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.
The 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.
In 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.
The 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.