The Truth of Music

The Truman Show

published in Real Time No.28, Sydney, 1998

Peter Weir's The Truman Show is one of those films that is very easy to praise and just as easy to damn. Any film that is marketed by 5 star quotes from TIME and NEWSWEEK (arm-chair tabloid bibles for concerned fathers of today) has to be so safely full of altruisms and fey shared warmth that its emotional machinations are sure to smart. And if you hate Jim Carey - especially because he has become so famous and popular for extending the Jerry Lewis tradition of rubbery slapstick - than you can vent your rage against him by blaming him for the movie's manipulative gyrations.

But Jim Carey is fascinating in the film. Like all slippery comedians, his performance mode - and its self-crystallising and re-liquefying manifestations that flicker between warm irony and savage humour - is hard to contain, harder to frame. He is perfectly cast in a vehicle custom made for such a flesh-icon of comedy. And while the film is utterly repugnant in its media moralism (more on that in a minute), the performance by Ed Harris is a harsh reflector board held at odd angles to Jim Carey's gangly body at every moment. If Carey is the cartoon made flesh, Harris embodies the heartless core of an omnipotent god-being. Set against each other - allowed contact only through cinematic edits and a final voice-over dialogue at the film's closure - their relationship is at once a corny Biblical saga (pick any father-son line from either Testament) and an unresolved debacle of parental over-concern.

Any film which attempts to take the media to task is prone to embarrassing failure. If Pop Art - particularly as generated through Andy Warhol - taught intellectuals anything, it's that critique is most vibrant when spoken in any voice but its own. To love or hate Pop - you simply be Pop. You surrender all intellectual property and submerge your critical voice. You have to be both perverse (to embark on the seemingly negative), experimental (to wish to gauge the effects of your absence) and amorphous (so as to disintegrate into the larger cultural mass that frames your critique). The media works in entirely similar ways. You want to make fun of it? It will make fun of itself next week even more savagely. You want to 'work from the inside' and 'subvert things'? No problem - just send in your resume; there's always a vacancy. You think you're 'irreverent', 'cutting' and 'pull-no-punches'? Go direct to the ABC.

But still, people insist on critical distance, authorial separation, that sly wink to the audience. This is media romanticism at its most banal - the half-formed idea that one can be 'other than the media'. In fact, it's a para-mystical delusion - the notion that one can levitate, freeze tape time, walk on televisual water in the act of addressing the media while avoiding its core grammatological grain which codes your voice with the biting sibilance of compressed broadcast transmission. This mystical media romanticisation has grown unabated, cross-pollinated by everyone from Ralph Nader to Timothy Leary, from Noam Chomsky to Nicholas Nagroponte. All those throbbing brains and popping veins - and probably no one could say anything vaguely stimulating at an intellectual level about Josie & The Pussycats, WWF Wrestling or Michael Jackson.

The Truman Show 'addresses' things many wannabe-media-critics think need addressing - but which I personally could care less about it. Easy targets like 'Hollywood', 'product placement', 'truthful depiction' and 'mass media effects'. I can just hear the sweat sizzling inside the cotton trousers and skirts of media teachers as they watch this movie, getting excited about all the ways they could use this film as a 'topic' for discussion in their 'media class'. (Little do they realize that they had their chance to do that with the most dismissed and best film of last year - Starship Troopers.) Not surprisingly, The Truman Show ends up caving in on itself to a degree. Some people wanted more of a cathartic explosion of Jim Carey at the end. Others wanted less of a parable-toned ending and more of a clear assault of the media's monolithic power. (Such befuddled braying are typical of the way most people simply can't handle the end to any movie purely because the film finishes: they deny the pornographic vicarious pleasure that sustained them once the post-coital reality of their own pleasure zone faces them.)

But there are specific cracks in the geodesic domed world of The Truman Show - and no amount of dated pseudo-postmodern posing and smarmy East Coast winks-and-nods can hide these cracks. For through these cracks comes yet again the surfeit of image, the weight of space, the aura of audiovisuality: that unstoppable diaspora from the land of image called 'music'.

