The Truman Pilots

Is The Truman Show just another summer rerun?

One of the more frequently occurring adjectives in reviews of The Truman Show,
which continues to chug away at the box office, is "original." Well, The Truman Show may be clever, may be touching, may be visually elegant, but it's not original. The film is, indeed, a virtual amalgam of ideas and themes that have already been explored in earlier films--and, in some cases, in real life. Here are a few of the works of which Truman may be said to be, well, a rerun:

The Secret Cinema: In fairness, some reviewers have noted the similarity between Truman and this half-hour short of 1966, but as far as I know, no one has discussed how surprisingly well the older film holds up by comparison. The debut of underground director and actor Paul Bartel, best known for Eating Raoul, it involves Jane (Amy Vane), a dull-witted young secretary who slowly comes to realize that she is the "star" of a movie being made on hidden cameras, without her knowledge, but with the participation of most of the people she knows. The object of this bizarre project appears to be nothing more than to ridicule the hapless woman. Bartel's "paranoid fantasy"--shot on a shoestring while he was a production manager at a company that made TV commercials (he remade it in 1985 as an episode of Steven Spielberg's TV series Amazing Stories)--exploits the horrific potential in this theme more powerfully than The Truman Show. With its perplexed, plaintive heroine and its gloomy black-and-white imagery, it recalls Herk Harvey's classic indie ghost story Carnival of Souls. Available on Rhino Home Video--where it's paired with Naughty Nurse, Bartel's funny short-short sex comedy of 1969--The Secret Cinema is worth seeking out. By the way, the role of the sinister psychiatrist is played by Barry Dennen, who later played Pilate in the film of Jesus Christ Superstar, and who also has a small role in Titanic. Quite a career.

An American Family: Early in 1973, PBS aired this series of 12 one-hour segments--culled from around 300 hours that had been shot--that depicted the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, which had consented to the experiment. Producer Craig Gilbert hit the voyeuristic jackpot with the Louds: The parents, Pat and Bill, learned of their son Lance's homosexuality, aired their marital difficulties and ultimately decided on divorce, all on TV. In the days before Jerry Springer, this was a big deal. Neither An American Family nor an HBO follow-up of 1983, American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later, appear to be available on commercial video anymore, but Real Life (1979), Paramount's hilariously nasty send-up of the story by writer-director Albert Brooks, can be found on video, and also turns up from time to time on American Movie Classics. Brooks is also the star--he plays the producer-director of a documentary about a middle-class family in Phoenix, Arizona. Needless to say, he brings only chaos into their lives, in a spectacular demonstration of Heisenberg's principle that the very act of observation alters that which is observed. Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain play the unfortunate parents.

28 Up: The British director Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter) beat Truman to the idea of tracing people throughout their whole lives with this TV documentary, which interviewed a group of Brits in seven-year increments: at 7, 14, 21 and 28, starting in 1963. Both this film and its follow-up, 35 Up, are available on Fox Lorber Home Video.

Louis the XIX, King of the Airwaves: There's been Internet buzz that this obscure French-Canadian film of 1995 by director Michel Poulette is the direct source for Truman. There are similarities--the title character (Martin Drainville) is a boring couch potato who has always dreamed of being on TV and gets his chance when he enters a contest to have his life broadcast 24 hours a day for three months. He becomes a star, but when he falls in love, the show becomes an obstacle to romance, so he and his friends must find a way to break free of it. The film isn't commercially available in this country yet, but a video clerk in Vancouver told me that it's funny.

Sea Haven, Truman's so-wholesome-it's-creepy hometown, recalls "The Village" in which Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner of 1968, one of the greatest of all TV series, was set, as well as the fake town under the dome in Arch Oboler's 3-D movie The Bubble, or in Earl Hamner Jr.'s original Twilight Zone episode Stopover in a Quiet Town. The shivery shots of the dispassionate actors searching robotically for Truman echo '50s sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came From Outer Space.

And finally, there's MTV's The Real World, available ad nauseam on that network since 1992, and in several video compilations. The show, which puts six Gen X dingalings into digs they couldn't otherwise afford, then steps back and tapes them interacting for a year, is almost invariably obnoxious, and yet, maddeningly, it's often quite fascinating at the same time.

It also demonstrates that all of the elaborate trickery which Ed Harris' Christof resorts to in The Truman Show may have been unnecessary--on The Real World, the "cast" generally carries on with its squabblings and seductions as if there weren't cameras staring at it all the time. Maybe the children of the TV generation have always assumed, at some level, that their lives were one big show--sometimes a sitcom, sometimes a drama. So what did Heisenberg know?

 
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