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Is ‘Secret’ ‘Truman’s’ Precursor?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“There are only so many stories,” says Esquire film critic David Thomson, commenting on the suggestion that the new Jim Carrey picture, “The Truman Show,” acclaimed for its striking originality, had an unacknowledged antecedent in a 1966 dark comedy by Paul Bartel called “The Secret Cinema.”

Indeed, a few reviewers mentioned Bartel’s picture in their reviews of “Truman,” including Daily Variety film critic Todd McCarthy and The Times’ Kenneth Turan.

“The similarities [between the two films] are obvious to anyone who has seen them,” says McCarthy. “ ‘Secret Cinema’ played the New York Film Festival at the time, and it was remade by Bartel as an episode of the ‘Amazing Stories’ TV show in 1986. So it’s not exactly obscure.”

“Still,” McCarthy says, “I don’t attach huge significance to the similarity, because there is no such thing as a totally original idea.” Originality, however, is exactly what “The Truman Show” has been credited with in some quarters.

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Few recent American movies have landed the kind of reviews that have been lavished upon director Peter Weir’s bittersweet satire about a hapless chump (Jim Carrey) whose entire life has been secretly filmed and broadcast around the world as “reality infotainment.” Raised from birth in a picture-perfect fake town, a huge enclosed studio set in which all the other citizens are actors working to perpetuate the deception, Truman spends the second half of the picture struggling to escape to the real world outside the domed film set.

Bartel, the writer and director of “Secret Cinema” (and of “Eating Raoul” 15 years later), describes his 28-minute “Secret Cinema” as an “underground” film. The protagonist, he says, “is a young woman named Jane who begins to suspect that her boyfriend and her office associates are conspiring to make a film of her daily life that is being shown in a downtown theater on Saturday nights, for the cruel amusement of the in crowd.

“She assumes at first that she must be suffering from paranoid delusions. But when she tries to discuss the problem with her shrink, she discovers that he is in fact the producer of the secret movie.”

Bartel said he has “heard nothing to indicate that the creators of ‘The Truman Show’ knew of my film or were influenced by it in any way.”

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The independent filmmaker says he first heard about “The Truman Show” and its strangely familiar premise “about six months ago, when it must have been finished already.” His initial reaction? “Pleasure, actually. If it turns out they had seen my film, so much the better. In a sense, their interest in the idea validates my own interest.”

In 1969, “Secret Cinema” was released as a short with Woody Allen’s feature comedy “Take the Money and Run.” Reruns of “Amazing Stories” on the Sci-Fi Channel have featured the 1986 remake episode several times, most recently on May 30. And Rhino Home Video’s cassette release of the 1966 version is still in active distribution.

“Truman Show” screenwriter Andrew Niccol, in a statement issued through Paramount, the studio distributing the film, said he hadn’t heard of “The Secret Cinema” when he devised the script, and still has not seen it. For that reason, he had no comments to offer on any possible similarities.

The critical drums began beating early, when Thomson declared “The Truman Show” to be “the movie of the decade” and “one of the most spectacularly original American movies in years.” For John Powers, of Vogue, “Truman” is “the most widely inventive Hollywood movie this year.”

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“Truman” screenwriter Niccol (who also wrote and directed last year’s “Gattaca”) seemed to echo that assertion during a interview broadcast June 4 on the National Public Radio program “Morning Edition.” Explaining why some Hollywood executives were initially uncomfortable with his script, Niccol said, “studios like to have something where there’s a precedent, and there really wasn’t one for this film.”

The question of originality in the arts has been endlessly discussed: whether it can exist at all, and if so to what extent. As Bartel observes, “Art is all about appropriation and elaboration, ideas that are taken up and developed in different ways.”

If art accurately reflects life, does that make it less original?

Certain ideas seem to lie dormant in popular culture for years, taking on additional relevance as circumstances in society shift around them.

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Bartel’s premise in “The Secret Cinema” may be one of those, an amusing eccentric notion in its day that has come to seem central in the new world of mass media that has since arisen.

In a recent interview, “Truman Show” director Peter Weir suggested that the closely watched lives of celebrities like Princess Diana become a form of reality entertainment. He theorized that people were shocked at her death partly because “it reminded them that she was a real person.”

