Throughout time, cinema has always had the fascinating ability of connecting viewers to a story, while purposely obscuring the means by which it does so. This imperceptiveness of cinematic language has gradually evolved over time, as filmmakers are creating methods to showcase this art in more abstract ways. Particularly within The Truman Show (Weir, 1998), Weir uses layers of complexity to do just this. With use of cinematic techniques, he creates a piece that encompasses narrative, artistic expression, and a reflection of culture. It is safe to argue that The Truman Show is a philosophical film advanced beyond its years, mainly because of the complexity of its themes. Between major scenes showing the advertisement of commercial products, the perplexity Truman encounters as he takes a deeper look into his own world, and the final goodbye Truman willfully gets to have, the film takes a philosophical standpoint that addresses millennial issues with a negative perspective. The themes of commercialization, perception of reality/authenticity, and free will versus determinism are explored to portray such a claim.
Considered to be one of the climaxes of the film, the scene where Truman’s wife interrupts an emotional moment by happily offering Truman coffee represents the commercialization of televised media, critiquing the industry’s desire to commercialize an art form rather than making quality art. In Truman’s world, everything displayed in the simulated town is a product, from the meals Truman eats, to the wardrobe that he and the townspeople boast. Nothing about Truman’s life is genuine- not even Truman, as he is inadvertently a living product himself. During this scene, as Truman was trying to connect with his wife, there was a clear disengagement from her end. Randomly through the conversation, she raises a coffee product to the screen, delicately placing her hands on the sides to accentuate the product’s design (Weir, 00:53:45 – 00:53:55). During this, the Truman Show itself utilizes numerous aspects of mise-en-scène to foreshadow, conceptually and analytically, how sources of entertainment are solely becoming mediums for advertising rather than creative pieces of work. One technique of mise-en-scène being used in this scene is composition. The specific, purposeful, arrangement of the coffee within the frame ultimately functions as endorsement. Because it is arranged as a close up, it helps the viewer’s eye become aware of what is significant at the moment, as the coffee is organized on the screen while being held up and praised. Other than simply composition, different aspects of mise-en-scene, such as figure movement and expression of the actors, are also used on the show. Both are conveyed so inauthentically that it seems to be used by Weir as almost a mockery of advertisement in the film industry as a whole. Whenever promoting a product to the viewers, the physical performance of Truman’s wife becomes nonnaturalistic through her excessive gestures and peculiar dialogue. Although clearly shaken up by Truman’s actions and fearing for her life, his wife still remains able to crack a phony smile while delivering the lines, “Why don’t you let me fix you some of this Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No natural sweeteners.” (00:53:45 – 00:53:55). Weir chooses this scene especially to depict the irony of mixing reality television with merchandising. Despite the goal of eliminating “phony emotions” with “no scripts” (Weir, 00:00:08 – 00:00:45), initially mentioned by Christof. The robot-like and phony nature of the scene highlights how The Truman Show itself is heavily sprinkled with inauthenticity, inspired by a rising culture of commercialization and uniformity.
Additionally, the scene where Truman goes about the revolving doors while on his way to work, being one of the first times he recognizes the suspicious nature of his environment, inarguably explores the theme of reality perception and authenticity. With increasing popularity of the reality television genre and the habitual tendency to overshare everything on media outlets, it has become difficult to differentiate what is real about a person from what is only a façade, intended solely for the pleasure of an audience. This scene emphasizes the doubt that might often come with observing reality and finding authenticity in situations. It captures Truman on his way to work, walking through a set of revolving doors. As he goes through, he begins to irresolutely circle the doors numerous times, dubiously glaring at his surroundings. He keeps this wary look on his face while rotating from the darkness of the building inside to the light shining outside (Weir, 00:31:08 – 00:31:38). The mise-en-scène in this scene is almost entirely controlled by the lighting. The high ratio of bright illumination compared to the deep shadows across Truman’s face is used to signify the war between reality and fantasy going on in his mind. As he begins to doubt the things around him, he circles the outside of the revolving door, thus evenly and intensely illuminating his face. This production of high-key lighting reveals that at this point, Truman is enlightened. He finally sees that his life isn’t real at all. However, as he circles back toward the inside of the door his face is highly contrasted, giving off a harsh and gloomy atmosphere produced by low-key lighting. As Truman finally walks into the light, viewers further dive into the theme of questioning reality’s legitimacy using elements such as diegetic sounds and hidden cameras. The verisimilitude of the film, as seen through obstructed shots and strange point of views, reminds viewers that reality isn’t always real. The audience experiences the voyeuristic and non-omniscient sentiment that actual fans of the Truman Show would have. Ultimately, the lighting, sound, and verisimilitude are all tools Weir utilizes in this scene to probe viewers into finding the flaws in the seamlessness of illusions all around us, a negative foreshadowing of issues Weir believed may experience with the rise of technology.
Lastly, the film introduces the everlasting debate between free will and determinism. Although all events throughout the film and Truman’s life coincide with the belief that our fates are already determined, the last scene counters that, controversially representing the film’s final assertion that free will can be achieved, but only after we experience difficulty with it. Weir accomplishes this in a cinematically bold way, using sound to appeal to the senses as Truman delivers his final lines. The scene begins by using external sound. Coming from a place within the story and assumed to be heard by the characters in that world, Christof’s dialogue represents the authority that Truman was bound by his whole life. His words offer Truman the option of returning back into his command once again as he says, “You can’t leave Truman. You belong here, with me” (Weir, 1:34:06 – 1:34:17). As Truman is waiting to make a decision, he turns around, silently staring into the camera. All musical and vocal sounds are suppressed, provoking our normal perceptions and allowing the scene to speak for itself. He allows the silence to linger for a bit during a close up before giving the legendary final line, “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night” (Weir, 1:34:48 – 1:34:58). The absence of sound ultimately creates a sense of empowerment in Truman and viewers as he publically illustrates that we have the power of free will. Music then plays, a triumphant jingle that promotes a positive narrative of choosing one’s own path. Overlapping sound is used while images of viewers emotionally watching the show’s ending are crosscut with Truman victoriously waving his arms in the air. By using all of these techniques, Weir is able to assert through Truman that self-determination is a possibility for anyone, but with some costs. This gives a negative predication that media and technology will ruin us first before we realize the dangerous effects they come with.
The themes of commercialization, perception of reality/authenticity, and free will versus determinism allow the film to be essentially a foreshadowing of millennial developments and societal trends. Because it displays these abstract ideas through cinematics so well, the film is a philosophical take on the consequence of future issues we may encounter. After escaping from the controlling reality series that was his life, the film ultimately paved the way for an abundance of reality television. Almost two decades later, more than fifty percent of the television audience is tuned into a reality TV show. Even if we are not involved in an official reality series, we basically star in our own reality shows, from updating pictures on Instagram to statuses on Facebook, to even vlogs on Youtube. The cautionary prediction of The Truman Show was even surpassed by audiences, as we’ve selected a reality star as our own president. All in all, these cautionary subtexts are able to be interpreted by the audience by manipulating things such as sound, editing, acting, and mise-en-scène. These techniques were ever so carefully constructed and used purposely, as each detail is highly scrutinized and carefully placed for a more fluid connection to the audience, thus making The Truman Show a great film.