The Truman Show

The Truman Show
Cinema of Active Imagination

By Tony Kashani


“I am an orphan, alone; nevertheless I am found everywhere. I am one, but opposed to myself. I am youth and old man at one and the same time. I have known neither father nor mother, because I have had to be fetched out of the deep like a fish, or fell like a white stone from heaven. In woods and mountains I roam, but I am hidden in the innermost soul of man. I am mortal for everyone, yet I am not touched by the cycle of aeons.”
                                                         C.G. Jung

Seven years after its release The Truman Show (1998) resonates more than a cautionary tale. The Truman Show develops an omnipotent thesis of archetypes playing out their role despite materialist human efforts to construct artificial archetypes. The premise of this film is to send a message to active audiences that no matter how hard the powerful elite try to construct a reality for us, our souls will direct us to a path that is meant to be. This essay is a deconstruction of the film from an archetypal perspective, a perspective that rests on a backdrop of Jung and post-Jungian thinking. Here I posit cinema as a soul-making mediator for humanity.

In his pioneering book, Re-Visioning Psychology, Hillman writes, “By soul I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment-and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground.” (Hillman, x)

The Truman Show is a cinema of reflectivity. It is a self-reflective film, that is, it draws attention to itself. Moreover it invites active imagination vis-à-vis its own active imagination. I am suggesting here that The Truman Show is an attempt at soul-making. To be sure, this essay is a major departure from the orthodox and dominant form of film analysis. It is also important to note that all of cinema is ployvalent, that is to say, any film lends itself to multiple interpretation.

Cinema can be looked at as a universal archetype that produces many reflections of the collective unconscious. Conversely, this paper is framed with such a belief. Explaining archetypes is a difficult task, as Hillman points out we are more inclined to describe archetypes in images. In other words, metaphors tell what archetypes are like. For Hillman archetypes are the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, “the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world.” (Hillman, xiii) Conversely, The Truman Show presents the archetypes in metaphors, some of which I discuss later, in depth.

Plot Summary

There is a narrative within a narrative. An artificial town (Seaheaven Island) is built and dedicated to a continually running television soap opera. In this TV show all but one of the participants are actors. Only the central character, Truman Burbank (an allusion to Hollywood) played by Jim Carrey, is unaware that he lives in a constructed reality. He is the unaware star of a make-believe show for the entertainment of audiences watching the soap opera. The story follows a trajectory of events that lead to Truman’s discovery of his situation and his different plans to leave the Island. On the surface level, it criticizes greed, portraying people who would do anything for fame and money.

Truman was a premature orphan, winner of a list of candidates, all unwanted babies. He is an experiment in star-making by TV gods. However, he is an explorer. There is a love story here. Truman wants to find a special woman (his true love). Eventually, through a chain of incidents Truman begins to figure out that it's all artificial and fake. He sees synchronized patterns in his everyday life, his neighbors greeting him at the same time in the same manner, the twin brothers as possible clients politely delaying an appointment, same people and cars going around the block in repetitive periods. He discovers the man made synchronicities, and gradually sees through it all. In following the instructions of the auteur director of the show, Christof (allusion to Christ), played by Ed Harris, everyone tries to reassure him of his belonging in Seaheaven, but Truman is determined to escape. Destination: Fiji. After overcoming many obstacles created to stop him from escaping, including a life threatening manmade storm, he succeeds to reach the exit door, and promptly exits one door, entering a world of mystery that is real life. He finds his true calling.

Analysis

The Truman Show is loaded with scenes that examine the western “constructed reality” while metaphorically unpacking its audio-visual material. On a superficial level it is easy to see the latent critique of a consumer society, therefore the film can easily be dismissed as just another cynical look at our alienating society where everything is commodified, including human beings. People can see the film and say, “things are not that bad,” and move on. In fact the ending of the film cleverly makes such a statement, which I will discuss later.

On a deeper level, one can discover several layers of meaning in this film. While Andrew Niccol deserves credit for writing a brilliant screenplay, and Peter Weir must be applauded for translating the story into a visual mode, there is an omniscient cosmological force at play here that perhaps we can only appreciate once our society has gone beyond this ambigious postmodern age.

The Allegory of the Cave

Seeing The Truman Show, one can not escape the temptation of comparison with the allegory of the cave as it is both a narrative and interpretation. With the allegory (as part of The Republic), Plato has given the western mind, and to a large extent the “global thinking mind” a text that examines humanity’s ignorance of truth. The Truman Show is a manifestation of the allegory. Truman’s world is the cave, and our hero Truman (true + man) is the individual who escapes the limitations of the cave. Ironically, the actors in Truman’s artificial world and audiences who follow the show with religiosity are the ignorant masses. Truman is the only one who follows his bliss and answers the call to his archetypal existence. In the climactic scene, Truman, with his boat called Santa Maria, an obvious allusion to Christopher Columbus’s boat and his voyage of discovery, and despite the fear of water, decides to sail to freedom.

