In the last few years, America has undergone a significant cultural change. Previously, almost no criticism of the media reached the public, except for some of the complaints of business interests and conservatives. The media controlled the "means of communication" and it used that power to censor virtually all discussion of its own role in shaping events
But now -- at last -- we are starting to get some public debate over the way the media manipulates public opinion and routinely creates fictions that masquerade as facts. The change has taken place in large measure because the media itself has become so powerful and so out of control, there is no longer any way for it to keep what it is doing under wraps.
Ironically, one of the voices that is being raised against it is none other than that of the ultimate media machine, Hollywood. While celebrities take on the tabloid photographers who follow them around, the movie and television industry is giving us depictions of venal reporters and scheming entertainment conglomerates, which pull no punches when it comes to revealing how amoral our culture industry has become.
Recently, there have been two important examples of this trend. In the flawed but interesting movie, Bulworth, Hollywood has given us a depiction of a politician who challenges the phony world of media-politics by offering bluntness in place of rhetorical manipulation. In the brilliantly-conceived (and imperfectly executed) satire, The Truman Show, it shows us a character who also challenges -- and ultimately escapes from -- a contrived world that is an invention of media. Both movies have the same message: we will have to stand up to the manipulators of television and news if we want to protect ourselves from the absurdity and falsehood that now surrounds us at every turn.
As most people know by now, The Truman Show conveys this message by depicting a series of fateful events in the life of Truman Burbank, (played by Jim Carrey) who has grown up, and lives, in a fake town full of actors. The town is enclosed in a giant dome decked out with high-tech simulations of sun and sky, in which the rain and wind are courtesy of the special effects department. Truman alone has no idea he is in a giant TV studio, as the rest of humanity watches him go from one staged situation to another in a nonstop telethon of reality programming that lets audiences enjoy a little pathos and vicarious emotion.
But into this ersatz paradise, there inevitably appears a snake. After the crew makes mistakes that cause the seamlessness of the illusion to break down, Truman figures out that his surroundings are full of staged scenes and events. He then tries to make his escape, only to come up against both his own fears, which keep him from leaving, and the obstacles put in his way by the producer-director who has made billions trapping him in a stage set and playing God with his life.
Thus does the movie offer us a metaphor for our own situation. The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions. Like our media landscape, it is convincing in its realism, with lifelike simulations and story lines, from the high-tech facsimile of a sun that benevolently beams down on Truman to the mock sincerity of the actor he mistakenly believes is his best friend. It is also rewarding and masquerades as something benevolent. And it is seamless -- there are almost no flaws that give away the illusion -- at least until things start to go wrong.
Truman's fear of leaving this invented world, once he realizes it is a fraud, is similarly like our own reluctance to break our symbiotic relationship with media. His growing suspicion that what he is seeing is staged for his benefit is our own suspicions as the media-fabricated illusions around us begin to break down. And the producer-director of this stage-set world, who blocks Truman's effort to escape, is the giant media companies, news organizations, and media-politicians that have a stake in keeping us surrounded by falsehood, and are prepared to lure us with rewards as they block efforts at reforming the system.
What gives this metaphor life is the way the movie depicts two attitudes we routinely take toward media. In one, we are absorbed by it; we accept its rendition of reality because it occupies our view. We are like children whose parents define their world. The lifelikeness and seamlessness of media fabrications and the fact that they are entertaining, help induce this attitude in us. We frequently experience it while reading news stories and watching television and movies.
In the second attitude, we distance ourselves from media. We examine its meaning and try to understand the intentions of its authors. This second attitude is what makes criticism -- and freedom -- possible.
In life, we frequently switch from one attitude to another and mix them together. In watching television, we may easily become absorbed in the program. Then something will jar us out of our spell, such as a breakdown in the illusion or the expression of ideas we disagree with. As a result, we will suddenly distance ourselves from what we are watching, and perhaps ridicule it or suspect the intentions of its creators. The critics of media have been trying to get us to cultivate this second attitude, so we will see through the falsehood we are offered on a daily basis.
The movie depicts just such a change in attitude as a transformation in the way Truman sees his surroundings and as a physical journey. First, Truman is absorbed by his stage-set world. He is convinced it is real and it occupies his view. Then, as a result of flaws in the seamlessness of the illusion, he begins to question it. He develops a healthy paranoia -- are they watching him; can he know what is authentic? As he makes his escape, and the producer of the show blocks him at every turn, that is the creators of the movie telling us that we too have to take a journey -- of mind -- and distance ourselves from this media landscape, if we want to secure our freedom.
The movie also depicts the critics who invite us to see through media illusions in the form of characters who try to warn Truman he is on television. Most notably, there is the woman who reveals to him that he is on TV, before she is removed from the set. His dream of finding her is also the dream that, at first, he doesn't know he has, of finding the truth of the outside world, where there are genuine relationship in place of the saccharin marriage he believes is authentic.
The movie wants to play the role of just such a critic for us. It tells us to look around and break the spell that keeps us believing in the media-fabricated illusions of popular culture.
Of course, the movie is also a form of media. As it conveys these ideas to us in dramatic form, we are absorbed by its own take on the meaning of things. Like Truman, we are manipulated and entertained by its lifelike simulations and story line. We identify with Truman and psychologically become a part of his world. So the movie uses the manipulations of media in order to manipulate us into seeing through the manipulations of media.
As with many other forms of media, we are enriched by allowing ourselves to be taken over by its theme. But we also need to create a more critical distance, escape its invented world, and think about its meaning and effect on us, so we can use it to enhance our perceptions instead of allowing it to use us.
What is said here is true of all media -- including this site. It too seeks to draw you in; to try to structure your perception of things. It too requires a critical distance, so you can use it to enhance your perceptions and not merely be manipulated by it.
That brings us to another element depicted in the movie -- you (and me). The movie isn't only a satire of television and other forms of media. It aims many of its most pointed barbs at us, the audience. After all, as we watch the characters hanging on Truman's every expression so they can feel something, that is us we see depicted on the screen. We are the one's who make this system possible, the movie tells us. The willingness of the audience to exploit Truman so it can enjoy his life as entertainment is our own willingness to exploit an endless parade of human victims of news and reality programming because they have the misfortune to be part of some "newsworthy" event. And both the audience and Truman portray our willingness to experience an easier and more exciting substitute for life, which is what fuels the media machine.
So Truman and the audience depict us. We're the villains and victims and hero of The Truman Show. And, ultimately, the only illusions we have to escape are the ones we create ourselves.
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