The thought of following around a single person and capturing his entire life on television actually isn’t new. Even before last year’s The Truman Show, there has been MTV’s brand of real-life TV called “The Real World.” Even on the internet, there are several sites where you can watch the inhabitants of college dorms, apartments, or office buildings via “webcams.”
But so far, the idea of a national broadcast of ordinary individuals oddly hasn’t happened yet. That’s where these two films come in.
- Authenticity of the lead characters and their directors.
- Plot involves insatiable, non-stop media coverage of their lives.
It’s great to see the sincerity of these two movies. A large chunk of that reality was shouldered by its leads. Mathew McConaughey’s role of Ed Pekurny in Edtv is a refreshing change since his heavy-handed parts in A Time to Kill and Contact. McConaughey as a competent, yet beautiful lawyer in Mississippi was far-fetched. And if he could ever become the foremost spiritual advisor to the President of the United States, I could become the next Pope. He nails it as Ed, though.
He had a lot of good direction. Ron Howard is very good at realism and once again pulls it off in EDtv. He took us right into the heart of many a raging fire in Backdraft. He let us float onboard Apollo 13. We wretched for the parents victimized by child abduction in Ransom. Howard may shoot his movies by the numbers, but no one can accuse him of counterfeit filmmaking. And in EDtv, Ron uses just the right amount of hilarious scenes and plot twists, balanced by some genuine acting, to keep us interested.
Likewise, Jim (Rubber Face) Carrey is surprisingly sincere as Truman Burbank.
There’s something oddly genuine about Carrey, which is almost out of character coming from the guy who played in such body-humor farces as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber (of which I will never tire). But if you look at two of his recent films, The Cable Guy and Liar Liar, you see a slight change in his taste for roles. Carrey is beginning to move from pure slap-stick to sincere acting, similar to Robin Williams’ transition from goofy comedy to involving melodrama. Williams’ latest (Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come) have done well, even if not received positively from the critics. Probably his most memorable dramatic repertoire has been Good Will Hunting, Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, and Good Morning, Vietnam.
Peter Weir directed Truman, and incidentally directed Dead Poets as well. So Weir’s flare for capturing the humanity of a film is well established.
There’s very few differences between Truman and EDtv. The only significant ones are fundamental.
- Product plugs — real or fake?
- EDtv‘s exhibitionist or Truman‘s peeping tom?
Where Truman and EDtv differ starkly is in their clever inclusion of product commercialization. With a 24-hour broadcast of someone’s life, the normal funding methods (commercial breaks) aren’t exactly optional. So both Truman and EDtv work in their sponsors by subtle (and not-so-subtle) placement.
Weir was quite aware of the conflict of interests involved in free advertisement; so he used fake products in Truman‘s ads. What resulted was hilariously awkward real-time plugs for bogus products. Truman has no idea why his wife keeps elaborating on dish soap and plant fertilizer.
In EDtv, however, the same device is used but with real products. We see Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Motorola, Yahoo, and many others blatantly displayed everywhere. The corporate presence becomes almost overbearing at times. So is Howard alluding to the corruption of sponsorship and rampant commercialization of modern television? Overbearing or not, it fits with his portrayal of frenzied media coverage. In an age when individual plays of professional sports are sponsored by name brand products, the message is certainly relevant.
Yet the irony (or hypocrisy) of it all is that surely Howard was compensated by all those companies for giving them prime ad spots in his film. I certainly doubt they were plugged for free. Come to think of it, I’m just as guilty for having mentioned them above. Why, even “Real World” edits out any exposed product labels from their show!
Man Under a Microscope
The story of Truman Burbank is a unique one. He was the first child to be adopted by a corporation for the sole purpose of being televised to the world. There’s just one hitch: Truman has no cognizance of this grand experiment and lives in a completely fabricated environment. The mastermind behind this elaborate operation is a rogue filmmaker named Christof (Ed Harris), who changes the “script” of Truman’s life from day to day to appease viewer ratings.
Ed Pekurny, on the other hand, voluntarily subjects himself to public scrutiny. He and his loser brother (Woody Harrelson) audition for a new cable show on the “True TV” network that features 24-hour roaming-camera footage of an ordinary person. Ed is selected as their poster boy, and soon becomes the preoccupation of everyone. His new job as host of EDtv has the appeal of real-life video with the addiction of daytime soap operas.
From mundane to intimate, nothing is private and the audience craves more. They quickly elevate Ed to stardom. His newfound fame is even compared to the Beetles and the Spice Girls. His charm and sincerity would seem to echo the former, but his short-lived fame is reminiscent of the latter. This is confirmed by one of Ed’s friends who even gets a spot on a talk show to comment on the media phenomenon of Ed. “It used to be that you became famous because you were special,” he says. “Now you become special because you’re famous. Fame itself has become a moral good.”
The fandom behind Truman is just as strong. The people love him because he is real. This insatiable desire for reality is encouraging, but also a bit depressing. For while it is good to see that people really want to stay in touch with real life, it seems odd that they can’t see the uniqueness in their own lives. This infatuation with the elite icons of television is disturbing. It used to take huge star power in Hollywood or living legends in Washington to warrant unadulterated praise. Now, we are content to raise simpletons on the altar of fame. Indeed, we see it in such new TV trash as Jerry Springer and other midday circus talk shows. The standards have fallen from bad to worse.
There’s even an obvious allusion to the recent Clinton scandal as Ed turns into a screen version of Larry Flint and calls upon all conscientious citizens to dig up as much scandal on the True TV execs as possible. Ed’s scheme is to force them to annul his eternal contract. The message is a familiar sounding one: Ed’s private life should be his own business and doesn’t belong on the boob tube.
It’s hard to say which of these movies did a better job with its message. EDtv was well executed by Howard. However, I’m not convinced people will remember it’s truths about mass consumption of entertainment for very long afterward, because it succumbs to the notion itself.
I do think that from the Truman scenario you could learn more about human nature, simply because Truman doesn’t know you’re peeping. In this sense, although fundamentally flawed, Truman is the better of these two social experiments. If Truman was a “film,” then EDtv is just a two-and-a-half-hour sitcom.
Where both Truman and EDtv really succeeded was in making me want to give up television forever. (That’s actually a compliment.) Unfortunately, I’m just as much a part of the consuming masses as anyone else. I’ll probably tune in to the next TV I see.