The movie is compelling us (those of us who are using our active imagination) to ask a question that Plato offered up in the allegory, that is, are we held captive, viewing mere shadows of particular shapes that are themselves “fake” posing as “reality?” Our hero decides to seek the “real” reality outside the cave. Today in the year 2005, seven years later, one look at the programming permeated in American television, the “second god” for mainstream masses, makes The Truman Show a very strong cautionary tale of the future. All of the so-called reality-based shows that fill the airwaves are attempts at creating a cave, or rather expanding the existing one to keep us ignorant, and perpetuate it for the next generations of men.

We do not see what happens after Truman leaves the cave. To be sure, the comparison stops there. In the allegory when the freed man leaves the cave, he is confronted with the brilliant sun, a metaphor for an archetype, that of goodness. For Plato goodness is the origin of everything that exists, archetype of goodness is one that all of humanity holds as central importance in one form or another. Plato’s hero adjusts to the sun, becomes enlightened and returns to the cave, only to deduct that masses must be ruled by few “learned” elite. The film however, suggests a different deduction. When Truman asks Christof (whose voice comes from up above, like voice of god) “was nothing real?” Christof responds, “you… you are real.” The movie is sending a message to us. That is, we are real, even if our world is manipulated around us by pseudo-democratic governments, CNN, Disney, sitcoms, Microsoft, Apple, professional sports, reality TV, MTV, soulless science, rigid religion, and so on. We can break free.

At the end of the film where Truman and Christof are engaged in a fateful dialogue, Truman responds to Christof’s godlike controlling comments, “you never had a camera in my head.” Truman is a modern day Prometheus, a champion of men against the gods. When he decides to leave Seaheaven Island and exits through the final door, the audiences who have followed him for years, cheer for their Prometheus, for his courage, and defiance. He is a true man.

The Archetypes

In Jungian thinking, archetypes are structural elements of the human psyche. Archetypes are systems of readiness for action, and at the same time images and emotions.” (CW 10, par. 53) Cinema works like a mirror of archetypes and metaphors that are representative of archetypes. The Truman Show presents us with archetypes on two levels, personal and collective. We live in a consumer culture that suppresses the soul and in its expansion (a logical mode for survival of capitalism) creates complexes for members of the culture, us. The Truman Show uses the audio-visual techniques available to project the emptiness of such artificial archetype, and through our hero shows a possibility of a way out.

The archetype of mother goddess that exists in every culture is manifested in different roles, one obvious one being “the mother.” Truman’s real mother is not part of the diegesis, and his “fake mother” is a second tier actor who does not fool Truman for long. Truman is in search of his personal complex and an archetypal image of a woman in his psyche, that is to say, his anima. He finds his anima in Sylvia (an allusion to American poet Sylvia Plath) and not his TV wife, Meryl (an allusion to actress Meryl Streep), who only wears a persona and is not figured as his anima. When Sylvia is taken away by the shadow forces (people in charge of the show) he is left with a lasting powerful image of Sylvia, her eyes. Hegel famously wrote, “eyes are the outer manifestation of soul.” Truman develops an obsession in finding her eyes, that is the images that match Sylvia’s eyes in various magazines. Truman’s only contact with a “real” person gives impetus for a “real” love in Truman’s life.

The Libido

I will offer a hypothesis and discuss this aspect of the film in terms of libido, which for Jung meant general psychic energy. Jung writes, “Libido can never be apprehended except in a definite form; that is to say, it is identical with fantasy-images. And we can only release it from the grip of the unconscious by bringing up the corresponding fantasy-images.” (CW 7. Par. 345) Everyday on the way to the office Truman stops at the newsstand and buys a couple of women’s magazines, ostensibly for “the wife.” But as we learn while the story progresses, Truman’s libido is driving him towards his true love, Sylvia. He tears out the eyes of the images of women models in the magazines to find the ones that match his fantasy image of Sylvia’s eyes, the manifestation of her soul. For Truman believes, Sylvia, in search of her animus finds him her true love. She has told him, “come and find me.” As Tarnas ponders, “perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome-and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine.”
(Tarnas, 445)

For Jung libido is like water and water figures prominently in this film. Cinema is the medium of symbols, and in that sense, cinema is a Jungian manifestation of fantasy images. Through manipulation and construction of a fake storm (written in the script by Christof), Truman’s father (the actor wearing the persona of his father) is lost at sea, a trick concocted by Christof to add drama to the show and at the same time keep Truman fearful of water. It is water that represents rebirth and works as a stand-in for Truman’s mother archetype. Like the Book of Job, Truman is tested in the water. In the climactic scene, Christof, both God and Satan, devices another fake-storm, not dissimilar to the one that “kills” Truman’s “fake” father. Just as Job was tested, Truman with his strong libido pushes on. At one point where Christof brings the intensity of the storm to its highest level, while hanging tough in his boat, Truman looks up and proclaims, “is that the best you can do? You’re gonna have to kill me.” The Promethean hero defies God and Satan. He was born a true man, and will follow his bliss.

