Through a detailed film analysis of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, I will explore Camus’ concept of the Absurd, then demonstrate and examine his prescription for dealing with it. This paper will consist of two parts, the first will address the turn of events in the film, the second, puts the film against camus’ Absurd and Revolt.
Peter Weir’s The Truman Show; Documenting the Philosophy of Existentialism
Within the first sequence of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show, which was an interview-like sequence about a reality TV show called ‘The Truman Show,’ Meryl, the wife of Truman, appears in the film for the first time, right after we’re introduced to the characters of Christof and Truman respectively, the former being the creator of and the mastermind behind the TV show. Bringing to mind Socrates’ Noble Lie, Meryl says: “It’s a noble life”, talking about the show, which is an interesting phrase chosen to describe Truman’s reality. Not only this was a wink-wink kind of wordplay in the film; the protagonist’s name heavily resembles ‘true man’. Truman doesn’t know it’s a staged show; it has started the minute he was born.
A close-up shot of Christof talking to us appears in the beginning, he asserts how his show is authentic, unlike those shows where “actors give us phony emotions”, and how although “the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit”, Truman is a real character with no scripts or cue cards. Then he ends that first shot with the sentence: “it’s a life”. The second shot starts with an extreme close-up of Truman’s eyes in a mirror, the camera zooms out until it becomes a close shot of what looks like a small screen, within it, Truman speaks to himself in the mirror like a crazy man, with the word “live” shown on the screen. As if he’s speaking to the Sisyphus in him, Truman tells himself in the mirror: “I’m not gonna make it, you’re gonna have to go on without me. No way mister, you’re going to the top of this mountain, broken legs and all”. In the same beginning sequence, Truman’s best friend, Marlon, appears after Meryl to confirm that: “it’s all true, it’s all real. […] Nothing you see on this show is fake; it’s merely controlled”. We’re presented with odd statements about Truman’s reality, it’s counterfeit, but he’s not, it’s real, yet merely controlled. Day 10,909 of Truman’s life starts when we hear his wife’s voice interrupts the crazy man talk to remind him that he’s late to work -he cuts the talk and prepares himself to go to his daily routine. Like a good neighbor, he tells his neighbors good morning. In the same scene where we’re introduced to the area he lives in, the camera angles, the set design, the characters of the neighbors are crafted carefully to set in the viewer a weird feeling about Truman’s reality, we see a very USA middle-class kind of neighborhood, everything about it looks too stereotypical, until a piece of lighting equipment falls from the sky, which marks the beginning of many strange encounters for Truman we see in the film. He picks it up and reads on it “Sirius (9 canis major)”, Sirius is the brightest star that was mentioned in Book 22 of Homer’s Iliad:
“Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity” (30)
The day continues like a regular day, where we see the people of Seahaven, Truman’s city, going about their lives, or basically, their roles in the show. Truman greets the people he knows, he stops some of them and makes small talks like “Beautiful day. How are you? I’m good” with, banners of advertisements are shown behind him, as if the whole point of that conversation is to sell something. Everything we see at this point is contributing to the TV show concept that has already been established; throughout the film, everyone around Truman is acting in a way to make him think that this is the best possible scenario for his life; the show must go on or those actors would lose their jobs. His colleague at work randomly shows him this newspaper headline about Seahaven voted “best place on earth”, his best friend tells him he’d “kill for a desk job” like the one Truman has when the latter opens up about wanting to quit and leave Seahaven, his wife reminds him of the many financial obligations they have and how they should also have a baby after he tells her he wants them to travel somewhere, also the bizarre warnings of life-threatening travel risks in the travel office. Truman has “itchy feet” and feels that something new has to happen in his life, he seems unable to endure the norm of his reality anymore. He keeps thinking about going to Fiji, an island in the South Pacific, the place where he believes a lost love of his during college days resides in at the moment. But later in the film, Fiji serves as some kind of ‘elsewhere’ that he longs for, an emancipation from his boredom with everything around him; a ‘breakout’. He tells Marlon that Fiji is on the opposite side of the globe from where they are: “You can’t get any further away before you start coming back”; a bit dark for describing a place one longs for, a place where one lives happily ever after, a breakout from life norms. Many strange encounters we see throughout the film made him question the world around him intensively, he starts to perceive things and people differently, he begins to sense more and more the synchronization and the repetition of all the actions and events in his world. We now have a Truman who is experiencing an awakening, an impulse for revolt. Throughout the film, we’re reminded every now and then of the TV show premise by showing us scenes of different viewers in various places watching The Truman Show on TVs, creating a strong sense of similarity between those viewers and the actors in the TV show itself, in terms of costumes, actions, roles in society, etc.
