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

By  · Published on January 1st, 2013

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.

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.

The Politics of Personalities

In three films, the performance of multiple identities is a means of survival. The most fascinating aspect of the first Hunger Games film is that the totalitarian society it paints doesn’t attempt to convince the masses to be ideologically invested in an illusion that hides the reality of their oppression; in other words, there is no Dystopian brainwashing a la Brazil. Instead, propaganda and forced voluntarism are transparent processes that demand participation without coercion. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen plays her expected role to her advantage, and this in no way contradicts her authentic self that can see past the façade. Being able to see beyond the the construction of society is no longer reserved for a few potential revolutionaries in Dystopian sci-fi, but is presented as common knowledge. In a “historical” example of performing as a means of survival, in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx’s title character makes an ethical compromise of performing as a “black slaver” as a means toward the greater end of acquiring his wife’s freedom.

As evidenced by the previous examples, the fragmented performance of the self can have vast political implications when used as a means toward an end, be it survival or a greater good. In Ben Affleck’s Argo, a CIA agent and a group of American diplomats pretend to be a movie crew in order to escape a dangerous political uprising in Iran; in this Hollywood film, the bells and whistles of Hollywood are sufficient enough to make this performance convincing. In Spielberg’s Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens turns his back on ideological purity, stating that “all men are not created equal” in order to ensure the passing of the 13th Amendment. (Also, come to think of it, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as indicated by the title alone, is also about a divided, multifarious politician). In these period films, the contemporary, transparent cult of personality is read through the performance of a political (or politicized) personality. Even in Larry Charles’s The Dictator, the removal of a single physical trait (a beard) rids the individual of all his political power, forcing him into an alternative performance of the self as a grocery co-op employee in Brooklyn.

Of course, 2012 was an election year, and movies were ready as always to address the disingenuous about-face-ing ostensibly required of politics. Jay Roach’s The Campaign covered the cynical rejection of authenticity in corporate campaigning, and the “documentary” 2016: Obama’s America attempted to feed conservative conspiratorial fantasies of the President as a deceptive anticapitalist insurgent. But The Campaign failed at satire, and 2016 failed comprehensively, because they both assumed a straightforward, legible coherence between personality and person to be the ideal for a public figure.

The actual election turned out to be far more interesting. The infamous “47 percent” video that put a major nail in the coffin of Mitt Romney’s candidacy was less an example of misspeaking behind closed doors (it was probably his most honest moment), but more a result of the lethal assumption that we exist in a world where those doors are actually closed in the first place. The actual Obama, not the Obama of 2016, is a lifelong negotiator in part because he’s cultivated the practice of frequently adapting his by transitioning from a young age between several locales and cultures. The first “Third Culture Kid” to ascend to the office (twice), Obama’s ever-dissected role as enduring compromiser – which has confounded conservatives and frustrated liberals – has foregrounded the act of transparently adapting to various situations of social, cultural, and ideological difference as the 21st century norm rather than a disingenuous, cynical characteristic of two-faced politics.

The replacement of character with personality, then, does not necessarily mean deception or an inauthentic performance of the self, but in its 21st century form has simply become an open acknowledgment of what’s already been happening for quite some time.

The Year’s Most Ambitious Movies

And this transparency was illustrated quite starkly by a handful of some of the year’s most ambitious and talked-about films. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s massively ambitious Cloud Atlas was probably the most explicit to this end in its controversial use the same actors in different historical periods, even embodying different ethnicities, in an attempt to make a statement about our essential connectedness through time and space. But the varied wigs and accents these actors used in their diverse iterations instead highlighted the disguises we all use – sometimes ill-fitting – to fit into various temporal and cultural moments.

But the year’s two most eagerly anticipated summer blockbusters signaled both an attempt at closure and a point of crisis within prominent, fragmented cults of personality. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises presents the first eulogy of a personality since the resurgence of the superhero genre. In finally making Batman a symbol extricable from any individual person while burying Bruce Wayne and giving him his happy ending, The Dark Knight Rises ends Nolan’s Batman series on a positively schizophrenic note that destroys any prior notion of an essential relationship between the superhero and the man who wears the mask, for the audience and for the world developed in the films.

While Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did not give audiences characters as overtly divided as those previously listed, the film itself demonstrated multiple personalities attempting to serve disparate, even conflicting, ends. Existing in an impossible space between being a franchise reboot and an “original” film, Prometheus found itself in a bind of competing interests that rendered the film afraid to answer its own questions, as such answers would lead the film into identity categories far too distinct and, thus, limiting in its supposed potential to attract audiences. In trying to create something both “the same” and “different,” the film delivered neither. The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus are prototypes for the ways in which the two major trends that currently define studio tentpole filmmaking – superhero movies and franchises – can come into conflict with the their own efforts to mean different things to different audiences.

But no film this year embodied and celebrated the fragmented, disjointed capability of individuals to affect various personas than Leos Carax’s astounding import Holy Motors. It’s a film that uses one central figure seemingly without identity (Denis Lavant) to explore an array of diverse performances that, by their accumulation alone, completely erase any notion that Lavant’s continued physical presence comes to signify anything approaching a coherent, essential, individual identity. Holy Motors, in short, celebrates the obliteration of character.

Holy Motors stands (in every conceivable way) opposite to the year’s juggernaut steel elephant in the room, Marvel™’s The Avengers. Interestingly, in a year full of films about fractured personalities and various performances of the self, The Avengers feels uniquely whole and unified. The Avengers is a work of cinematic gestalt; it took decisive fragments of vaguely interlocking narratives and amalgamated them into a consistent and consolidated magnum opus. The film also portrays superheroes for whom there exists minimal distinction between the human self and the costume or transformation associated with it. The economic apex of Hollywood’s most pervasive recent tendencies, The Avengers’ narrative and marketing investment in clearly identifiable characters is surely just as much a sign of things to come as the plural personality trend it stands opposite to. The Avengers might be this year’s exception, but it’s an exception that, through careful strategizing, broke nearly every attendance record in sight. We’ll have to wait to see in 2013 whether narrative or character wins out in the end.