Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Panoptic System and The Truman Show

Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show starring Jim Carey is about a man named Truman Burbank whose life and world is simulated, filmed, and aired on television without his knowledge or consent.  It isn’t until Truman realizes that his town, and its people, seems to revolve around him that he discovers that his life is scripted, leaving Christof, the director of the show, and the viewers (of both Weir’s film and Christof’s television show) wondering if Truman will escape this hyperreal world.   
A deeper understanding of The Truman Show can be provided by looking at it in context of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations – I. ThePrecession of Simulacra.  In this piece, the panoptic system is explored as it relates to reality TV, specifically the 1971 televising of the Loud family:
The producer’s triumph was to say: “They lived as if we were not there.”  An absurd, paradoxical formula – neither true nor false: Utopian.  The “as if we were not there” being equal to “as if you were there.” It is this Utopia, this paradox that fascinated the twenty million viewers, much more than did the ‘perverse’ pleasure of violating someone’s privacy. (10)
As in Truman’s case, he was completely unaware that he was being filmed around the clock, but for his viewers, like the servers in the restaurant and the man in the bathtub, it was as if they, too, were living in this utopian world that Christof created.  Baudrillard goes on to compare this state to a porno, which is “fascinating” because it entails “pleasure in the microscopic simulation that allows the real to pass into the hyperreal” (11).  On the surface level, Truman’s world seems hyperreal, and the world in which his viewers exist seems real, but perhaps they intersect?  Furthermore, Baudrillard argues that “it is the camera lens that, like a laser, comes to pierce lived reality in order to put it to death” (11).  This is evident even in the way Weir filmed The Truman Show.  The filming techniques used, such as the iris shot (which looks as if you’re looking through a camera lens), express when Truman is being filmed and watched by the viewers of the show.  This brings life to the viewers, but “death” to Truman’s lived reality. 
This is an iris shot.  This shows how the world (like the servers at the restaurant) are presently viewing Truman on TV.
While this shows Truman simply living in the simulated world that he has just discovered.  This is seen through the eyes of the viewers of Weir's film, rather than the viewers of Christof's television show.
            Another interesting concept to consider is how morality and values change our perception of what is "real."  I believe this is a common theme in today's society.  Look at social media and the online realm, for example.  Many people are concerned with the difference in degrees of "reality" between this virtual world and the "real" world.  However, just because these changing spheres affect or touch on our values, it doesn't necessarily make them any less real.  Truman's world may not have been true or honest to him (values we hold dear), and it may have been immoral, but when Christof tells Truman, "You were real," is he incorrect?  Sure, Christof may be wrong ethically, but like Baudrillard exemplified in the case of the porno, Truman's world does seem to be a combination of the real and the hyperreal.  Even though the world around him was controlled (which, who is to say is not real?), he was still very much real to his audience and even to himself in the beginning when he accepted this as his reality.  One of my favorite quotes from the film was when Christof said, "If he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, he would."  I couldn't agree more (and I was very delighted when Truman did discover the truth and did leave this world or television set), but I think this says more about living our dreams and overcoming our fears than it does about the concept of the real versus the simulated world. 

1 comment:

  1. I love thinking about the "real" people in the film: the guy in the bathtub and those others. So fun how quickly we all, as viewers, just agree to see them as more "real" than those on The Truman Show, even though they are framed by the actual screens of the televisions or computer screens upon which we view them. And the film seems to poke fun at our willingness to buy these folks as real, since they are the silliest, most caricatured people in the film-- they seem more like movie characters than the characters in The Truman Show. (Now I notice that we don't know what I mean anymore when I say The Truman Show; is it is the show in the film , or the film itself?) And all of this does seem so Baudrillardian, as he demonstrates through the Louds that reality TV has shifted us all into both viewers and actors, productively or frighteningly confusing the question of who is real and who is just a corporate construct. So much more to love in your post-- I've really just tacked a few moments from the beginning of what you say here. Good stuff!


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