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Last updated: Friday, 19 September 2003
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The Literary Combine: Intimations of Immortality on The Truman Show
Early on in the movie The Truman Show, I was struck by a similarity to Wordsworth's poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," not for any stylistic resemblance, but because of the way they resonate. It is not uncommon for works of art to try to build on psychological or mythological structures we are supposed to share, whether Oedipal motherlove or the quest for treasure or any number of others, which correspond in varying degrees ill or well to the Latter-day Saint view of things. Mormons, at least of a certain age, are typically familiar with the following excerpt from "Ode" from the filmstrip "Man's Search for Happiness" (I can recite it in French from my missionary days):
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
I was a little surprised in college to see Wordsworth's Ode featured prominently in the Norton anthology, evidence that it's not just Mormons who find it meaningful. The notes as I recall referred to criticism Wordsworth took from Anglican clerics, to whom he felt obliged to explain that he was not trying to put forward the doctrine of a preexistence but to build poetically on a sense, common in children, that we come from somewhere else. That's what struck me about Truman -- that it builds on a more or less universal sense people have that life is a drama.
I brought my two early-teen-age daughters to The Truman Show, not because I knew much about it, but mostly for the novelty of an intelligent, adult move that was rated PG. (One unfortunate byproduct of the MPAA ratings system is that "adult" has come to mean "full of naughty words and bare naked ladies" -- juvenile preoccupations, as we had previously supposed.) Both my daughters loved the show and were fascinated by the typological connections when I explained. "Haven't you ever had that feeling that life isn't real and you're being tested?" I asked. "Well, yeah!" one answered, wide-eyed, "but I didn't know anybody else did." Both girls agreed it was a stronger move for being easily grasped on the literal level. I said it wouldn't be nearly so entertaining without the typology though, and my younger daughter, who went a couple of days later with friends who thought it pretty ho-hum, I think came to agree.
That daughter was intrigued by the notion of a movie, presumably by non-Mormons, that captured so many aspects of Christian and even uniquely Mormon theology. "Did they, like, really think of all those things?" she asked me. I gave her my opinion that yes, they did, in a sense, since that's what I try to do in my books. (I'd love to have written that movie.) The technique is to tap into these complexes of beliefs and awarenesses that we share because, genetically and culturally, we're all children of Adam and Eve, and because spiritually we have thousands, maybe millions of years of experience in common. You make yourself sensitive to it, you think through it in light of your belief system and the belief systems of others, which have all pretty well tried to deal with it because its an experience that's so fundamental to who we are. You speak about it honestly and probingly, and you can pretty well count on it resonating for your readers, because so many of them have felt it and thought about it deeply too. You can't predict the specifics of how they'll respond -- life is too complex for that -- but you can have a general sense of the direction and intensity of their reactions. Ambivalence is a virtue in this kind of writing, because part of its impact comes from the play between the varied and even contradictory interpretations. Typological writing in general has this characteristic, including Old Testament prophecies and Christ's parables. If you think you've got the one true interpretation for any of them, you probably stopped too soon.
Life as drama is that kind of impression, something that hits children and then gets reinterpreted by various systems of belief. I can remember thinking about it a lot as a 12-year-old on my early morning paper route. How did I know anything was real? Nothing seemed quite natural at that abandoned hour or that unfamiliar light anyway. What would it take to fool a person? I imagined screens ahead of me, projectors behind me, a conspiracy of people around me, a stationary bicycle. Virtual reality technology has improved somewhat since then, though it's still difficult to imagine it fooling anyone. I related these impressions to my teenage sense of existential anxiety, when I seemed acutely aware of the drama, though I could never seem to figure out when to take it seriously. Laugh at it and you invited the scorn of others. Play along and you got the feeling that people might leave off at any moment, laugh derisively, and walk away. I was impressed in college with sociolinguistic theories that dealt with it -- game theory, a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society, though finally it seems to me that work like this removes the wonder from the phenomenon without really explaining anything fundamental. I gained a testimony in my late teens, which gives to these feelings a different emphasis again. Now I find myself looking for patterns in my life, what events are meant to teach me, and conclude, like Truman, that some of them cannot be random. I like the image toward the end of The Truman Show of Truman overcoming his phobia and risking his life, both literally and in the sense that his voyage risks shattering every belief and convention that kept him on the shore, sailing off toward the horizon then hitting it. What a rich joke! What a maddeningly tantalizing development. That's got to send shivers down the spine of seekers in every religion and system of belief, though no two will see it quite the same.
