Friday 7 February 2014

Two recent classic movies - The Truman Show and Groundhog Day


I have watched both with my family recently - I'm assuming everybody has seen them.

These were both second viewings - I saw them when they came out about twenty years ago, they both stuck in my mind as top-notch movies, and then I saw them again over the past few days.

What struck me this time round was how religiously-rooted they both are, how hostile to the prevailing secular hedonic materialism of modernity.


At the end of The Truman Show, Truman is given a stark choice of either staying inside his 'show' where he will be assured of a pain free, pleasant and peaceful existence - or venturing out into our world, with all its unpredictability and horrors.

The choice is also between the fake and the real; between a pretend life, and an earnest life.

For most of the adult audience, this is a real dilemma - not least because modern culture is implicitly seeking exactly that state of comfortable distraction epitomized by life inside The Truman Show.

But Truman chooses to leave 'secular modernity'; and I asked my kids what they would have chosen, and both unhesitatingly chose leaving the show as obviously the right thing to do; they immediately rejected the pretend, fake, unreal comfort of life inside the bubble.

I found this interesting - that it is the more-corrupted adults who see the choice as a dilemma; while kids see it as straightforward, and instantly (and correctly) perceive Truman as being imprisoned in his air-conditioned daydream (that is really a nightmare).


Truman's choice is given him, not by God - but by a man who is playing-God - the deviser and director of The Truman Show: an Antichrist figure with a superficially-protective (and pseudo-loving) attitude to his protegee Truman; but whose underlying pride and destructive sadism are revealed (to all around him, although not to himself) when he tries to kill Truman rather than letting him break out of the vast eco-dome which contains him.

So, in leaving the Show, Truman is also rejecting the temptations of Satan. As yet he does not know what else there may be on offer outside the dome, it is a step into the unknown - but he has started well: very well.


In Groundhog Day, the protagonist Phil is forced to repeat that day in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania - beginning each repetition with full memories of what went before but recommencing at exactly the same starting point - free within that day to do as he chooses - but unageing, unable to die or escape in any way.

The movie charts Phil's various reactions and strategies to his inexplicable (and never explained) predicament; and although it is never stated, the implication is that he relives this day thousands of times, perhaps many thousands of times.

Eventually, after exhausting every sinful possibility (lust, greed, sloth etc) and indulging all the emotional vices (pride, anger, hatred etc), Phil learns what was (apparently) the lesson of his experience, and becomes a loving, altruistic humble man - at which point he is 'allowed' to move on to the next day - sanctified.

And it is not enough for Phil to fake this, to say the right things and do the right things - he must genuinely change within: become a better man - better motivated, a better character. 


It turns-out that Groundhog Day was a test, and also an experience - an arena for free agency and choice.

And the tester seemingly knows Phil's inner life, his real motivations - and these are what must change before Phil can pass the test.


But who is the tester; who does this to Phil - and why?

Implicitly, it has to be God, obviously - and a personal God who cares about Phil as an individual and has an individual relationship with him - and who also cares, equally, about all the people of Punxutawney and wants the best for them too. Thus the Jewish/ Christian God.

The point being that without such a God, and without the life that God prescribes - life is meaningless, purposeless and utterly lonely; and might as well be an unending cycle of futile repetition - as when an alcoholic slob responds to Phil's account of his predicament (every day the same, going nowhere) by saying that this description also fits his own life...

A super-truth joke; which hints that, minus-God, modern life is a mere repetition of distraction and intoxication and unreality; every bit as futile as the daily cycles of intoxication of a bar-fly. 


Both movies are, in effect, Judeo-Christian critiques of the ideals and actuality of Godless modernity; demonstrations of the gross inadequacy of an ethic of self-centred hedonism; arguments for the necessity of hope being rooted beyond this-worldly ideals of peace, pleasure, comfort and convenience.



J. B. said...

Very nice post. I enjoy these movie reviews, when you do them, but I won't ask for more: Samuel Johnson says it's best to let a boy read whatever his inclination fancies; how much more with writing?

