June 30, 2009

Underrated MOTM (Special Edition): The Truman Show (1998)

(Despite being a huge fan of his music and dancing, I didn't plan on posting anything about Michael Jackson here for the very reasons that I'll mention, namely my unease about celebrity (and especially non-celebrity) idolization. All I had in mind was a Perfect Song, Perfect Scene clip as a tribute, but on second and third thoughts I ended up with this additional post. Plus my girlfriend wanted me to write something about MJ, and I was ultimately happy to oblige.)

With three Oscar nominations and solid 95 RT and 90 MC ratings, one of the things June's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) is not is underrated; many people consider it one of the greatest movies of the 90's. But let's just nevermind that this month, especially since "underrated" is always defined by me anyway. The truth of the matter is that I've been voluntarily and involuntarily caught up in the Michael Jackson madness since last week, and now, just as the media coverage graduates from somber commiseration to sickening commercialization, my thoughts have led me to choose here between The Jacksons: An American Dream and The Truman Show. I ended up choosing the latter, but first I have to reflect on the former.

If you were to ask me I wouldn't have had any idea what year it was when I watched The Jacksons: An American Dream. I remember it as an engrossing mini-series about a pop star that I saw all over the TV and radio, and whose songs ("Heal the World") we sang at school. I would have been about 11 years old when it aired in 1992, old enough to become a fan of the then-current "Dangerous" album, but too young to understand the background of the Jackson family and the influence of their music. Disturbingly, what I remembered the most from The Jacksons: An American Dream is this scene,
in which Joe Jackson instructs Marlon to "Go! Outside! Get a switch!". Whether that incident of abuse was dramatized doesn't matter at this point; both Joe and Michael admitted that abuse occurred during the famous children's formative years.

My reaction to that scene may not have immediately changed my impression of Michael Jackson, but as the years went by I gradually realized that this man's life was a complete construction, and the public's confusion about him was probably not nearly as bewildering as the isolated confusion he must have been experiencing in his own head. At least to me, then, his physical changes and bizarre behavior made perfect sense.

He didn't understand and perhaps wanted to escape his own identity, so he changed his appearance. He never - literally, never - had a childhood, so he tried to relive those fantasies as an adult (not that he might have understood what that meant), even if not always in the most appropriate ways (not that he understood what that meant either). "The public at large has yet to really understand the pressures of childhood celebrity, which, while exciting, always exacts a very heavy price," he said in 2000. "More than anything, I wished to be a normal little boy. I wanted to build tree houses and go to roller-skating parties. But very early on, this became impossible."

At the end of the day, I think Michael Jackson never had any idea of who he really was. Sure, he understood his status as a pop culture icon, but he never really knew who he was as a human, what his identity was comprised of and how it related to the identities of others. Even other childhood celebrities get the relief of a drug-addled teenage meltdown or a quickly faded career. Not so Jackson - his relief away from the spotlight only came when he was in his 40's, far too late for him to discover himself.

I don't think he was Norma Desmond-crazy and I don't think he was a perverted child molester. I think, aside from being unquestionably and unconditionally the greatest all-around entertainer and pop icon in my lifetime (and undoubtedly the very last of his kind), Jackson was relegated to being a moonwalking, talking, pop culture commodity. We made him, bought him, sold him, abused him (know the background on "Billie Jean"?), scolded him, celebrated him, provoked him, and in many cases, literally bowed down and worshiped him:

Watching that clip, is it any surprise that his self-awareness, and thus individual identity, was on a completely different level than the rest of us? How would you feel if complete strangers reacted to you like that? Like Truman Burbank, the main character of The Truman Show, Michael Jackson was not just a marketable product, but a literal source of life for millions of his fans. We were much more dependent on him than he ever was on us
; it's as if we drained the humanity from him like leeches. I mean really, watch the last minute of the above video (truth be told, I haven't been able to sit through the whole thing yet - it's just too insane). Sadly, this phenomenon continues with the increasing popularity of conflict-based "reality" television shows - truly The Truman Show brought to life.

Last year I called The Siege "eerily, presciently ahead of its time", and the same came be said for The Truman Show, which was also released in 1998, just two years before "Survivor" would fatefully change television programming forever (or at least what appears to be forever). As Christof (Ed Harris) explains in the freaky opening to The Truman Show, "While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine. It's a life."

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of this analogy, then, is that unlike Truman, Michael Jackson was a real person, and a real person that could always see Christof's control booth and the cameras in his face. He knew that his life was a show, and there was nothing he could do about it other than fight back in song, earlier (1987) with the frustrated pleas of "Leave Me Alone", and later (1995) with the angry hysterics of "Scream".

Or, just as likely, maybe he didn't realize that his life was a show. Never having experienced any other life situation (unlike the Beatles, and Elvis, and Madonna, and every other larger-than-life star), he has to be literally the only person outside of a royal family to live his entire life, from age 5 on, as a prominent international celebrity.

You can ignore everything I've already written here and understand my Michael Jackson-as-Truman Burbank analogy really easily by watching the following five-minute interview on the set of the classic "Beat It" music video. In it, a 24 year-old Jackson admits that he never really went to school and, when pressed, answers that he doesn't really have any "close personal friends" outside of Quincy Jones and Diana Ross. Clearly, he has no concept of any normal social relation to people outside of his family.

Not surprisingly, he casually admits, "I get afraid of...well, I don't know people...I get afraid of people sometimes. It's a whole other life that I - I haven't really experienced that. Like friendship is a thing I'm just beginning to learn about. I was raised on the stage, and that's where I'm comfortable. And everything else is like foreign to me. I'm just beginning to know and learn about people, friendship, things like that."

