fear'.

 

In _The Truman Show_ Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a 'true man' born and bred in a television studio in Burbank, California. His journey follows the journey of the female hero as described by Carol Pearson. [2] The role represents a break from his previous films, especially from Ace Ventura of the pet detective series. The transition was not without some difficulty; a previous attempt, _The Cable Guy_ was a notable failure, but audiences for _The Truman Show_ when it was first released in the US accepted Carrey's transition from comic to dramatic actor in the course of the first act. Whenever Carrey made any kind of expression with his trademark rubber face during the first few minutes of the film, younger audiences members especially would start giggling on cue. It only took a few minutes of this film, however, for Carrey to be completely aligned with the character of Truman, the baby adopted by a corporation which produces a television show; every minute of his life is broadcast on television and his entire world is a set, though he is ignorant of this fact. For the rest of the film we watch Truman figure it out. Beginning with a theatrical light that falls from the sky, Truman has many signs and indications that something is amiss in his life and that there is a mystery to be solved. The question is, will he really undertake to solve it or will he remain a monkey in a zoo?

 

His character is passive -- and blindly accepting -- enough for it to seem likely that he might choose to live out the rest of his life on that set. (It took a very delicate calibration of mise en scene, Carrey's performance, and masterful screenwriting by Andrew Niccol -- writer and director of _Gattaca_ -- for us to accept that Truman could have gotten well into his thirties without realizing the true nature of his situation). What prevents Truman from abandoning himself entirely to the entrapments of his golden cage is the memory of a stolen kiss with a girl named Lauren (or Sylvia, as she tells him later) when he was a teenager. The kiss was ended when her 'father' pulled her away and said they were moving to Fiji; but Sylvia said enough even in that short desperate moment to plant seeds of doubt in Truman's mind that grew until he had to do something about it. 'Doing something about it' means challenging the show's god-like creator, Christof, the unknown force behind the cameras and the weather controls. The battle is played out in the studio's huge tank, as Truman gets in a sailboat (in spite of his fear of water) and tries to sail over the horizon -- only to discover that the horizon is actually where the scrim meets the edge of the set that has encaged him all his life.

 

The credit sequence touches on all of the key issues of the film. Since they are actually the credits for the television show we are aligned with the television spectators as they are constructed by the film from the beginning. There is an overlay between the film and 'television' screen which we become aware of after only a few minutes. Much use is made of this overlay in later sequences; a television screen is indicated by the appearance of scan lines, a replay of 'The Truman Show's Greatest Moments' is shown with a black matte around the edges (and replays from this 'greatest hits' stand in for Truman's memories), until we no longer need any reminders that everything we see is shown from the perspective of a television camera, whether we can see the scan lines or not.

 

The particular format of the film lends itself to an ambitious experiment: the entire film is shot almost completely free of classic point-of-view sequences (shot of character looking, eyeline match of what they are looking at, shot of character looking which registers emotional reaction). Most of the time when Truman looks, he is looking into a camera; we do not see his eyeline match because the next shot shows how Truman looks to television viewers. In other words, Truman's point-of-view sequences and 'ours' (or at least, those of the television spectators as constructed in the film) are interlocked in a Greek key pattern or like tongue-in-groove sideboard. The only true point-of-view sequences occur when Truman begins to realize that something is wrong or when he dreams of Sylvia and Fiji, which makes these sequences all the more powerful. The overall effect is one of the constructed spectator as a structuring absence, and yet a powerful one, as we sense in the extremely brief glimpses that show Truman's wedding as watched by millions on a huge screen in a stadium; Truman's wife, Meryl, is constructed as an American Princess Diana.

 

The structuring absence of the spectator is replicated by the fact that the film is narrated by Sylvia, who is never a focalizer and almost never present in Truman's world, although we do see her watching later from her own television once she has been banned from the set. Weir seems to have a fondness for 'absent' female narrators, as he used a similar approach in _Witness_ though there the Kelly McGillis character was the lead, with the key decision to make, and here Sylvia is an observer-narrator, with Christof, Truman's key opponent, carrying most of the focalization.