I too deeply enjoyed the Truman Show. Never thought about it much, though. I haven't seen Groundhog Day, but will do it now that I've read this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jables. Thanks. Nowadays I watch very few movies - fewer than anybody I know - and these mostly kid's movies (Pixar/ DreamWorks kind of things); although I used to be a culture vulture and immersed myself both in Hollywood and Art cinema. To emphasize how serious I was in the late seventies/early-mid eighties - I mostly used to go on my own to the movies (so other people wouldn't 'spoil it'), and watch movies with sub-titles when there might be only half a dozen in the audience... Sometimes I even went more than once a day, and twice re-viewed the same movie within a week (Local Hero and Spinal Tap). Anyway, now it is more like one movie a month (including on TV) - so there is zero danger of this blog turning into a festival of film crit.

AlexT said...

Groundhog Day is one of my all time favourites. I saw it as a 15 year old and at first just thought it was an entertaining film. The moral of the story only became obvious gradually over the course of a few years. When i pointed out to my friends that it is a very Christian movie, as only God could have done this, and only the Christian God would have cared about someones inner motivations, the film became very unpopular and was considered 'cheesy' by everyone i knew. This, to me, is just as much proof of it's truth as anything else. Only Christ makes moderns that uncomfortable.

Nicanor said...

I enjoy The Truman Show very much, but I never thought of it in this light. Interestingly, the only theological explanation I had heard before was that Truman's world was the world of religion with its comforts and assurances of meaning/purpose wrapped around the individual personality, with the director as a religious authority/Grand Inquisitor maintaining this false reality, and his choice to leave was a brave existentialist choice to face the reality of solitude. I didn't buy it at the time, but I'm not sure if the message is that obvious then either way.

Arakawa said...

The Truman Show is an interesting demonstration of the Argument from Desire, or similar, because Truman comes across as one of those incorrigibly nice and decent Mr. Rogers types. What's most important (and it's presumed this is the cause of the show's popularity) is that he's genuine; it's downright implausible that someone like him could grow up in the artificial, micromanaged set filled with actors hawking product placement. So that is a major clue that Truman does not belong in the false reality, that his 'creator' is not the usurper squatting on top of the dome.

If we read the set of the show as the visible world, it makes a lot of sense that we barely see what's outside the dome (aside from very uninformative shots of people watching Truman) -- the outside world stands for Heaven, which (by definition) a human artist cannot depict directly. But it raises an interesting thought -- whether we're entirely correct when we slip into imagining Heaven to be something small, contained and controlled, isolated from the evil of the world outside. In the Truman Show, Heaven is the outside -- vast, scary, and unknown (i.e. a terrible place to be for someone who has rejected God's guidance), but it's also the only place he can find happiness. It's more similar to the picture in the Space Trilogy, where the fallen world is just one unusual blot in a vast cosmos (also dangerous to those who don't follow God).

I suppose this skirts the edges of Gnosticism (because, unlike the Truman Show, the real world is an incubator, not a prison), but Gnosticism itself parasitizes on the grain of truth that the human destiny can only be fulfilled somewhere outside this fallen world.

Don said...

The Matrix covered some of the same territory. It was a different treatment and came to a much different conclusion at the end of the trilogy but it was the same type of story.

Why the difference? I don't know about the makers of the Truman Show but the brothers (brother/sister?) who made the Matrix surrendered to their own demons.


Adam G. said...

I see your point of view, but I understood the Truman show as a gnostic attack on normalcy--saying that ordinary, decent life was a sham. Needless to say, I didn't like it much.

Al said...

I enjoyed reading this treatment of Groundhog Day earlier today.

Samson J. said...

I'm assuming everybody has seen them.

Oh, you wound and disappoint me with this assumption!

stephen c said...

I skipped the Truman show because, based on the "creative talent" associated with it, I guessed it would be coldhearted modernist secular propaganda of the sort Adam G. described. Maybe I was wrong. As to "Groundhog Day", it was good, but I have known too many real-life Bill Murrays to not be distressed at the thought of the extended suffering of those poor supporting actors who had to spend, in the cosmos of that movie, thousands or even tens of thousands of days in unpleasant proximity to the conceited Bill-Murray character, waiting for him to get over himself and get his romantic life in order.