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Film: Who's afraid of the big, bad box?

The Truman Show attacks TV for its insidious manipulation of the masses. But then TV-bashing is a Hollywood tradition
In a snug hotel on the corner of Central Park, movie director Peter Weir is on a roll. "There are major themes in The Truman Show," he says proudly, "but for me the central interest is the blurring of reality and unreality - you ask yourself `howcome the audience in the movie is watching the gross exploitation of a human being?' And the answer is `because it's just television!'"

Weir, the Australian auteur behind such idiosyncratic wonders as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981) and Fearless (1993), has no love for television. He's quick to blame it for what he calls "the deadening of our senses and an alteration in perception and reality". In his new movie, The Truman Show, he describes the tortuous existence of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and his unwitting stardom in the world's first secret soap opera. By so doing, Weir deftly vilifies the vulgar omnipotence of today's TV culture. Yet what if we said that we've heard it all before? What if we said that The Truman Show is, in fact, a peerless product of Hollywood's own blind vanity; just another weary episode in a long and fruitless denigration of television? What if?

From as far back as 1947, with RKO's short by Hal Yates, Television Turmoil, or before that with the 1935 Bela Lugosi B-movie, Murder By Television, Hollywood has displayed an innate, nervous hatred of all things televisual. In the late Fifties, competition from "The Box" was blamed for the huge (74 per cent) plunge in movie profits, the end of the News Reel, and the arrival of Cinemascope, Cinerama, and 3-D. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood decreed that television was the enemy; the home of cheap, low-brow entertainment. Movies, in comparison, were art. It wasn't until 1976 that this attitude finally culminated in an entire movie devoted to TV-bashing, Sidney Lumet's Network. Here, with its satirical expose of ratings-starved philistines and tasteless powerbrokers, we were given a template for every other anti- television tirade to come. These have since included the likes of Broadcast News, Natural Born Killers, To Die For, Wag The Dog and Mad City.

These movies, practically a genre by now, define television as an alien and malign influence on "normal" daily life. They tell us that television manipulates events or, in the case of Wag The Dog, creates them solely to satisfy its greedy urges. They tell us, as film historian David Bordwell writes, that: "Television mediates reality; it disjoins and fragments; it is limited and contained." These are movies that never acknowledge their own cameras or script, or their very deliberate performances. They imagine that they exist magically beyond a mode of "production", as if they emerged fully formed and ready for projection. Furthermore, they fail to mention how substantially TV feeds the movie industry - in the form of broadcasting fees, video sales, movie advertising and, of course, original source material (see The Brady Bunch to Mission Impossible to the Flintstones).

And now we have The Truman Show, a movie indebted, ironically, to The Twilight Zone and The Prisoner, and a champion of the TV-bashing genre. In the age of Jerry Springer and real-life "actuality" shows, it is with almost evangelical zeal that this one movie blames commercial TV for the moral disintegration of modern human society. Truman's very existence, working and living on an enormous sound-stage, has no traditional value in moral terms. He is simply the focal point of a ratings game, a challenge for big business to sell "Kaiser Chickens" and "Mocha Cocoa" to a powerless and essentially slavish (think Orwell) international audience. Life, in other words, has no value beyond commodity. Says Weir: "This is the context of the times we're living in. Remember the Gulf War? That was exciting, every night, live! It was a kind of fantasy. But people were dying underneath those bombs. And those children who shot their classmates in Texas, they obviously had no moral compass. We think we can handle the constant bombardment of different images, but what is our brain doing? It isn't doing anything at all, everything is just images!"

Yet despite its grandiose intention, The Truman Show remains selective about its own critique of images. It is meticulous in presenting us with the nasty Truman Show's hidden TV-camera shots and showing how they claustrophobically imprison Truman. But when the drama shifts from Truman to the show's gallery/control- room, or to the servile masses agape at their screens, the movie refuses to comment on these images. This is cinema, after all, and cinema reveals the truth. The movie, so emblematic of its type, simply falls into the trap of berating the artificiality of TV with one hand and celebrating the natural objectivity of cinema with the other.

That cinema could be equally vulgar, and equally responsible for our misapprehension of truth is something that The Truman Show deliberately ignores. Cinema, with its box-office demands, its contrived dramas and phoney character arcs, is equally adept at filling our heads with palatable lies. From Griffith to Spielberg via Hitchcock and even Fellini, movies poison us with synthetic stories of love and death. They teach us that love is "falling in love" and that death is "killing", and we believe them. They teach us to be voyeuristic, passive, to hide in the dark. And they bring in billion-dollar pay-days by separating us from the banality of our lived existence. In the words of critic David Thompson: "the life- like allure of the screen detaches us, maybe irrevocably, from so many begging realities." That The Truman Show prefers to continue "exposing" the dehumanising heart of television is ultimately a sad endorsement of a long surviving tradition in Hollywood hypocrisy.