 

Niccol's first draft set the story on a huge set that replicated lower Manhattan, Staten Island and Brooklyn. The overall tone was much darker; the fear and phobia of water deliberately inculcated in Truman by Christof manifests itself as an overall lack of courage; for example, Truman doesn't rescue a woman from a mugger and is shown to be sexually inadequate. With the change from dark city to Florida Beach community setting (ironically, a real Florida community was used as a stand-in for a huge set) the script changed in genre from horror to gothic fantasy in a sunlit setting. Unlike _The Game_, in which we know as much as the hero knows, making it a suspense film which is only interesting to watch once or twice, in _The Truman Show_ we know everything from the beginning and we wait to see Truman figure it out. In other words, the film has two diegeses, Christof's and Truman's; the dividing line is an army of camera lenses and television screens that see without judgement. The subjective stance here is one of agentless perception: [3] though the show is run by its creator, Christof, and watched by millions, it could also be said to be controlled by none. The gaze of those cameras has grown into an institution unto itself. Though the film depicted the climax as a battle between Truman and Christof, Andrew Niccol's original script ended with a new show with a new star, a baby girl named Zoe, being watched by Truman and Sylvia and *their* child, thus confirming that though Truman might have changed his position from in front of the camera to in front of the screen, the agentless institutional gaze remains.

 

Our fear of agentless perception is an outgrowth of the classic horror genre fear that we will turn into machines. Here the technology that terrifies is that of telepresence, those 24 hour cameras that film a beach scene or a young woman's bedroom and broadcast it live on the Internet. Agentless perception (images from eyes that see but don't comprehend, a perception without judgement and usually without memory) is already becoming a fixture in Hollywood films, such as _Snake Eyes_. The lack of agency behind a camera gaze in these films is usually associated with an institution. _Snake Eyes_ actually explores a continuum of less and less personified gazes, from attributed point-of-views, in the form of the _Rashomon_-like interviews with various witnesses which give different emotional perspectives on the political assassination, and the story told by the numerous surveillance cameras, which have no meaning or influence until one of the characters looks at the video tape or the monitor console.

 

By contrast, _EDTV_ refuses to treat the camera gaze as non-personified. In this film, Matthew McConaughy plays Ed, a good ol' boy who clerks in a video store and tries to pick up women in pool halls. He is selected to be the star of a 24 hour television show that will document every nuance of his life for a month; this is the bright idea of the television executive played by Ellen DeGeneres, who is trying to bring up her ratings and secure her own job. The original agreement is that a camera crew will follow Ed wherever he goes for a month; the show becomes a hit and one month becomes three, then the evil television studio head, played by Rob Reiner, tries to lock Ed into indentured television stardom for the rest of his life. Ed frees himself of the threat by turning the tables (with DeGeneres's help) and threatening to expose the studio chief's penile implant on the air.

 

In other words, _EDTV_ is about the effects of celebrity. In spite of the tongue in cheek casting (in addition to the irony of DeGeneres conspiring to expose Reiner's sexual secret, Elizabeth Hurley plays a model that tries to have sex with Ed on air in order to forward her own career). In the end the film is a melodrama, and the camera gaze of _EDTV_ (in spite of the fans that mob Ed's place of work, and the cutaways to individual spectators) is squarely placed in front of the eyes of the people closest to Ed, whether they are his enemies in the television studio or his closest relatives. (As in _The Truman Show_, Ed's long lost father returns in order to take advantage of Ed's celebrity). In spite of some excellent performances the story seems rather trite, with the camera gaze taking on the role of the village gossip.

 

In both _The Truman Show_ and _EDTV_ the hero is imprisoned by watchful lenses; although Ed meets the executives behind the lenses he doesn't really 'see' them until he comprehends the full scope of his imprisonment. Other recent films that imprison the hero in a controlled world are _Dark City_, _The Matrix_, and _eXistenZ_. All three of these films are science fiction films that could also be classified as fantasy-horror. Each film shows the hero(es) trapped in a world created by others (all three films probably owe a debt of inspiration to the sixties television show, _The Prisoner_). In the first two the heroes gradually realize that they live in an artificial world and that they are under the control of someone else. _eXistenZ_ passes through each concentric layer of narration, from non-diegetic to diegetic, narrated to focalized, one by one, until it suddenly pops out of the onion altogether and we, the spectators, realize that what we thought was the non-diegetic reality was actually another diegetic layer and there is yet another non-diegetic reality outside of that; upon leaving the theatre there was still some sense of confusion -- is real life just another layer of a virtual reality game? -- a confusion that was not felt, at least by this viewer, after the other films.

 

In spite of the similarities of heroes imprisoned in a controlled world, the emphasis in these three films is not on the institution that is watching them, but on the experience of being controlled mentally and emotionally. _Dark City_ posits that our soul is made up of our accumulation of individual memories; a scientist in the film can distil memories into a chemical solution, mix and match at will, and implant new memories into the humans he controls (in service of an alien race that needs to understand the human soul in order to take over). The hero, through some mutation, can resist implantation, but he wakes up with amnesia and spends the rest of the film trying to comprehend his situation.