The Call

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell talks about how people often follow society, and with the call the “reverse is what’s more appropriate.” Indeed, Truman sails against the “norm.” The world that Christof has built for him is safe, predictable, and conforming. Truman is an explorer, a hero , an archetype, and refuses to adhere to the theme of “refusal of the call.” North American society with its Walmarts, chain movie theatres, shopping malls, Starbaucks, McDonalds restaurants, the stock market, life insurance, and blind patriotism, and so on, is telling its “Trumans” to refuse the call. What this film is invoking with an active imagination, is to follow your bliss. Joseph Campbell never did anything for money, and always followed his bliss. That can be said of many other “heroes” of all cultures, east and west. Heroes are archetypes within the collective psyche.

To be sure, working the active imagination and hero portrayal is nothing new for Peter Weir. In Witness (1985), Weir handles the task of presenting two vastly different archetypal models that of an Amish boy and a big city policeman as two heroes of the story. The policeman reluctantly enters the Amish culture, and the boy is thrust into the city culture with its harsh and violent environment. Prometheus is tricked into opening the Pandora’s box.  Weir met another challenge in hero construction through active imagination in Fearless (1993), where the hero is a plane crash survivor. In Fearless, the hero is a man in search of his soul. Weir has done an admirable job in portraying the hero who is facing a perplexing existential question. Why was I chosen to survive? Where is my bliss?

Conversely, the choice of Peter Weir as director of The Truman Show fits in the notion of synchronicity. As defined by Jung synchronicity is an “acausal connecting principal,” a connection between the personal psyche and the material world. When Paramount Pictures decided to make The Truman Show, it was to be a small budget film. The screenwriter Andrew Niccol was due to direct the film. Niccol had wished to have someone like Peter Weir to direct this movie, he had great confidence in his writing but very little in his directing ability. He also wished for an extroverted actor to play Truman. Jim Carrey became interested, however his $12 million salary would push the budget beyond desired limit. Carrey’s great enthusiasm for the project compelled Paramount to take a chance with the project but with a $60,000,000 budget, Niccol could not be the man, suddenly Peter Weir became available, and what is more, interested in doing the film. Let us posit synchronicity as a real phenomena. The fact that Niccol, Carrey, and Weir did not happen to come together simultaneously, is mute, what resonates is how everything came together in a synchronous fashion for this film to be made. To add to the mix, the soundtrack of the film contains excerpts from Philip Glass’s famous score Anima Mundi (1992). Glass also appears in the movie as one of the in-studio composer/performers, performing from his Anima Mundi score. Only a year earlier Glass had composed the mesmerizing score for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997).

Conclusion

While cinema can always be looked at with a zoom lens of depth psychology, ranging from a wide angle Jungian setting to archetypal Hillmanesq perspective and telephoto transpersonal lens of Grof and Tarnas, certain films lend themselves to this mode of interpretation than others. Moreover, certain films are more accessible to wider audiences in communiqué as well as the market. The Truman Show is such a film, hence it occupies an important space in cinematic paradigm. Like much of Hollywood’s other films, and indeed as a reflection of our society that is preoccupied with individuality, The Truman Show is a character centered film. It is a hero based narrative. What sets this film apart from others though is the isolation of the hero and archetypal figuring of his personality. Truman is the true man (or woman). While other people in his life are offering complexes in form of their personas, Truman’s persona is not a mask. He is not an actor, his persona is not differentiated from his ego. Even when he is presenting a persona at work, he is conscious of the mask he wears, and unconsciously wants to remove the mask. Indeed through his active imagination he does remove the mask altogether.

The Truman Show reminds us that anima mundi is a notion to be embraced. Elite groups who dominate others to satisfy their power complexes muddy everywhere on the planet anima mundi. But if we are true men (and women), whether in the spirit of Plato or Schelling, we are to find our call within the anima mundi. Moreover, the movie reminds us of our shadow. Towards the end where Truman’s defiance has reached its pinnacle, Christof’s shadow dominates and he orders a “maximum intensity” storm to stop Truman from escaping. When challenged by the Network boss, “you can’t kill him live in front of a live audience.” Christof replies, “why not, he was born in front of a live audience.” The man who has worn a godlike persona is willing to play god, Vis-à-vis his shadow.

Nietzsche declared “the death of god,” and Hegel prophesied a maturation of an advanced society that would become cognizant of itself near its end. The Truman Show points to a possible future and offers up a free-will choice towards a mystery that is called life and quest for truth, to become harmonious with anima mundi. Jung spoke of the collective unconscious, and Grof’s groundbreaking work has shown the validity of Jung’s assertion. It seems that we are in this thing together, all of us. Adam Smith had spelled emancipation through laissez-faire economy. We now know that capitalism systematically works to diffuse anima mundi. We are destroying the enviornment, and selling our souls to the power (shadow). Goethe was particularly keen on nature. As Tarnas reminds us, “In Goethe’s vision, nature permeates everything, including the human mind and imagination.”
(Tarnas, 378)

In a self-reflective manner, The Truman Show, being a show within a show, forces us to suspend disbelief within a suspension of disbelief. The movie suggests a “present and future” paradigm that we are entangled with, to have soul and break free from its web.

Copyright Tony Kashani 2005. All rights reserved.

Tony Kashani is Assistant Professor of Film at College of San Mateo. His forthcoming book, Deconstructing the Mystique: Introduction to Cinema (Kendall/Hunt Publishers) will be available in Fall of 2005. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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