Friday, August 21, 2015

Birthday Take: Peter Weir in "The Truman Show" (1998)

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Peter Weir
Born: August 21, 1944 (71 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for The Truman Show

The Take

Every now and then, a film comes along that feels important to the time. Among those that have aged rather well, serving as a deeper commentary on media is The Truman Show. Much like Network before it, the film his an impeccable ability to take the subject of public's fascination with individuals and exploit it with a nice mix of drama without sacrificing comedy. While there's arguably more substance in the older film, there's no lack of charm to be found in The Truman Show, which also ranks as one of Jim Carrey's best early turns to more challenging and dramatic work. 

The story is rather simple and can be summarized nowadays as "reality TV." It isn't entirely clear why Truman is an important person, but everyone loves watching him live his life. He was born into the camera without ever knowing it. The film starts off with this notion and watches as his life gets bombarded with people pushing products and discovering that the world that he knew literally isn't what it is. There's a surrealism to the film that makes the comedy richer and the drama sadder. It is the orchestration to sacrifice dignity in order to get ratings. It helps that Carrey exists as a man who is traumatized by the situation and is forced to contemplate his existence.

Director Peter Weir isn't new to film making at this point. He has previously made marks for Dead Poets Society. However, it is hard to see any of his films coming close to topping The Truman Show as his masterpiece. It is a film that was entertaining then and has only become more relevant in hindsight. As much as sci-fi writers of the first half of the 21st century predicted various aspects of the later half, it does feel like some films were transplanted to a different time to warn us. By comparison to reality shows, The Truman Show is tame. However, the psychological turmoil and desperation of media executives remains just as strong. It poses a lot of questions and does something that reality TV doesn't: it humanizes its subject.

This is why it is very odd to see that The Truman Show didn't quite get the Best Picture nomination that would have given it a higher reputation. Like a lot of great films of the past, this is one that will baffle people as to why it wasn't nominated. In fact, I'm not even so sure that the direction is the greatest part of the film. Yet, it is more proof that Weir knew what he was talking about. While he would be back with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003, he hasn't been able to make a film that is as staggering and engaging as The Truman Show. He paints a naive picture of the future and keeps it layered with humanity and humor. It may not seem as groundbreaking today as it did then, but that's unfortunately because of the changing times.

I am not too familiar with a lot of Weir's other work, so it is hard to write a cohesive analysis on his work. However, I do admire any filmmaker that becomes more relevant with time. While I cannot claim to be a big Dead Poets Society fan, I am definitely in The Truman Show camp. It not only predicted the future, but it gave audiences hope that maybe Carrey would also be a great dramatic actor. He has proven it on and off for quite awhile now. Yet, he remains rather unnoticed by major groups. Even then, this is a performance that should define his career more than any other film (yes, even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) not only because it shows his range, but that he was able to pick compelling projects and emphasize why they were great.

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