Christof, threatened by Truman’s doubts, considers introducing something new into Truman’s life, perhaps a new romantic episode, or bringing his father back to life; he must feel better, happier, and more satisfied with his life. By doing something like this, Christof is trying to recreate a strong faith in Truman about his reality. This is what we always do for ourselves, we build meanings for our existence, and it varies and develops as we grow, we try to make it more sophisticated every time, so that it can stay convincing enough for us to keep living.
After a long and intensive battle between Truman and his reality, he finally starts his journey of salvation in a massive sea of uncertainty; emancipating from Christof’s authority over his life scenarios, as well as the extreme fear he himself has of being in the water. Christof, as a final try, stages a massive artificial storm in order to disrupt Truman from leaving. Truman survives the storm, exhausted of course, but to his reward, his boat smashes the fake, constructed horizon which basically marks the limit of his reality, demolishing what’s left of his faith in it. At that moment, exactly when we expect a beautiful sight of an eternal utopian salvation behind the exit door that Truman finally opens, we see nothing but pitch-black darkness, a territory too unidentified for the filmmaker to even imagine. Truman, in front of the exit door, has his last conversation with Christof, who I’d rather say by now is Truman’s own consciousness, which directs his actions. Christof, in vain, tries his best in that last conversation to convince Truman to stay, saying things I find striking: “There’s no more truth out there than in the world I created for you. […] I know you better than you know yourself. You’re afraid, that’s why you can’t leave. […] I have been watching you your whole life. […] You belong here, with me”. As if we’re listening to the last words of a desperate inner voice of a man about to commit an inevitable suicide. This is a moment in the film where the boundaries that were created in the mind of the spectator, between Christof and Truman, vanish. It’s not a conflict between our protagonist and some outsider evil forces anymore; it’s a conflict inside him, I claim.
The Truman Show excellently creates that unnerving feeling in the spectators caused by the unignorable similarity between their own reality and what they’re told is a fake one. A reality which we want to enjoy the catharsis of not being part of; yet we can’t quite do. In the film, during an interview for a TV program honoring his 30-years success making the show, Christof says: “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that”; it seems like it’s just not as simple for people like Truman.
If Camus saw the film, he would wonder about the possibility for a person to have a more absurd life than a futile life like Truman’s? Are our lives in this world not very similar to the misery to which Sisyphus and Truman were condemned? That daily routine that we live in, and those actions that we repeat every day without a goal to reach? This also raises another question for us, isn’t death in this case an emancipation for man from this eternal boredom? These questions lie at the heart of Albert Camus’s existentialist philosophy, although Camus seems to deny that he is an existential philosopher, but his works revolve -more or less- around an issue that lies at the heart of existential philosophy; the issue of the meaning of life in this world.
‘I said that the world is absurd but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable. That is all that can be said but what is observed is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity who’s called echoes in the human heart the Absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.’ (455)
From the quote above, it is clear that in Camus’ philosophy, absurdity does not come from the fact that the world itself is absurd, but rather in its non-conformity with the standards of our reason and rationality, and therefore in the chasm between human consciousness and what already exists, for reason/consciousness is embodied by the question of “why?”, which is inherently an inquiry for some kind of understanding or justification of the state of things. However, every inquiry of this type leads to another inquiry, and the questions will not end in this case. In terms of understanding, and even accepting the answer, life remains absurd, given that understanding does not give us satisfaction. Hence, the absurd is, in essence, a confrontation between rational beings and an indifferent world. This is what Truman experienced since his first strange encounter, which was, in the film, an odd event or accident scripted to serve as a metaphor for that ‘why?’, the strange encounter doesn’t matter much here, it was just one of the ways for the screenwriter to tell us that Truman is starting to question his existence, and that encounter was dealt with by Christof only to be followed by more and stranger encounters; the series of ‘whys’ that Truman eventually pursued.
