Year in Review: Why Movies in 2012 Were About Personalities, Not Characters

Culture Warrior on 2012

In this end-of-year editorial, Landon Palmer discusses the pattern that movies demonstrated in 2012 for telling stories through protagonists defined by their various personality traits rather than through conventional, straightforward characters. In so doing, movies this year showed how our individual identities have become divided within various aspects of modern social life. This trend made some of the year’s movies incredibly interesting, while others suffered from a personality disorder. Landon argues that movies ranging from The Hunger Games to The Dark Knight Rises to Holy Motors alongside cultural events and institutions like the Presidential election, social media, and “Gangnam Style” all contributed to a year in which popular culture is finally became open about its constant engagement with multiple cults of personality.

Six years ago, Time magazine famously named its eagerly anticipated “Person of the Year” You in big, bold letters. Its cover even featured a mirror. As a result of the established popularity of supposedly democratized media outlets like Facebook and the home of the cover’s proverbial “You,” YouTube, Time declared 2006 as the year in which the masses were equipped with the ability to empower themselves for public expressions of individual identity. More than a half decade later, social media is no longer something new to adjust to, but a norm of living with access to technology. Supposing that Time’s prophecy proved largely correct, what does it mean to live in a 21st century where we each have perpetual access to refracting our respective mirrors?

YouTube hit another milestone this year by hosting its first video to hit one billion views: “Gangnam Style,” which sent Korean pop star Psy into unlikely international renown in a way that likely could not have happened via conventional 20th century media outlets. YouTube is certainly an enabling force for directing attention that wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise, but does it (as Time suggested) give a clear notion of who the “you” is that’s being represented? While the video was received as a campy, catchy diversion in US culture (and Psy has seemingly embraced all his fifteen minutes), a recent Atlantic article revealed the silliest pop sensation of the year to be a sly critique of posh Korean culture in Seoul. In a behind the scenes featurette on the making of “Gangnam Style,” Psy surprisingly drops his pop star persona and asserts, “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow.” “Gangnam Style,” no matter how it was perceived, is a performance that achieved various ends (whether a work of entertainment or criticism, or both) depending on its audience.

In placing a mirror on its cover and provocatively centering the term “You,” the 2006 Time story implicitly assumed an individual, empowered “You” as a consistent, unique, and whole understanding of a single person. But because of the variety social media outlets, because of many means of personal expression ranging from YouTube confessionals to Tumblogging, because you don’t talk to people on Facebook the way you would in real life just as you don’t speak to your closest friends the same way you do to your parents, and because a seemingly frivolous K-Pop song can have so many different meanings for different audiences as a result of the singer’s shrewdly multifaceted performance, there exists an endless number of “Yous” within each individual “You.”

By portraying fractured personalities and divided performances of individual identities, many films of 2012 likewise explored plural, not singular, interpretations of their protagonists. The movies of 2012, in short, weren’t about characters, but personalities.

The Cult of Personality

Two years ago, one of the year’s major awards contenders was a film about Facebook, but it was not about the role social media plays in our daily lives. In contrast, while no major film this year overtly addressed the topic of social media, a multitude of titles addressed the process by which individuals become different things to different people.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Long before the proliferation of personal computers and smartphones, Americans were engaged in a multitude of performances on the self. Historian Warren Susman, in “Personality and the Making of Twentieth Century Culture,” argues that the turn of the 19th to the 20th century marked a change from the value attributed to a person’s character to a cult of personality. In short, character was perceived as a whole set of defining aspects that make up a person. If an individual displays valuable characteristics, it is because of their inherent good character; in other words, their essential self.

Culture Warrior on 2012

Personality, on the other hand, is the quality of being somebody, no longer tied to the essence of who a person is. The mass exchange of personality traits resulted in a 20th century American culture that traded in movie stars and advertising. But in the 21st century, this process has been made transparent. And we seem to be totally okay with it. Rather than interpreting various displays of personality as an illusion or deception, the fragmenting and dividing of our identities for various social audiences is simply accepted as a necessary means of modern living.

Movies in 2012: The Year of “Yous”

One of the year’s likely awards contenders – David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – and the year’s most celebrated television series – Showtime’s Homeland – feature central protagonists suffering from bipolar disorder. In Silver Linings, Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano comes home from the mental hospital and knows that he must “perform” normalcy through medication, therapy, and thoughtful socialization despite his disorder – in other words, not cure the what most likely can’t be cured, but move through life as if he is cured – in order to fit in and ostensibly win back his wife. In Homeland, Claire Danes’s Carrie Matheson must avoid any signs of her illness as well as her potential for obsession and mania in order to give the impression of a functional CIA agent. And the interesting thing is, she’s tracking a target who exhibits an even greater multitude of different identities to different people. Both protagonists go to great lengths to cultivate a surface personality.

In at least two cases, this process is represented as deceptive, and the resulting problems of this deception provide the source of the film’s drama. In Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, Denzel Washington’s William Whitaker is a functional alcoholic who, while privately an addict, makes a public performance of a not only capable, but potentially heroic, airline pilot. Suggestions are even made in the film that Whitaker’s intake of alcohol paradoxically gave him the even hands necessary to safely land a plane in a moment of extreme peril. In Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Jack Black’s title character is a Southern gentleman of many secrets, from his closeted sexuality to his murder of a local, hated anti-socialite. The fascinating thing about Bernie is that when the townsfolk of Carthage, Texas discover that he killed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), to them (and to the dismay of local law enforcement), Bernie’s secret in no way contradicts his public persona of kindness and regional propriety.

In other films, the performance of various personalities is a necessity for a career. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a man so enigmatic, so invested in the process of selling his identity to others, that there may no longer be a genuine person behind that pompous display of literacy and juiced-up resume. It’s fascinating that the film juxtaposes Dodd with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), whose major ailment seems to be the complete inability to act like anyone else but his peculiar self. In a telling sign of the times, many critics found Quell, not Dodd, to be the film’s maddening puzzle.  On the lighter front, in both 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, Channing Tatum makes a living by performing various identities: a generational fish out of water as a cop going undercover as a highschooler in the former, and an embodiment of fantasy onstage as a stripper in the latter.

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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