The Truman Show features a bit of a patchwork score: the occasional Light Classical work threaded together by some tasteful Contemporary AOR by Burkhold Stalwicz and some brief but noticeable snatches of Philip Glass' distinctive 'hysterical minimalism'. The soundtrack CD testifies to this tri-cocktail of orchestral erogenous zones - each marked by an excess of emotionalism, scarred by cliche, and dripping with heroic signage. All the music I find in its own way utterly theatrical - far from operative as 'truthful' as per the film's general aim - and resonating more through archetype and accrued musical grammar than a distinctive sono-acoustic character. The Light Classical numbers have been elsewhere so over-used they function as filler; Burkhold's music is reminiscent of all ad jingles these days which attempt to humanize the world and our future generations while scoring the sound of a washing machine; and Philip Glass bellows with harmonic bombast in a way that inverts the music into a spiralling High Art canon of artifice.

Leaving aside the inclusion of (usually diegetically sourced) Light Classical, an interesting opposition is struck between Stalwicz and Glass: the former being no doubt more palatable to most people despite its anonymity and pedestrian harmonic/sonic palette, the latter being irritating and obtrusive to many due to the severity of its minimalist tenure. To some extent, director Weir may have been searching for a balance between artifice and artistry in the difficult task of selecting a theme for a show based on deception which is at the centre of a film based on exposing deception. So, a musical sleight of hand is performed when at one point, a Stalwicz cue rises (it has been swelling at other points prior) and Ed Harris orders "fade up cue music". We all smile knowingly: yes, that is manipulative music right there. But then later, the same music rises - uncued or undirected by Harris - and I'm certain most people would find the music 'works' there despite it being invisibly - insidiously, even - manipulative to an even greater degree.

Yet I would still have to relent and say that all the music 'works' well in the film. Which gives rise to an interesting possibility: that music cannot help but 'tell the truth'. Or: can music 'lie'? The Truman Show is so contrived with its earnest hand-wringing about the dissolution of 'truth' in 'the media' (like, der) - but while the film is thematically full of sanctimonious bullshit, social reductivisim and self-contradiction, the music is never tainted by such themes, purposes or prejudices. When Truman realizes he has some ineffable power over forces around him and he starts controlling the traffic, his transformative naivete is perfectly balanced by a cloying yet effective cue by Stalwicz. When Ed Harris' world starts to fall apart as Truman embarks on his oceanic escape, Glass' overstated musical apocalypse purposefully wills the world to not be rendered apart while accepting its finality as a means of resolution.

The Truman Show is the kind of film I want to trash mercilessly because of its irresponsible myth-making about 'media untruth' when the search for truth is such a tacky heroic grand narrative we could do well without. Yet it is a great movie that either intentionally or unintentionally (I don't care how) reveals the complexity of music's 'multi-complicity' - that is, its capacity to be all that contradicts with full effect. It has none of the harmonic-emotional sophistication of Michael Mann's Heat, 1995 (his placement of Moby's "God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters" at the film's end is sublime). Nor does it have any of the unerring self-exposure which typifies Ulu Grosbard's Georgia (1996) as the only film I know of which portrays the idea of 'soul' in music as nothing but a pure and beguiling effect of emotional empathy. Yet, a deeper pondering of the role music plays in The Truman Show grants the film a greater exploration of 'truth' through actively dissolving the cine-formal distinctions between artifice and reality - a project which the film wills thematically but fails in realizing at that level. (See Pee Wee's Big Adventure - Tim Burton, 1985 - for that.)

In the opening of Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion (1997) - one of hundreds of Hollywood movies about truth and deception (like, does Hollywood not make movies about this theme?) - the two girls sit watching PRETTY WOMAN (another film about, etc.). Both are enraptured; then one bags the manipulative emotional music '"that's meant to make us feel, y'know, real sad and stuff'". They laugh - and then they stop laughing. Teary-eyed, she says: "But, um, it's really sad." Images are always safe because they can only ever lie. Only fools think otherwise. Music is most dangerous - and most thrillingly powerful - because it can do anything but lie. And the biggest fool is the one who actually believes there is such a thing as 'fake music'.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © United International Pictures