Two other coming movies also explore the general subject of people whose lives become the raw material of TV. The October release “Pleasantville,” written and directed by Gary Ross (the screenwriter of “Big” and “Dave”), depicts teenagers trapped in what seems to be a TV sitcom of the 1950s. And Ron Howard’s “Ed TV,” due next year, concerns an ordinary man who volunteers to have his mundane doings taped for a program seemingly modeled on the MTV series “Real Life.”

McCarthy noted many other echoes in “The Truman Show,” as well, “most obviously of the old Patrick McGoohan TV show ‘The Prisoner.’ That was actually the first thing I thought of when I saw that bland sunny town by the ocean; the resemblance is really quite striking.”

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After his review appeared, McCarthy says, he received messages from readers pointing out other possible antecedents. Obvious candidates include the Peter Sellers vehicle “Being There,” Ira Levin’s novel “The Stepford Wives” and its popular movie adaptation, and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

John Powers notes that Niccol is reputed to be an aficionado of French New Wave films of the 1960s--which raises the possibility that Francois Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” and Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (remade by Gilliam as “12 Monkeys”) might also have shaped “The Truman Show.” “Not to mention ‘Gattaca,’ ” Powers adds. “The two films tell basically the same story.”

Several critics have noted a general “Twilight Zone-ish” quality of the film. McCarthy says one of his correspondents cited a specific “Twilight Zone” episode, “A World of Difference,” as a near match for “Truman.” Written by the respected science fiction novelist Richard Matheson, it was originally broadcast in 1960, six years before Bartel made “The Secret Cinema.”

The online fan Web site “The Twilight Zone Directory” summarizes the episode as follows: “A business man [Howard Duff] working in his office turns to see that his once solid, four-walled office is a movie set. The people on the set tell him he’s an actor, and that he’s only playing a business man. He rushes to the place he remembers as his home, but there’s no trace of it. He returns to the studio to find that the office set is about to be struck. He pleads to the heavens to return him to his ‘reality.’ He finds that the walls are now real, and everything has returned to ‘normality.’ ”

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According to Marc Zicree, author of the book “The Twilight Zone Companion,” this was one of many episodes of the show whose theme was “that our life is not what we think it is, that it is an illusion being foisted on us.” And while many viewers assume that the businessman’s world is the bedrock reality of that episode, Zicree says writer Matheson thought otherwise: “His viewpoint was that the guy is an actor whose delusion is that he really is what he is portraying.”

Zicree cites an even earlier treatment of the theme, a 1941 Robert Heinlein short story called “They,” “about a guy who claims that his wife and everyone else in his life is an actor, and that for instance when he flies to New York there’s no city there until they build it.”

Perhaps the question finally is, where does the organic process of theme and variation end, and something that might be called a rip-off begin? Paul Bartel, for instance, contends that the tone and the plot details of “The Secret Cinema” are very different from those of “The Truman Show.” The new film is an ambitious comic satire of international mass media, while “my approach was very personal, very microcosmic. It’s really an allegory for the way a lot of us sometimes feel, that somehow we’re the only people who don’t get the joke, that other people know things we don’t know and are snickering at us.”

But in “The Truman Show,” too, the creepiness of what’s been inflicted upon the hero only fully emerges as the people he feels closest to, his supposed wife and best friend, even his “mother,” are exposed as actor-conspirators.

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Several critics have singled out a chilling scene in which Truman’s ersatz buddy, played by an actor played by Noah Emmerich, pledges his loyalty to Truman in seemingly heartfelt terms--although he’s repeating word for word lines that are being whispered to him, through a tiny ear phone, by the remote “creator” (Ed Harris) of this back-lot universe.

“The element of ‘everybody knows but him’ might be somewhat close to my film,” Bartel admits. For Vogue’s Powers, “The originality of ‘The Truman Show’ isn’t just in the premise. It’s also in where they go with the basic idea, in the style of shooting it, in the use of lots of different formats and angles, all the elaboration of the detail.”

Although he is quoted prominently in ads for the film, Powers notes that his “Truman Show” review was not overwhelmingly positive. “There’s no feeling in the film,” he says. “It’s very, very clever, but there’s no heart in it. Once you’ve established that town and how awful it is, there’s no reason on Earth why anyone would want to stay there, so there’s no conflict within the character.”

Once ideas are in wide circulation, Powers suggests, they tend to take on a life of their own: “A lot of this stuff has become the common currency of so-called postmodernism. Once you have the plays of Luigi Pirandello and Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ there are already ideas in the air that could have generated this movie, without reference to possible specific antecedents. The question of what would be really original in a case like this becomes very complicated.”

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