THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)
"THE TRUMAN SHOW"
"I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A TRUMAN" By David Healey
of the individual is an emotive subject and one which is debated regularly within
the confines of Prisoner fandom. It is also, of course, an issue which sits
at the very core of "The Prisoner" and is reinforced each week by
the loss of liberty suffered by the leading character during the scene-setting
preamble. Number 6's defiant cry of "I am not a number, I am a free man!"
is one with which almost everyone has associated at some stage in their lives
and, indeed, the quotation has now entered the public consciousness, regularly
cropping up in all manner of scenarios including the all powerful world of advertising.
The total denial of personal freedom was also the primary theme of 1998's surprise
cinema success "The Truman Show" which attracted the attention of
many "Prisoner" fans with its Prisoneresque premise. It concerns the
plight of the central character, Truman Burbank, who is adopted at birth by
a TV corporation and unwittingly becomes the star of an enormously popular docu-soap
drama. From the very moment of his birth, every second of his life has been
broadcast to the world without his knowledge by the Svengali-like director Christof,
played by Ed Harris hot on the heels of his award-winning role as Mission Controller
Gene Kranz in "Apollo 13".
The programme is shot in Seahaven, a huge enclosed set encompassing an entire town constructed within a dome - "one of only two man-made structures visible from space," the fictitious TV producers proudly announce, "the other being the Great Wall of China." Initially it was proposed to actually construct this `set' on a Los Angles studio backlot but, when the logistics of this proved insurmountable, director Peter Weir and production designer Dennis Gassener scouted several real locations ultimately settling for the planned community of Seaside in Florida. This picturesque, 90-acre development of 300 cottages has many parallels with Portmeirion having been founded by a visionary developer Robert Davis and his wife Daryl in 1980. It is self-contained with its own range of shops and facilities and the residents of each of the picture-postcard houses must adhere to a unique building code in respect of their property. The cottages, each individually named, are painted in cheery, pastel shades and all have individually styled, white, picket fences.
As with "The Prisoner", the visual appearance of the film is dominated by its location and the designer freely admits to using the town as a springboard for ideas. Although larger in scale than The Village, Seahaven has the same purpose and is essentially a prison for the leading character. Everyone else living there is a paid actor and it is highly amusing to watch Truman's interaction with these characters as they try to direct his life according to a `script' incorporating all manner of intrusive `product placement' advertising! His family and friends jarringly hold up products to the hidden cameras and babble in advert-speak to the bemused Truman and he is stopped in the street by cast members next to promotional hoardings for inconsequential conversations.
Stylistically "The Truman Show" shares a number of techniques utlised in "The Prisoner". The Village was populated by prisoners whose wardrobe consisted of a uniform of striped t-shirts, piped blazers and capes provided by the authorities. This, perhaps inadvertently, gave the series a timeless feel. The makers of "The Truman Show" have also avoided contemporary fashion in order to bestow on the inhabitants of Seahaven a bright and cheerful Hollywood interpretation of small town America from the forties or fifties. Clashing with the modem household and office technology on display this gives Truman's world an alternative universe feel.
Truman also has his own `Be seeing you"-type catchphases. Each morning he has a prepared encounter with a neighbour and his dog and shouts across the street to a couple chatting opposite "Good morning and, in case I don't see you later, good afternoon and good night!"
His whole world is controlled by the director, Christof, in a futuristic television control room suspended high above the town disguised as the moon! From here the rising and setting of the sun and weather can be controlled as well as the complex task of following Truman from camera to camera and `directing' his 'co-stars' by radio link to hidden earphones. This control room takes live feeds from the legion of hidden cameras scattered throughoutSeahaven and, with the aid of a mass of video monitors and a huge staff, every moment of Truman's life is broadcast to the world. More than five thousand cameras, scattered around the town and secreted about the person of supporting players, capture his every move and he is conditioned not to stray beyond the confines of the town by a number of devices. A staged family accident at sea in early life, in which his father 'died', has given him a morbid fear of water and air travel is discouraged by a mysterious lack of convenient flights and posters in travel agents promoting the potential horrors of taking a trip by plane.
Christof is god-like, having complete control of Truman's environment. When our increasingly suspicious hero, played surprisingly to perfection by Jim Carrey, attempts to `escape' by crossing a river bridge, in spite of his disabling fear of water, a `nuclear accident' is conjured up from nowhere to herd him back to the fold. The logistics of, not only predicting Truman's action, but also having dozens of `actors' in appropriate protective clothing to play out this charade in a remote area of the `studio' is mind-boggling but typical of the attention to detail and scope of control that would be required in order to sustain such a massive conspiracy.
This surveillance and the control of Truman's movements will, of course, be familiar to devotees of "The Prisoner", with Number 2 and the Supervisor having very similar facilities at their disposal in the Green Dome and Control Room. The voyeuristic feel of intruding on the privacy of both Truman and Number 6 is achieved by the extensive use of viewing screens and other techniques to emphasise, rather than conceal, that the viewer is watching filmed images. The confinement of the leading characters, although initially without his knowledge in "The Truman Show", strikes a similar chord with the audience and clearly it is the intention for the film to operate on a number of levels as was the case with "The Prisoner". It works as a bizarre situation comedy but can also inspire the cinema audience to view the story as an allegory of the modem world and the effects that technological advancement have on our own personal freedom.
One interesting aspect of "The Truman Show" is the fact that, as the leading character's plight is broadcast to the world, we are not only able to view the situation from the point of view of the `prisoner' and `warder' but also as a member of the public at large. The reactions of viewers of "The Truman Show" soap opera are shown within the film which enables Weir to actually involve the audience as well. It is almost as if he is aware that "The Prisoner", operating in a similar area, has inspired a public reaction and also inspired authors and media commentators in general, and was eager to incorporate this within the film itself. In common with "Arrival" approximately half of the film's running time is utilised to introduce the elaborate premise before the 'actual story' begins. Various incidents begin to alert Truman's suspicions - a studio lamp tumbles from the sky in front of his residence, rain falls in very localised showers (only on Truman himselfl), traffic and extras follow pre-determined and repetitive patterns and a number of 'wayward' actors (including his 'dead' father) fail to follow the script. Without spoiling the plot for those who have yet to see the film it is not giving too much away to reveal that the second half of the film follows Truman as he begins to question his life and surroundings.
The Truman Show is available on DVD and can be highly recommended to "Prisoner" fans.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM UNMUTUAL READER JOHN TIRPAK:
There is a direct "Prisoner" reference which you didn’t mention in your essay. In the control room, just to the right of the big screen showing where Truman is and what he’s doing, there is a stationary exercise bicycle with an oversize front wheel. You actually have to look hard to realize that it is NOT a pennyfarthing bicycle, the icon of The Village. "The Truman Show" makers were clearly making an American version of the show, and wanted us all to know it!
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