Musings on The Truman Show and Pleasantville

This week’s Thursday Night Bar Fight about living in a TV show of your choosing has got me thinking about two movies. I didn’t have either in mind when I came up with the Bar Fight, but now that they’ve pricked my brain I can’t let go of them: The Truman Show and Pleasantville.

These two movies have several basic things in common:  Like the Bar Fight, each has a plot centered on real-life people living inside of a television show.  Each acts as a kind of satire on television shows in particular and our consumption of media in general.  Each was released in 1998, and perhaps in part because of this they are often confused with one another by those that have not seen them.  Even though they each get good audience and critic scores on Rotten Tomatoes, most people I know did not like either of them.  Oh, they have one more commonality of note: I found each to be both brilliant and profound, perhaps more so than originally intended by their creators.   Each one haunts me to this day. 

The Truman Show stars Jim Carrey, and was the first serious role he undertook after coming off of his string of “wacky” comedy hits that included Liar Lair, The Cable Guy, Dumb and Dumber and the Ace Ventura movies.  Trailers for it featured those few scenes that had Carey hamming it up with his signature goofy voices and facial expressions, but it was such a departure from the traditional Carey vehicle that it confused a lot of audiences at the time.

truman-showThe plot takes place in the somewhat near future.  Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man adopted as a baby by a television production company, and who is the unwitting star of a reality television show watched by just about everyone in the country.  His entire life exists in a fake “town” that is actually a huge television set with hidden cameras everywhere. Everyone Truman has ever known is just a paid actor jockeying behind the scenes for more on-camera time.  (This includes his wife, played by Laura Linney in what is the film’s best performance.)  The only person in the world not in on the joke is Truman himself.

As the movie begins, a few misfires on the TV set arouse Truman’s suspicions that his reality is somehow not what it has always seemed.  From there on out the movie becomes a kind of cat and mouse game between two characters that never once meet face to face.  The first is the increasingly confused Truman; the second is Cristof, the creator and director of the television show in which Truman stars.  The battle of wits and wills between the two increases, until Cristof almost kills Truman with a tremendous storm created on the set.

On its face, The Truman Show is a farce about media consumption in America.  At its heart, however, it is a modern retelling of the story of Job.  Truman is a man who goes searching for answers about his very existence when his life begins to turn upside down; as he does so, his creator lashes out with punishment, misdirection and – worst of all – silence.  Cristof does this partially to thwart the inquiry, but he is motivated too by the desire to see what his creation will do when pushed just that much further into the existential abyss.  As the movie progresses and Cristof’s power over Truman’s universe is shown to be near infinite, so, too, is his love for his own creation.  That he may choose to kill his creation does not lessen that love.

It may be the least sterilized and most heartfelt depiction of the relationship between God and man that a non-indie Hollywood film has ever produced.

While The Truman Show is a Job story that deals with the consequences of God’s giving his creation free will, Pleasantville sets its sights on the more earthbound but similarly profound creation of art.

Ipleasantville-book-burningn Pleasantville, a fairy tale wish sends modern teens Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon into a black and white Leave It to Beaver-like television show where dads always come home and moms always have cookies and a smile waiting after school.  Life in Pleasantville is initially pleasant and predictable for the teens, as one finds comfort and the other power in their new, simpler home.  Soon, however, their three-dimensional complexities begin to change Pleasantville’s cardboard world.  Color begins to infect the black-and-white world for good and ill.  The passions and non-conformity the teens engender bring beauty, music and literature – but they also bring ugliness, bigotry and hatred.

Aside from the protagonists, the most important character in the story is a budding artist (played by Jeff Daniels) who paints in awe as he watches his newly conceived visions unfold by his own hand.  The power of his creations eventually move others – to love, to illicit passion, to violence, even to seek justice.  That this character acts as the lynchpin of so many of the plot’s turns is not, I think, by accident.

The entire movie works as an allegory for the impulses and processes of creating art, both the willful destruction and disregard of the status quo that came before and the things of transcendence that sometimes – but not always – follow.

The endings of both movies are entirely ambiguous in ways I find perfect.

screen-shot-2011-03-29-at-5-09-50-pm-2The Truman Show ultimately asks the question, if given the chance to go back to the Garden would we still choose to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge?  But once answered, it decidedly refuses to answer the question of what happens once we make such a decision; the movie never lets us know what happens to Truman once he takes the bite.  That quandary, for both Truman and ourselves, is left for us to ponder as the credits roll by.

By time we reach the end of Pleasantville that apple has long since been devoured. In the last and surrealistically ambiguous minute of the film we are asked to consider how we should cope with our newly achieved free will, and we are reminded that no matter which path we choose out of the Garden both happiness and pain will both follow.

If you haven’t seen them, I urge you to do so.  They may be the most underrated “deep” films ever made by non-indie Hollywood.

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29 thoughts on “Musings on The Truman Show and Pleasantville

  1. Yeah I loved both those movies.
    Also the music that plays when the Truman show’s creator confronts his creation is mind meltingly gorgeous.


  2. I love the Truman Show, largely for the reasons you describe. (Also because Jim Carrey is amazing when someone keeps him in check. Will Ferrell too, though the only example I know of is Stranger than Fiction.) Pleasantville seemed much dumber, because it was so focused on sex.


      • Never saw it. All I know is what Futurama thought.

        [Leela]: Their bodies are used to generate electricity. The idea came from an old movie called “The Matrix”
        [Bender]: But… But wouldn’t almost anything make a better battery than a human body? Like a potato… or a battery?
        [Fry]: Plus no matter how much energy they produce, it would take more energy than that to keep them alive.
        [Leala]: I know, I know, it sounds absurd. In fact, when “The Matrix” first came out, it seemed like the single crummiest, laziest, most awful dim-witted idea in the entire history of science fiction.