If we're meant to feel ambivalence about The Truman Show, we might expect to see that reflected in details such as the characters' names. Harlow commented on Christof as an off-Christ, a sort of antichrist or parody of Christ, which fits with a couple of the ways subscribers have interpreted the film (Christof as Lucifer or as megalomaniacal Hollywood producer, to which I'd add an overbearing parent -- all of which make very good sense to me). Christof is also a form of Christopher, though, which means Christ-bearer. He bears the burden of Christ, or (in the Catholic tradition) he bears up travelers in the name of Christ. Or maybe Christof is a patronymic, someone who inherited his name from his father. If Christof is a divine figure, or a benevolent parent, then maybe we just want one "f" there -- Christof is of Christ. Truman is a pretty sympathetic character, a true man no doubt, but I detect ambivalence here as well. Truman fantasizes out loud, wears children's clothes, retreats to his basement clubhouse to examine his wooden treasure chest, and dreams of going to Figi because of an off-quip by one of Christof's handlers that his true love Sylvia is moving there. Maybe Christof is right -- if Truman's desire to discover the truth were more than a "vague ambition," if he were a true man instead of a true child, he'd have found his way off the set years ago.
I don't know if the other names are significant, but it bears thinking about. Truman's surname is Burbank, which made me think of "Laugh-In," wasn't it, the TV comedy from the early '70s whose announcer always said the show originated in "beautiful downtown Burbank." I turned 10 in 1970 and so surely wasn't "hip" to everything going on in that show, but I figured even then that downtown Burbank's beauty lay mostly in his saying so. Laugh-in couldn't be totally irrelevant on a show that's at least partly about the entertainment industry. Meryl, Truman's stage wife, means blackbird but sounds like a garbled form of "marry," so maybe we're meant to think they have a garbled marriage, or conversely that he "married well." The best friend is Marlon, which means falcon but which sounds like Meryl again, or marlin. Marlon is a good enough actor to sound anything but fishy, in spite of Christof's bug in his ear. Sylvia's stage name is Lauren. Her intended role is so small she doesn't even remember the name when Truman reads it from her notebook in the library. Truman and Sylvia are the only characters who use their real names on the show, which is to say their real names are also stage names. So either these two are their true selves or there's no such thing as a true self -- just layers of roles. Truman got his "real" name from the producer. Lauren would be "she of the laurel," while Sylvia means "she of the forest" -- more or less the same name.
As others have noticed, Christof as Christian parody is more a Lucifer than a Satan, a son of the morning who got his way. He compels, but rarely physically, and only a last resort. In his world it's simply difficult to do wrong. Christof says it takes the efforts of a small nation to maintain the enormous studio where Truman has lived his life, but at times it seems most the company's efforts go to manipulating Truman into wanting what Christof wants him to. When it becomes more and more difficult to contain the pre-adolescent Truman, Christof stages a boating accident in which Truman's father "drowns" -- Truman's resulting fear of water keeps him on his island for twenty years. When he overcomes his fear enough to cross the bridge to the mainland, the whole cast springs into action, blocking traffic, staging a nuclear meltdown at a nearby reactor. Finally they have to tackle him. Christof is Lucifer-like in his lust for control, but also in his lust for glory. He wants to own, package and sell Truman, who "auditioned" in utero, chosen from among five unwanted fetuses because his birthday met an air date, and legally adopted by the corporation that runs the show. Truman, unwitting, lives his entire life on-air, day and night, car, office, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, thanks to a network of tiny hidden cameras and microphones that broadcast his every move. Everything in his world is for sale, and the actors who play his family, friends, and fellow citizens of his island are prone to working commercial pitches, not always very gracefully, into their on-air conversations.
Christof says that Truman's world is better, that there's no more truth in the world at large than in the studio, that he protects him, that his world is the world that should have been. If Christof is Lucifer, maybe this is nostalgia for the world he would have created. The boyishness of the thirty-year-old Truman is interesting in light of this reading. Maybe Lucifer's plan couldn't work because in his world we would have been children forever, never would have overcome our dependence on him. Truman proves to have an unshakable thirst for knowledge, which to quench he finds he must break through that painted horizon and leave Christof's world for the real one. The trouble with Christof as Lucifer is that the place we were childlike was the garden. There it was Satan trying to get us out and into the "real" world and (as near as we could tell) Elohim trying to keep us in. The question to ask is, What does Christof want? Power? He has that in common with every creative artist, but in a sense it's power over his art Christof wants, as opposed to Truman per se. When Truman escapes, Christof takes the drastic step of cutting the television signal. But when they find him on the open ocean, on the verge of slipping totally beyond his grasp, Christof turns the signal on again. Christof clearly loves Truman, which is not to say that love is necessarily beneficent. Whatever its nature, it turns out by show's end that Christof didn't merely want him fat and happy. Maybe he has some of the ambivalence (that word again) of any parent, including no doubt celestial ones, who want desperately to shelter their little ones, but who finally, just as strongly, want them to break free.