(Addendum: Well, this is really unbelievable. I honestly had no notion of this fact beforehand, but just now, after having finished and revised this entire post, I poked around the internet to see how many other millions of bloggers focused on the Truman-Jackson connection. There were many, if not nearly as many as I thought.

But what really shocked me was the discovery of an unconfirmed quote, supposedly made in 2002 and supposedly made by The Truman Show director Peter Weir: "You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman. And Michael Jackson, he is also the real life Victor in Simone. He had a talent and all he wanted was to share this and bring people happiness and escapism through entertainment. And people turn it around, they make it about the individual rather than the creation. It is the actual films, the actual music - that’s what it’s all about… People lose sight of this and the media make it all about the celebrity.”)


  1. Great post!

    I've had one or two conversations about Michael, but only one or two...and I made a conscious choice not to blog about him. But if I had - I'd hope I could come up with something as apropos and relevant as this.

    As for THE TRUMAN SHOW, while I agree with you that it is brilliant, and perhaps underrated, the really prophetic movie would come nine months later, when ED TV hit screens.

    It's silly, has some bad acting, and doesn't hold a candle to TRUMAN as a complete film...but holy hell was the concept of making a TV show where some sap is follwed around during their day-to-day prophetic!

  2. Cheers, Hatter. Like I said, originally I was going to leave my MJ thoughts offline as I leave so many other non-movie related thoughts offline, but what the heck, it came together even if it is a little scattered.

    And funny that you mention EDTV, because I absolutely considered bringing that into the conversation. But then, I can't (or rather, didn't want to) defend that movie. Not a bad pick for another Underrated MOTM, though, since you're right that it's in one way much more prophetic and realistic than Truman. Notice what I said about NON-celebrity idolization at the beginning, too...ugh...

    But as far as MJ goes, The Truman Show was his life, from near-birth to post-death.

  3. I really enjoyed your comparison between Jackson and Truman. From the first time I saw it, I loved The Truman Show - especially the whole question of reality in Truman's life. Meanwhile, no matter how weird Jackson got, I've always been sympathetic to him - and I think you present a very sensitive portrayal of him here.

    Around the time of the trial, I heard so many cruel Michael Jackson jokes and I really got tired of them. And I was never a big fan - it's just that I empathize with a person who suffers the negative side of publicity and fame and the expectations of a country-full of fans.

    "We made him, bought him, sold him, abused him (know the background on "Billie Jean"?), scolded him, celebrated him, provoked him, and in many cases, literally bowed down and worshiped him:"

    Very well said! (Also, sounds like the same sort of thing that Britney Spears has suffered - and I empathize with her as well>).

    Once again, this is a sensitively written post.

  4. Thanks, Hokahey. Naturally, his death made me more sensitive about his life and work than I may have been a week ago, but for years I've held to the theory that he was truly desperate for a sense of identity, and that was the root of all the craziness.

    It just boggles my mind to think about how, from age 5 to at least 35, he was living life as an icon. Not a kid, or a teen, or an adult, or a husband or father. Seriously, at 24 he's learning about "people" and "friendship", and describes everything away from the stage as "foreign"?! What a life.

    As far as Britney Spears goes, I'm nowhere near as sensitive to her plight, which admittedly has also been grossly over-publicized. Although she was a child star, I don't think her career will ultimately be worth a fraction of MJ's. Additionally, I have zero respect for her music or artistry, and I would argue that although she - like MJ - has impressively avoided drug and alcohol problems to this point, she seems to have carried the mantle of celebrity a little more willingly than MJ did.

    But yeah, I agree with your point that people are way more invested in her life than they have any decent reason to be.

  5. Great piece - really compelling. That quote is astonishing if it's true (and quite well-written if it's not!).

    A few minor correctives, though - Jackson was famous from about 10 rather than 5 - but I think it wasn't so much the fame as the pressure to succeed and then to sustain success that did him in, and this WAS present from the age of 5. In fact, his childhood may have been even more disturbing than it would have been for a 5-year-old icon, as he was running around the stages of sleazy stip joints grabbing change from customers. As some commentators in Time Magazine have pointed out, he lived an adult life as a child...no wonder he wanted to become a child as an adult.

    Also, I think Britney DID have a drug/alcohol problem, and Jackson, while avoiding the traditional coke-and-boze route, seems to have numbed the pain with an immense amount of prescription meds, which may have even led to his death. But the difference is interesting and still confirms your point - Jackson's drug use was not about partying or "expanding his mind" but about hiding from reality.

    Enjoyed both your MJ posts. Weeks after his death, I find I'm still thinking about the man, the music, and the legacy. The reverberations of this event have been unexpectedly profound.

  6. Thanks, MovieMan, and for those two really interesting points. I've found myself still listening to a lot of his music as well, and actually digging a lot deeper into music from the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons, in the process discovering that he was even bigger and better than I originally understood growing up. I admit part of it is nostalgia, but part of it is also being older and knowing a lot more about music (and maybe a little more about life), and recognizing that he had literally no equal in the celebrity or entertainment world for a full decade, right at the peak of his career.

    I'm glad the media coverage has died down at this point since there's nothing new to report and it really makes no difference who gave him what medicine when or why. However, I'll admit that I'd still like to see some of the HD footage from those final dress rehearsals for the "This Is It" tour, if only to appreciate how much stage presence and energy he still had.


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