  3. The Truman Show is one of my favorite movies. Never seen Pleasantville. Sadly, neither is available to stream from netflix. Will go check if they’re available on Amazon.

    (And did you know that many movies are available for streaming free with your Amazon Prime account?)


  4. Thank you for this post. I also really enjoyed these two movies, and found that I was left thinking about them long after I’d watched them.

    I know one of the reasons I found Pleasantville moving was that I grew up a closeted gay kid. Living my own life meant eventually leaving behind the black and white world I’d grown up in. Leaving that world behind brought both loss and joy. The movie really resonated with my experience.


    • I think that was the real theme of Pleasantville: it was not so much a satire or critique of television, but of the repressiveness of pre-60s American culture, and how what appears idyllic through the lens of nostalgia was actually something that approached cultural fascism.

      The Truman Show I never cared for, because I thought it was a bit too “on the nose.” But Pleasantville is such a resonant movie that I re-watch it every few years.


      • You guys are right on about Pleasantville. And it was definitely sexual, and that’s OK too – at both levels you identify (Zane at the personal, Snarky at the societal). Leaving behind the black-and-white simplistic morality of childhood for an adulthood that’s altogether less safe and more ambiguous, with (as Tod’s OP also points out) all the possible pleasure and pain that comes with that.


        • To be honest, the movie rubbed me a bit the wrong way because I felt it was rather heavy-handed in its presentation. “Ohhh, the characters had unapproved SEX. They’re FREEEEEEEE (and in live color)!!!”


          • Was it “unapproved sex”? Or just “sex”? It’s been a while since I saw it but IIRC nobody knew what sex WAS, to approve or disapprove of. Even married couples had the TV-standard separate twin-beds with a nightstand in the middle.

            It wasn’t so much “transgress a taboo” as it was a metaphor for loss of virginity & childhood innocence and blossoming into adulthood (and I thought was tempered with some sadness at what was lost, in addition to joy at what was gained).

            But it’s been a while since I saw it.


            • Well, I guess I remember less nuance than you do.

              (To be fair, I disliked “Sweet Home, Alabama” because I had a real problem with its message and undertone. To which my wife asked, “There was a message?”) (“Yes! One of personal and spiritual regression. Not only an inability to escape, but an embrace of being stripped of your autonomy and pulled into a fabricated identity assigned to you at birth.”) (“What are you talking about?”) (“That movie.”) (“The one we just saw?”)


          • I don’t get this take. The transitions from B&W to color in the film are sparked by a huge number of things. Sex is one of them, but so is art, literature, poetry, love, civic duty, bravery, even passionate bigotry.

            I have to say, I think it might say more about guys who remember none of the metaphors except the sexual ones than it does about the script. Is it possible you all first saw it in your teens?


              • For me, sex in Pleasantville didn’t just represent self-indulgence. It represented identity and self. When sex is just sex, as it can be for folks who aren’t marginalized by their sexual orientation, it can be just another appetite to be enjoyed and managed. But for me, and probably most gay folks of my generation, sex was far more than that. Because our sex was forbidden, forcibly repressed, and not to be spoken of, it was not just an appetite. It is bound into desire, love, family and self in profound ways. Sexual freedom represented Freedom and the opportunity to be an authentic person.


                • Not to take away from your experience, nor compare the sexual repression faced by straights in the same time period to the much greater repression faced by gays, but I think this resonates a bit even with straight people raised in a somewhat sexually-repressive (say, hyper-religious) environment, if not quite to the same degree.


                  • I fully agree with you, Glyph. I was just wanting to point out that people can be differently situated in relation to the “freedom/identity vs. appetite/indulgence” thing. Gay folks certainly aren’t the only folks who have a different perspective on that issue, it’s just the point of view I have easiest access to.

                    (Yeah, I know that’s a poorly constructed dichotomy. It was constructed on the fly.)


          • Not just “they’re FREE”: they’re free and wonderful, and anyone who isn’t having sex is ignorant and malicious. I’ve seen WWII movies with a more sympathetic portrayal of the other side.


  5. Loved The Truman Show. There were definite religious themes in it, but I saw it more as an anti-statist, particularly anti-communist, story.

    I’ve only seen portions of Pleasantville, and I don’t recall Jeff Daniels in any of what I saw. My reaction was a lot like Mike’s, that it seemed to deify sex. Also I wasn’t impressed by the self-important use of the term “coloreds” for the people who’d turned. I’ve got a strong anti-boomer streak, and that treatment of sexual liberation as equivalent to civil rights just ticked me off.


  6. I never saw The Truman Show as a retelling of Job.

    Probably because so many good things happened to him too… but what an exquisite torture! To be given things to only have them taken away. To have them taken away only to be given them back… to somehow make sure that, no matter what happened in your life, it was good enough for television.

    I’m going to have to seriously chew on that.


  7. My memory of Pleasantville is Jeff Daniels seeing a painting of oranges and saying “oh, golly”.

    Like it’s the first time he’s been seriously turned upside down, shaken, slapped around, kissed, then put back.

    He says “oh, golly…”, because his vocabulary fails him for pretty much everything. He’s looking at oranges for the first time. It’s better than sex. It’s better than church. It’s *REAL*.

    How can you say “the people who have been lying to me my entire life had no idea that they’ve been lying to me” in a universe where you are the first person who has ever said that?

    “Oh, golly” is pretty much all you have.


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