If Christof is the Father (even in Mormon doctrine Christ becomes the Father), look at what he provides his son -- food, shelter, families made up from people he's forgotten were his brothers and sisters, forgetfulness, opposition. Truman's "intimations of immortality," the physical incongruities (the stationary moon in the west, full even at sunset -- from which it turns out Christof watches), Truman's sense that people are conspiring to hide things from him, strike me as a lot like our evidences for the truth -- there's always another explanation, and ultimately you just have to decide to put your faith in them. We think of the Lord as gentle -- maybe the title Father predisposes us to it, but it's not His only title. Through much of the Bible he goes under a military title, the Lord of Hosts, at the front of his army. I've long been intrigued by the extent to which Old Testament writers confess the Lord's hand (D&C 59:21), even in the evil that befalls us, hardening Pharaoh's heart (Ex. 9:19), sending an evil spirit to trouble Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). Now we know perfectly well the Lord didn't do that literally -- Pharaoh hardened his own heart, Saul invited the evil spirit -- and I believe the writers knew that too, but were keying on the Lord's sovereignty as creator, that nothing happens without his acquiescence, even the evil he allows to happen for our testing or in consequence of our agency. Is it implausible that the Lord might have wanted Pharaoh to say no, for the sake of Moses and his people, for the Christian type -- just like Christof wanted Truman to make various decisions, good and bad, for the sake of the story? If Pharaoh was such a man as would soften his heart, might he not have held him back and sent another Pharaoh in his stead? Or given him a headache in a moment he might otherwise have relented? Or at least that motives like these were among all the infinitely complex and inscrutable ones that the Lord considered? If we conclude with Adam that God wants us out of the garden, we have to deal with the fact that this puts God and Lucifer on the same side of the issue, at least seemingly. He wants us to suffer, though if we are fortunate enough to hear the gospel we learn it is to make us strong and independent and like our heavenly parents. He kills us, though like Truman in the boat, he raises us up again.
If Christof is a mix of good and bad, maybe it's best not to think of him as Lucifer or Elohim but just a parent. Now The Truman Show becomes an opportunity for parents in the audience to reflect on the job we're doing. Hopefully there's room for ambivalence in this reading, because as every parent knows, parenting is full of imponderables -- firmness that slips imperceptibly into overbearing control, strategies that work this time but fail miserably next time. Again the reason for Christof's trying his "son" becomes crucial. Does he want him to learn or does he want to gratify his own ego? As I pointed out to my daughters, it's all too easy for parents to try to live through their children. I mentioned a mother in whose home I'd been a guest, one of the most friendly and gracious and accepting women I've met, who had just one quirk -- when she set her table (and she was a marvelous cook), she served up portions that were triple what a normal person could eat. She herself was petite, but her two children had inherited a stalkier build from their father, and they both had problems with overeating and overweight and a host of attendant insecurities. It seemed obvious to me she feared abandonment and did it to keep her children dependent on her. I mentioned men who pressed their children into sports and lived vicariously through them. I asked if they knew what I was talking about, and my older daughter immediately said "Yes!" My wife and I had noticed a parent-advisor in a club my daughter participates in at school becoming involved in jealous quarrels in a way we thought inappropriate. Turns out my daughter had noticed too and was referring to her. She'd found the whole experience exasperating and thought the overeager mother had come close to ruining things for everyone.
As Eric pointed out, The Truman Show also works as send-up of the entertainment industry. This reading seems pretty obvious -- aren't Hollywood directors legendary for their egos and their amorality. Audience members pretty well assume they're going to be cynically manipulated by a lot of their entertainment. The only thing that's surprising is how often they play along. Christof is willing to manipulate and use Truman for comercial gain, just like producers and directors (and publishers and entrepreneurs and corporations of all kinds) are sometimes wont to use up their creative people then disgard them. Nor is it just Christof who is cynical. Meryl is willing to sleep with her unwitting stage husband -- just part of the job description. Laura Linney, who plays Meryl (or rather who plays Hannah Gill, the actress who plays Meryl), has said in an interview the characters were encouraged to imagine "back stories" to help them visualize their roles, and that she imagined Meryl getting a several thousand dollar bonus each time she had sex with Truman. Of course it's almost a cliche for an actress to use sex to advance a Hollywood career. The shooting script, available in bookstores with forward and notes by Niccol and Wier, is full of such details.
