Cinema: The Truman doctrine
Sunday 11 October 1998
Ever After PG
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries 15
Topless Woman Talk About Their Lives 15
You probably already know what The Truman Show is all about. If you don't, I'd advise you to check your kitchen for hidden cameras.
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is an insurance salesman in Seahaven, a small town on the west coast of America. He has a nice little home, a nice little wife (Laura Linney) and a nice collection of large-print checked shirts. But, as they used to say on Game for a Laugh, what he doesn't know is that Seahaven is a sound stage under a steel dome in Hollywood. His family and friends are actors, the sky is a cyclorama, and the sun an elaborate lighting effect. Up in what appears to be the moon, a black-clad TV producer named Christof (Ed Harris) is mixing images from thousands of miniature cameras concealed around town. And beyond the dome, a global TV audience is addicted to a 24-hour docusoap about Truman's humdrum life.
Peter Weir's film is not, strictly speaking, a satire on television. It takes a few well-aimed digs at phenomena like product placement - Truman's friends, much to his consternation, keep singing the praises of various brands of beer, kitchen equipment and lawnmowers. And it is full of ingenious shots that appear to be fed to us from Christof's hidden cameras. But you won't come out of The Truman Show feeling guilty about having watched Neighbours from Hell. Truman's plight has very little comment to make on the intrusiveness of such programmes because - unlike their subjects - he is the victim of a grand deception. If he'd signed a release form for his life and willingly agreed to have every detail of his existence captured on videotape for round-the-clock mass consumption, that would have made for stronger satire.
But Truman is an innocent victim, an orphan born on camera and adopted by a TV company, the fall guy in their ratings- scam. Truman's life in the panopticon has a more subtle message to convey: what it reveals is not the extent of the power of television, but something more disturbing about the tyranny of everyday life. It takes Truman until his thirties to overcome his hydrophobia and cross the road-bridge to the mainland. Neuroses aside, that this seems perfectly credible says something deeply worrying about our collective lack of curiosity. American parochialism is Weir's specific target: that small-town attitude which explains why so few US citizens own a passport. Seahaven's isolation is far from splendid. It is a cultural desert, without books, and where newspapers bear headlines such as "Who Needs Europe?" It is a vision of America as a nation that can't see beyond its own picket-fence, one that has forgotten how to do anything but consume.
At intervals, Weir cuts back to Truman's army of loyal viewers. There's a middle-aged man who watches the show from the bath, and receives his nightly lullaby from the sleeping face of his TV idol; there's a pair of semi-conscious sofa-bound pensioners who have Truman's face embossed on one of their cushions; and a couple of dumpy security guards bored stupid by their work, who spend all day staring at the screen in their Portacabin. The broadcast of Truman's daily doings dispenses a sense of neighbourhood to a mass audience of lonely individuals, but his imprisonment in a TV studio seems no more circumscribed than the lives of his fans.
And that's why they are so hypnotised by it. As Christof says, "Seahaven is the way the world should be." This fascistic theme is strong, and largely a product of British screenwriter Andrew Niccol's background in dystopian sci-fi (his film Gattaca is an exemplary genre entry). The unblinkingly cheery community spirit of Seahaven recalls the holiday-camp optimism of The Prisoner, and the notion of total surveillance by a TV audience is a privatised version of Nineteen Eighty-Four's state-run telescreens. Truman's brief romantic moment with an extra who wants to tell him the truth about his life (Natascha McElhone) is an explicit echo of the affair between Winston and Julia, down to the note she passes him under the gaze of the cameras.
It's a fine tradition to be operating within, and one that American cinema has never shown much interest in before. As a result, The Truman Show is an unusual, absorbing movie that strikes a note of desperate melancholy rarely heard in mainstream movies. And since we're not used to being surprised in the multiplex, it's quite a difficult film to respond to. At the screening I attended, a few members of the audience kept up a stream of nervous laughter, rehearsing their Pavlovian response to a Jim Carrey film, but clearly a bit confused about how they should be reacting. But Weir's decision to cast a performer as nervous and unsentimental as Carrey is extremely smart. The comedian's phoney, overcranked quality is made to function as a tragic product of Truman's conditioning - instead of simply being a facet of Carrey's phenomenal talent to annoy. As Truman's belief in the reality of his world breaks down, the sinister bitterness that's always twitched under the skin of Carrey's other performances breaks out all over him like a rash. It's an unsettling process. Go see it and be unsettled. It's infinitely more involving than watching Neighbours from Hell.