A hypothesized Camus’ analysis of The Truman Show, just like that of the myth of Sisyphus, would not be to show the absurdity and triviality of human existence as it might seem at first glance, but rather -I claim- to provide a critique of modern man’s fascination with rationality and objectivity in dealing with life, because the question that occupies the contemporary man is the question of meaning or feasibility, and that turns life into dry numbers and facts. When we raise the question: why does Sisyphus do this useless act without putting an end to the tragedy he is experiencing ?, we basically convey here a rational, materialistic conception of life, but what if this conception was conflicted with the truth of the world. Unlike Sisyphus, Truman finally decided to put an end, but what do we know about that end other than that it is a dark unmapped area behind that exit door; suicide. Camus’ advice to Truman would’ve been not to leave, but to, instead, stay in Christof’s world, though while still being aware of it being the absurd world it is. To stay there, play with it, and try to revolt in all ways possible; to be a glitch in that ‘system’ -so to speak-.
Camus believes that the legend of Sisyphus does not necessarily reflect or care about the human tragedy in an absurd life, as much as the challenge and the constant struggle itself. Sisyphus could end his life and -with that- end this eternal punishment. But he, according to Camus, bravely chose to challenge his destiny and move forward in facing this fate. Thus, the meaning lies in giving value to everything we do in this life, no matter how small and humble, and in considering the journey of our lives is the goal in itself, that is the fuel that provides us with the ability to survive and continue rolling our rock without tiredness or boredom; again, a choice Truman opted out of.
However, on another note, you can also make the argument that Camus, when describing life as absurd, implies the existence of a ruler by which he measures then decides its absurdity? This necessarily means that he’s comparing to some kind of order, but from where did he come up with that idea of order if it did not exist before in his consciousness? Such is the case with the idea of good and evil, justice, injustice, right and wrong. If we assume that there are no innate ideas in humans, as many would claim, then when we encounter life and contemplate it, we cannot describe it as chaotic or orderly, and all judgments will be equal and correct at the same time.
Camus’ acceptance of absurdity is the solution in which a person accepts the futility of this life and goes on living it in spite of that. Camus endorsed this solution, believing that acceptance of this absurdity could bring man the ultimate freedom, by understanding the absence of religious or moral restrictions -against what Kierkegaard and those who commited a ‘philosophical suicide’ according to Camus, advocated-, and also by disrupting the absurdity at the same time, which he accepted as something that could not be stopped. On the other side, however, Kierkegaard would consider this solution a ‘demonic madness’.
Truman, while being on the same page with Camus with regards to recognizing the absurdity of living in his world, parted ways with the latter when it came to his approach in dealing with that absurdity. Truman couldn’t see the point in a revolt, against the world, yet within the arbitrary, absurd laws of that same world. It’s true he could’ve tried to have fun playing with and subverting Christof’s scenarios for him, nonetheless, that would’ve still taken place within Christof’s world, and sooner than later, Christof will adapt and develop answers and techniques to counter Truman’s ‘revolt’. Therefore, our protagonist preferred the ‘go big or go home’ approach; exiting once and for all Christof’s world, all with acknowledging and embracing the unknown-ness of what it is like outside. In defense of Truman, I quote Camus himself here: ‘The principle can be established that for a man who does not cheat what he believes to be true must determine his action belief in the absurdity of existence must then dictate his conduct.’ (444)
I really want to agree with Camus’ version of revolt, and I do believe that his approach can be a good answer to the absurdity of existence and a reasonable way to deal with it, however, my only issue is with calling that ‘revolt’, mainly because it is in itself designed and manufactured by the absurdity that it was set out against in the first place.