Pop Culture Intervention

Growing Up, 'The Truman Show' Shaped How I Watch Movies

Twenty years later, it still wows me.

At A Plus, we're addicted to pop culture, and Pop Culture Intervention brings that obsession to the soapbox. Through this series, we'll recommend what you should be watching, reading or listening to; explore how arts and entertainment affect us; and interpret the important messages contained within various works.

Twenty years ago, The Truman Show became the first "grown-up" movie I remember seeing in theaters when I was 7 years old. I've grown to better understand and appreciate the film as I've rewatched it years later, but I believe its influence on me goes all the way back to 1998.

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The Truman Show, for those who haven't seen it — it's currently on Netflix, so go forth and enjoy — is about a man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who is the unwitting star of a 24/7, live television show. He has no idea he's lived his entire life on a set, surrounded by actors, being watched by billions of people around the world. 

The film, written by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir, has held up since its release due in large part to how prophetic it turned out to be. In an age of reality TV and social media, its examination of privacy and artifice seem more relevant than ever.

However, its lasting impact on me personally has less to do with what The Truman Show is about and more to do with what The Truman Show is. So what is The Truman Show to me?

It takes a high-concept premise and turns it into a fascinating study of character and society. (I walk away from each viewing with a new question to ponder.) It deftly combines humor and drama, thanks in large part to its star. (Why Jim Carrey wasn't nominated for an Oscar is beyond me.) It proves that movies don't need over-the-top set pieces to be visually arresting. (That shot of Truman climbing the steps at the horizon wows me every time.) And, perhaps above all, it's just so damn original.

I recognize many of these qualities in films I've admired in the years since. One of my favorite movies of all time is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It may just be a coincidence that it also happens to star Jim Carrey, but I can trace my interest in the film's concept — a medical procedure to erase all memories of someone — back to The Truman Show. I can see the connecting threads stylistically as well, particularly in the films' unexpected, almost jarring visuals. Whenever I see Carrey and Kate Winslet in bed on a snowy beach, I can't help but be reminded of Truman getting soaked by a malfunctioning rain machine.

I love movies that ask "What if?" and then present the answer in a unique, sometimes weird, fashion. Often, the "What if?" question is something no one but the filmmaker would even think to ask. Questions like, for instance, "What if there was a portal into John Malkovich's brain?" I love movies that can't easily be compared to anything else, beyond the similarity of being incomparable.

More recently, I felt Truman's influence in the 2016 film The Lobster, which examines a world in which people are turned into animals if they remain single for too long. When I saw it, I wanted to send a letter to my Eternal Sunshine-loving teenage self letting her know what she had to look forward to. But now that I think of it, my 7-year-old self could also do with some correspondence from the future.

Of course, I like plenty of other movies that don't hark back to Weir's film quite so directly. After all, I'm a Lord of the Rings obsessive and I never met a classic screwball comedy I didn't like. But even something as simple as my appreciation for the dramedy genre owes a lot to The Truman Show. As far as I'm concerned, no story is so dramatic that you can't have a laugh here and there, and if a story can hit both tones convincingly, I'm likely to be a fan.

Then there's my love of movies with ambiguous endings. It's a device that often frustrates my movie-watching companions, but which I consistently adore. I love stories that cut things short and allow the viewer to imagine for themselves what happens next, or what a certain detail might mean for the future of the characters. I don't want to see what happens after Truman walks through that door — I can decide for my self.

If I wanted to get really deep, I could say that The Truman Show is responsible for my decision to pursue a degree in film studies in college. The truth is, I can't pinpoint a single title that sparked such a serious interest in film. It was a combination of a lot of viewing experiences, of which Truman was one of the earliest. It may not deserve all the credit, but it certainly deserves some. 

It makes me wonder how much our tastes are influenced by the films we saw when we were young. Can you remember the first "grown-up" movie you saw? Can you trace your current favorite titles back to that experience, or is there no correlation? 

If you can find the connecting threads, your younger self is due for a letter.

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