Andy Tennant's Ever After is a whoop-de-do version of the Cinderella story in which American actors (Anjelica Huston, Drew Barrymore) get to wear big frocks and British actors (Timothy West, Judy Parfitt) get to pay off their mortgages. Its two hours will probably test the bladder control of its intended audience, but continence will be well-rewarded by Tennant's jolly undercutting of the Ladybird version of the fairy tale. Barrymore's Cinders is a no-nonsense Thomas More fan who quotes Utopia at her baffled royal suitor (Dougray Scott), and the wicked stepmother Rodmilla (played by Huston as a toxic version of Penelope Keith) is allowed to show her softer side. Instead of a fairy godmother, Tennant brings on Leonardo Da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey, complete with astrolabes and the Mona Lisa in a bejewelled poster-tube). The result is satisfyingly rationalist, as Da Vinci's renascent science takes the place of the Grimm Brothers' MittelEuropean magick. The values of straight talking are celebrated, too - Da Vinci berates the feckless Prince by snapping, "Horseshit!" at him. To which he replies, "You're out of line, old man." That's the kind of film it is. The only disappointment is that the budget didn't stretch to Da Vinci flying to Cinderella's rescue in a prototype helicopter.
The frocks come out again for Marquise, a costume extravaganza starring Sophie Marceau as a pouting pre-revolutionary go-go dancer who shows her bum to the greatest men of her age. Vera Belmont's bawdy melodrama disproves the axiom that toilet humour is a solely British obsession (there are two scenes in which characters prod around in the contents of a chamber pot) and she marshals her melodramatic plot of backstage intrigue and poisoned chocolates with a satisfying alacrity. But I was puzzled by the appearance of Lambert Wilson as the playwright Jean Racine. Not because there's anything very remarkable about his performance, but because he popped up earlier this year as a tortured dramatist who falls in love with his star actress in the Jon Bon Jovi vehicle, The Leading Man. I suppose it's better than taking your clothes off in every film, as Sophie Marceau seems to do.
After the first 20 minutes of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, I was prepared for 110 more of grinding boredom. At this point, James Ivory's film (adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from an autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones) was introducing Kris Kristofferson as an expatriate American writer living in Paris. But my attention was wandering so much that all I could think about was how well he's got on as an actor considering that he has no discernable eyes. Then two eight-year old children started covering themselves in snails, and the film took a distinct turn for the better.
Ivory's movie is a routinely bittersweet family melodrama, enlivened by a middle passage of eye-catching larkiness. This sense of fun is imported by Anthony Roth Costanzo's performance as Francis Fortesque, a wildly camp teenage counter-tenor who becomes best friend to Kristofferson's daughter (Leelee Sobieski, looking just like that girl on the Test Card). As Constanzo swans about in a silk shawl belting out arias from Tosca, Ivory seems to loosen up, too. He brings on Jane Birkin to do a batty turn as Francis's Joyce Grenfellish mother; he treats himself to a bit of surrealism and has a forbidding headmistress glide into the classroom like a Dalek. And he takes his characters to a hilarious production of Salome that's all inflatable armchairs, syringes and crotch-rubbing. After that, my concentration began to wander again.
The title of Topless Women Talk About Their Lives is calculated to grab the attention, but - as you might expect - it's not what it sounds. Instead, Harry Sinclair's film is an agreeable but rather rambling Kiwi comedy that can't quite think of enough to do with its excellent (and rather Trumanesque) central premise - to follow the story of a pregnancy, using a lead actress (Danielle Cormack) who is actually pregnant. Though the film struggles to keep its momentum going, it contains several things that I have never seen in the cinema before: a Maori wedding, a man trying to make a necktie out of a coat-hanger, and a rabbit doing breaststroke across a swimming pool. That's three reasons to see it, at least.
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