Just whose movie is this, anyway?

Heard about Truman syndrome? It's the irrational belief that your life is a phony, stage-set world.

People who have it think they're in a reality TV show or a movie like 1998's "The Truman Show," about a man (Jim Carrey) whose entire life is an elaborately contrived illusion.

What? This isn't a movie? All this is REAL?

Dr. Joel Gold, a New York psychiatrist, said the question is whether the syndrome is part of a culture that glorifies fame (think of the wackjobs on those reality shows), or if it's just a new twist on an old paranoid delusion.

Well, it isn't new. In sixth grade my pal Al Blitz and I used to worry about this.

Al: Maybe everything is an illusion.

Me: And I'm imagining you.

Al: Or me you.

We'd do weird stuff, make faces and jump around like maniacs, to see if each saw the same thing the other did. Don't ask.

Anyway, Truman believes he has a job in the insurance business and a beautiful wife and a nice home. In reality his entire world is a set for a TV show, the people in his life are actors, and it's all produced for the entertainment of viewers.

Shakespeare was onto this. In "As You Like It" he put it like this: "All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players:/They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts."

Think he was just setting up a big speech for old sourpuss Jaques? Unh-uh. When the Bard used to prowl the streets in search of a nice plate of quail and quince takeout, he'd periodically leap into the air and spin around crying, "Aha!" hoping to catch a glimpse of a laggard assistant director trying to shoo the scum of London out of the shoot. This would cause Ben Jonson to pretend he didn't know Will and hurry on ahead. That Will never saw anything just seemed to prove the scope of the conspiracy.

The Truman Show has been analyzed as existentialist art. Existentialism was a philosophy popular in the 1940s and '50s in which people asked questions like if existence preceded essence, if ontological nothingness was consistent with authentic beingness, and if it would ever be possible to get a good pastrami on rye after midnight in Medford.

The existentialists had a thing about choice (most of them were French). Truman, too, faces a choice: stay or go?

"Was nothing real?" he asks.

"You were real," says Christof, the producer. "That's what made you so good to watch. ... There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. Same lies. Same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear."

That's not exactly true. But there are worse movies to find yourself in than Truman's.

Take "Dark City" (also 1998). Its reality is also fake, created by creepy, mysterious beings called The Strangers, who are actually endangered alien parasites with a collective consciousness (well, duh) who are experimenting on humans in a fake world to figure out a way to survive. Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), Dark City's Truman, must figure it out. He discovers everybody is living on a set the Strangers have built in deep space surrounded by a giant force field; what's beyond sham reality is nothingness.

Just the kind of deal we paranoids expect. Me, I'm hoping I don't wind up in "1984." Or "Brave New World." And it's starting to look more and more each day like we're all in "The Grapes of Wrath."

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