Twenty years later, “The Truman Show” proves to be a real life prophecy by Anne Hunter
Andrew Niccol’s screenplay, “The Truman Show,” is centered around the last few days of a live television program that was broadcast through 5,000 cameras for 29 years — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Meanwhile, Seaside has been breathing as a “real-life” town for 36 years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For those of us who reside here full-time, we live in the true reality that “The Truman Show” fictionalized two decades ago.
The movie saga engendered an entire culture of being. “Truman Show” director, Peter Weir, in his book “A Short History of ‘The Truman Show,’” created a dictionary reference to the lifestyle called:
Tru-man-esque (-esk’) adj. a characteristic of the life experiences of Truman Burbank.
The geographic area of Walton County known as South Walton now plays host to more than 3.8 million visitors each year, spawned from visions of the Trumanesque life. Many of those out-of-towners broadcast idyllic images of Seaside from their mobile phones, creating, in effect, mini-episodes of reality TV shared through networks of friends, followers and families across the globe.
“Walton County’s economy depends to a great degree on visitors,” says David Demarest, director of communications for Visit South Walton. “In a very dry sense, they’re bringing billions of dollars to our area, and supporting more than 22,000 jobs in Walton County. But more importantly, they help keep our small businesses alive, and create a market for the incredible cuisine, art and recreational activities that we all enjoy. The people of Walton County and the splendid natural landscape help families make memories they’ll cherish throughout their lives. We’re lucky to be a part of something that has the primary aim of creating happiness.”
One of Truman’s happy hang-outs was Modica Market, where the “eyes of the cameras” were ever upon him. Now, on any given school day after 3:30 p.m., you’ll find the students from Seaside Neighborhood School assembled on the front patio of Modica, laughing, teasing and taking selfies. The young emissaries move between clustered groups as comrades fully enveloped in the joy of youth and their social ecosystem. All the while, local parental eyes are fixed safely upon them to protect the cherished space as a youthful hang out.
A sense of community is established anywhere the youth congregate. The youngsters’ preferred public space could be a parking lot, a home, the schoolyard, a restaurant, the beach, a street corner — but these school kids have discovered that they belong in Seaside at Modica Market, where elders are watching as the kids point-and-click to project themselves unto the world through the lens of their cameras.
“The Modica family does a terrific job of managing generations of Seaside Neighborhood School students who congregate on their patio after school to hang out. These young people actually know how to behave in public because they have the Modica’s eyes on them and other parental figures in the community — who both guard them and call them out on inappropriate behavior. In most communities there is no public space like this,” says Robert Davis, town founder of Seaside.
In “A New Way of Understanding ‘Eyes on the Street,”’ Sarah Goodyear explains that even if you’ve never read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs’ 1961 masterpiece of urban observation and theory, you should be aware of one of its key concepts: the value of “eyes on the street.” Jacobs wrote that in order for a street to be a safe place, “there must be “eyes upon the street.”
“The Truman Show” predated the rise of reality television, and gave a glimpse into what became a popular TV genre which was followed by the advent of social media. We are now living inside a virtual version of Jacobs’ eyes on the street. “It was years ahead of its time,” said town founder Daryl Davis. So many years that the idea traces back to Plato’s “Phaedo” and his “Allegory of the Cave.” In both writings, the philosopher presents an imaginary landscape in which humans do not truly comprehend reality, they only aspire to it.
Paul Goldberger, a writer for The New Yorker, has closely followed the trajectory of Seaside. His description of “The Truman Show” in 1998 echoes Plato’s curious sentiments, “The film is like an exquisite Chinese box: make-believe inside reality inside more make believe inside more reality.”
So, what is real? Even beyond the plot of “The Truman Show,” Modica Market, Plato, Goldberger and Jane Jacobs, there are some striking similarities between the movie and much of today’s Trumanesque realities.
A short history of the fictional storyline of “The Truman Show” from Weir’s book is that its producer, Christof, was 29 years old when he sold his concept for what would become “The Truman Show” to multimedia giant Omnican. The star of the show was named Truman Burbank by Christof — who said, “We will make him a True Man.” His last name, Burbank, was for the location of the studio in California where they would film Truman’s studio and home.
“The Truman Show” is part comedy and part drama. The movie dances on the line of science fiction and brings it into the modern-day dreamlike fairytale town created by Seaside’s town founders. It is a bubble that extends east and west along Scenic Highway 30A to create an unbelievably charming life for its year-round inhabitants — and, it is real.
While residents don’t live in a domed world of 5,000 hidden cameras with computer-controlled weather; and, while each friend and neighbor that we encounter on Seaside’s pedestrian pathways isn’t an actor, we are still unwittingly the focus of our own audiences, the ones we procure as hundreds, thousands and millions of our own fans who tune in round-the-clock to the realities depicted in our social media posts. There, on that virtual stage, our followers view the decisions we make, the products and places we love alongside our triumphs and heartbreaks - just as audiences did to Truman.