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Film Class III: Psycho & The Truman Show

My film class is about experiencing many films, letting those films work together on your imagination, and hopefully making stimulating connections.

In my film classes, I show movies in tandem and my students analyze them as pairings. The choices are deliberate and center on specific themes and/or the same director.

Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) fulfill both criteria. Hitchcock’s themes and motifs overlap in many of his films, never more sharply than the bird imagery in Psycho—the threatening stuffed birds above Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman (Anthony Perkins) in the motel parlor—that come to full violent life in The Birds.

I also often show The Matrix (1999) and The Truman Show (1998) together. Here, two worlds are depicted in which people live in ignorance of their immediate reality. In The Matrix, nearly everyone lives in a virtual reality in order to feed the necessary for the machines to dominate the earth.

The inverse occurs in The Truman Show. Only one person is deluded about his world, not knowing he is the subject of a reality show. All the world’s a stage with Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) at its center. Truman keeps a monstrous machine going as well: television.

I show 14 to 16 films per course. Ultimately, I want all the films to connect in some way; by conscious or unconscious design.

An example of the former happened one semester when I chose films that had twisted, mind-blowing plots and resolutions. Either the characters in the films would be immersed in uncertain and bewildering scenarios, or both characters and my student viewers would suffer the same sense of not knowing what is happening. 

The Matrix and The Truman Show represent the first possibility. The Woman in the Window (1944) illustrates the second. 

Other films cover both categories. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) takes mind boggling to the extreme. A game of the same name is played in several gamers' minds and on many levels. The audience and players can never be certain when the game, or movie, is over. In essence, the game has become a reality for people in a technological universe who want only the most real games.

The ideal of the course, however, is to find the unconscious or unintentional connections and discoveries. One such experience occurred a month ago.

I had broken the scheme of tandem showings, partly to find material that interested a class difficult to please. Several times the students asked to see Psycho. I had been showing strictly comedies thus far, like Modern Times (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and Raising Arizona (1987). I thought: okay, Hitchcock once remarked that Psycho could only be a comedy.

Then I returned to regular comedies and satires like Duck Soup (1933), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and The Truman Show. The Truman Show is one of the best films about television—specifically, the reality show— made on the cusp of reality shows, starting with Survivor, at the start of the third millennium.

One day I spoke about the group of films we had watched the last three months trying to stimulate the class to write better, more interpretive papers. I mentioned how taking dialogue and specific lines make for a good way to look into film.

I specifically mentioned the long dialogue between Marion Crane and Norman Bates. The second time watching Psycho, the meaning of what Norman was saying changed. Things like: "mother wasn’t quite herself," "a boy’s best friend is his mother," and "a son is a poor substitute for a lover."

I quoted other lines:

Norman: You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. 
Marion: Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.
Norman: I was born in mine. I don't mind it any more.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, I said that Truman Burbank was also born in a trap. He had been the subject of a television show since he was born. As long as the show’s ratings were high, he could not leave this trap. While Truman grew up, his creator, Christof (Ed Harris), created circumstances to keep him trapped psychologically on the island town of Seaview. The major difference between Truman and Norman is that Truman started to mind being in his trap.

What could we make of this? What meaning, if any, did this parallel situation of characters in widely different films have?

At the time, I had no real answer nor did the students respond to the connection. That’s the problem with these kinds of connections. There’s no ready-made answer. One can make something of it; i.e., “find” meaning, or drop it as a curiosity or not worth the effort.

This is a case of it taking one film to understand another film. If we liken Truman Burbank to Norman Bates, how far do we want to take it? Norman’s mental state, we are told, is the result of possessive, domineering mother. We have little or no objective evidence of this, save for a psychologist’s report and the voice of the Mother in Norman’s head. At best, we can say Norman was psychologically smothered and entered an unfathomable psychotic state.

Truman’s upbringing is no less smothering, but is primarily a sociological asphyxiation. Every relationship in his life is false. He responds to players who are fed lines in order to prompt Truman’s behavior in a particular direction. Christof believes this direction is salutary and utopian. Truman will get what he desires and, subsequently, satisfy the viewing desires of a billion watchers.

The perversity of Truman’s situation is less obvious than Norman’s. The suggestion of incest within the Bates family immediately implants horrific images in the viewer's imagination. Whereas, we can convince ourselves that Truman lives in the best of all possible worlds. Norman is a serial killer, creating an even stronger feeling of revulsion in us. Truman wears mismatched clothes and is afraid of water. He can be laughed at. Maybe he's a tad neurotic.

Norman gets locked away. He couldn’t disentangle himself from his mother-self. Truman gets to leave his world. He had developed a healthy skepticism toward his world. He had to get out of his trap: society. 

Getting out of the trap won’t be as easy as it looks. What he doesn’t know is that there’s another, harsher society out there waiting to engulf him again. He will become the celebrity, Truman Burbank, star for thirty years of “The Truman Show”. He will be trapped by his former life and hounded by people who have developed neurotic fixations about him. 

I am glad there was never a sequel to The Truman Show, something that can't be said for Psycho. If there was, I wonder how more awful his experiences in the world would be compared to his former prison-trap. Yes, he chose freedom and maybe he could never go back to Seaview. The great exultations by the public at the end of The Truman Show might be a little premature.

Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash December 26, 2012 at 12:26 PM
I love movies but I never saw the relationships in film presented by Mr. Castle i.e. the birds in Psycho and The Birds. Does Hitchcock really think out the development of movies with similar motifs like this? I really have study and watch some films more. The Truman Show was unsettling to me . The way a human whole "being" was snatched away for ratings. I did see it all from beginning to end but I felt quesy afterwards. I think reality show viewers have to get a life and get off the "tube!"

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