The final credits come in three separate listings: Truman's World, Christof's World, and the Viewers, and and interesting aspect of the film for me was the difference in acting and visual styles in each of these three worlds. In Truman's world people are acting, and sometimes that's painfully obvious, but other scenes (such as Marlon's on the bridge) seem strikingly sincere -- until we cut away to Christof's world and see Christof feeding Marlon dialog in real time, and controlling the cameras, and cuing the fellow providing background music on the piano we assumed was for us, not for the in-film Viewers. But Christof and others in his high-tech control-room show emotion too. It's not so hard to remember that that's Noah Ememerich playing Marlon (or rather playing Louis Coltrain playing Marlon), but we all to easily forget that that's Ed Harris, the actor, not a producer named Christof choking on his equally-real tears. Then there are the tears of the anonymous barmaids, with the odd, hidden-video camera angle and the streaked makeup. Truman's world is always sunny, people always cheerful, the scenarios reminiscent of a soap opera. Christof's world is dark and full of bloated images and control panels, people focused and businesslike, with scenarios remeniscent of a high tech thriller. The viewers dwell in bedrooms and bars and bathrooms and seem spontaneous and natural, as though we should be any more swayed by these actors tears. All these layers of artifice are relevant to the different interpretations I've offered (Christof as type of Lucifer, as type of Christ, as parent, and as artistic producer), but they work in the here and now as well. Depending on our tastes as (real world) viewers, we're drawn in by any or all of these film styles, even as they undercut each other (ambivalence again). This film as skewers everyone, not least of all us, the fickle, gullible audience. The film ends with a couple of night watchmen, almost shaken with emotion, in the moments after The Truman Show finale. The world has held still for this, but after a few seconds of static, one of the watchmen says to the other, "What else is on," as his workmate reaches toward the camera to turn the knob.
Which of these interpretations is correct, then? I think they all are, because I think readers ought to be free to read analogically when they find familiar patterns. But in this case I think they all are because the authors sensed a pattern that is central to our identity and no doubt anticipated readings much like these. Ambivalence in this kind of writing is a virtue because it makes for rich readings, with the different interpretations playing off each other and suggesting continually new insights, as I've tried to suggest a few times here. As I alluded to also, this is how much scripture works. Christ said to the Pharisees, "Well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:7-9). He was quoting Isaiah 29 (v. 13), but every Mormon who's read the Joseph Smith pamphlet knows those words were fulfilled in Joseph Smith's day (Joseph Smith -- History 1:19). The trick I think to reading typologically (besides getting the Spirit of course) is to preserve that ambivalence -- work with one interpretation of a scripture (or book or poem or movie) but keep the others in mind. The "marvellous work and a wonder" of Isaiah 29 might refer to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon for us, but it probably had reference to the seige of Sennacherib to Isaiah's contemporaries. Christ's quoting those verses to the Pharisees no doubt carried the threat of a similar seige of Jerusalem, and we can infer from these other readings that the Book of Mormon is to come forth amid the tumult and destructions of the last days.
Two more comments. First, one of the early scenes in Truman is of a spotlight falling from the studio roof and crashing near Truman's house. Truman picks it up and sees, penned on duct tape, the words "9 Cannis Major." This was one of the stars fallen from the sky. As Marlon says when he's disabusing Truman of his solopsistic fantasy, how could everybody be in on the joke but him? Isn't he being a little self-important to think anyone would go to all that trouble just for him? But that's just what Moses asked Jehovah: "And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?" (Moses 1:30). And it turns out it is all for us, mortality (the drama), the world (our studio), a big chunk of the sky no doubt. Jehovah answers, "For behold, this is my work and my glory -- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (v. 39). Second, there are doubtless dozens of possible interpretations. (As I think Chris suggested, you could see this as asserting God is a control freak and recommending following Trumans example and getting out from under his thumb.) None holds up in every detail, and it's certain they can't all literally be true. Embracing ambivalence is like embracing a cloud. What's in there to hold onto in these contradictory readings? The intimation that gave rise to all of them. If we read Wordsworth's "Ode" all the ways it can be read, what we wind up with is the urging to hold onto the remnant of preexistent memory, in spite of every creed. In the case of The Truman Show, I'd say it's to play the play, to test out well, never to grow rigid in the interpretation one puts on life's vagueries, and to have faith. That's what I want to say finally. Typology requires us to be supple, which is a form of humility. We do well to read the drama of our own lives that way. And the best art teaches us to focus on the truths we brought into the world.
------ Benson Parkinson is a writer and editor. His published works include The MTC: Set Apart (Aspen 1995) and S. Dilworth Young (Covenant 1994). He originated and moderates AML-List. He and his wife live with their five children in South Ogden, Utah.
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