 

_The Matrix_ posits that we are all already under the control of arachnid machines that have taken over the earth. As if to give credence to what Hilary Putnam describes as the 'we are all brains in a vat and our experiences are a collective hallucination' argument, _The Matrix_ depicts our bodies in amniotic pods, our brains hooked up to a virtual reality world, only because the brain must be occupied in order for the body to stay alive; the whole point is for the human body to produce the electricity needed by the arachnid machines. The hero of the film, Neo (Keanu Reeves), has a vague yearning for a truth he knows is out there, but it is actually Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, who wakes him up. After his forced awakening (unlike Truman, who has to be pushed out of his cage, Neo is actively searching for insight into the mystery that he senses as a powerful presence in his life) Neo returns to the Matrix several times and compares the nature of that experience to what he experiences now, in a dirty rebel space ship. Several times he comments on the life that used to seem real to him. One of Morpheus's other disciples wants to return to the Matrix, because the life is more beguiling than the sordid business of awakening the other people in pods.

 

In _eXistenZ_ Allegra Geller, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and her bodyguard, played by Jude Law, are aware that they are in a virtual reality game and they can leave it at will (at least until things go wrong). However, when they are in the game they feel emotions that are part of their character 'programming' (such as sexual attraction for each other or a desire to shoot a waiter) in addition to their own 'true' feelings.

 

What each of these films features, to a different degree, is a focus, not on the agentless perception of the multitudes that watch them (in _eXistenZ_ the spectators to the drama hardly figure in the story at all) but on the unreliable agency of the heroes themselves, brought on by their imprisonment, or wilful journey into, an artificial world. All three films are narrated from a first person point-of-view (one of the flaws of _Dark City_ is that the narration moved in various drafts from the detective played by William Hurt, to the scientist played by Kiefer Sutherland, and finally to the amnesiac hero; in the final film remnants of the three approaches remain, which hopelessly muddles the film). The characters report what they know honestly, but what the truthfulness of what they know shifts from time to time because they themselves are under some mysterious control. In these films this unreliable agency is implanted electronically, but in _The Truman Show_ Truman's distorted knowledge stems from the fakeness of his universe and the psychological traumas inflicted on him in order to keep him on the set.

 

_The Truman Show_ and _EDTV_ reflect a fear of domination through the mass art of television and the manipulation inflicted by Big Brother in the guise of studio executives. The fear in _Dark City_, _Matrix_ and _eXistenZ_ is much more metaphysical, a fear that at last we have reached an understanding of the human condition, and that understanding is that we are all players in some huge virtual reality game; this knowledge, however, is hardly freeing, either because there is nothing left of the world outside of the game (_Matrix_ and _Dark City_) or because the only difference between the game world and the real world is that we can't suspend the action in the real world or pop out of it at will.

 

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. For more on the development of female action heroes and the coding of active agency as masculine, see my article 'I Want to Shoot my Own Arab: A Review of _G. I. Jane_', which first appeared in Dutch in the journal _Skrien_, and can now be read in English at <http://www.hum.nl/~ftv/Facutly/Alison>.

 

2. Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, _The Female Hero in American and British Literature_ (New York and London: R. R. Bowker Company, 1981). See especially chapter one.

 

3. For more on my theory of agency and narration, see my article: 'The Effect of Multiform Narrative on Subjectivity', _Screen_, vol. 40 no. 2, 1999.

 

 

Filmography

 

_Alien_, Ridley Scott, 1979.

_The Cable Guy_, Ben Stiller, 1996.

_Dark City_, Alex Proyas, 1997.

_Empire Strike Back_, Irvin Kershner, 1980.

_eXistenZ_, David Cronenberg, 1999.

_The Game_, David Fincher, 1997.

_Gattaca_, Andrew Niccol, 1997.

_G.I. Jane_, Ridley Scott, 1997.

_Long Kiss Goodnight_, Renny Harlin, 1996.

_The Matrix_, Wachowski Brothers, 1999.

_The Prisoner_, 1967.

_Rashomon_, Akira Kurosawa, 1951.

_Snake Eyes_, Brian De Palma, 1998.

_The Terminator_, James Cameron, 1984.

_Witness_, Peter Weir, 1985.

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Alison McMahan, 'Watching You Watching Me',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 24, June 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n24mcmahan>.

 

  

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

  

Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage