1990: The Cult of Personality and the Fall of the Basic

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In film school they taught us that there was a difference between an actor and a star. An actor is someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Paul Giamatti, guys who disappear into the roles and perform them. Then there are stars, like Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. That is not to say stars aren’t talented, but with stars come personas and those personas are put into play in the films they make. For example, in Ocean’s 11, Clooney is playing right into his persona as a cool, debonair guy, while Up in the Air plays on that persona by showing a version of it that is cracked and not what it is cracked up to be underneath that suave exterior.

Then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose entire movie career had to transform or die when he grew too old to fit that Mr. Olympia stereotype he embodied when he was The Terminator. If you’ve seen the most recent Terminator movie, it is a highly self aware meditation on what happened to Ah-nold in his post Governator career. He is old, which makes his macho man action hero roles tough, but as the movie tries to suggest, he is not obsolete, as the best jokes in the film are the ones playing on his robotic acting, aging appearance, and doing something that has proven successful for nearly 30 years: having the not so funny Schwarzenegger try and make a funny.

There is no better example of the success of this final idea than Kindergarten Cop. This is the quintessential “high concept” movie, meaning that it can be summed up and sold in just one sentence: What if Arnold Schwarzenegger had to teach kindergarten?

The answer to that question is a highly-quotable, enjoyable film that still gets run regularly on CMT. In 1990 when it was released, it grossed $200 million at the box office, a remarkable number for an action comedy. For many kids my age, it was the first grown up movie we really got to see, but when I say “see” what I mean is “see a highly-edited version on cable”. At six and seven years old, I didn’t really understand the difference, which is also why for many years I mistakenly thought Stephen King’s It was the first rated R movie I saw, when in actuality it is just a particularly creepy made for TV affair that would probably get a PG-13 by the MPAA.

This was back when cable wasn’t what cable is today. Developing original programming was prohibitively expensive, so channels filled out holes in their schedules with movies like Clue or The Shawshank Redemption or Kindergarten Cop. Being in around second grade when I saw it, I was obviously old enough to laugh at the funny things kids say as well as how funny things sound in an Austrian accent like, “Sit on the carpet” and “Who is your daddy and what does he do?” It inspired my sister to spend several years pining for a ferret, and it taught both of the word tumor, a word that would enter into our own lives in just a few short months in a much less entertaining way.

I am not normally a fan of high concept movies, mostly because the concept isn’t funny enough to sustain an entire movie. Other Arnold movies suffer from the one-note nature of his persona, like Junior, where he is a pregnant man, and Jingle All the Way, where he is no match for soccer moms. These are funny for about as long as the trailer, but then there isn’t much left to cover. There were a ton of different things to play with in Kindergarten Cop, and the movie also wisely included an action component to let Arnold do what he does best.

 

Nowadays though, Arnold can’t really compete with either anymore. It isn’t just age, it is the fact that those with the macho man persona of the 80s, save for The Rock, just can’t get leading man roles anymore. Sure, HGH and roids run rampant in baseball, but America as a whole likes their action heroes to be sexy and smart like Matt Damon or snarky and fun like Chris Pratt. Because nerdy has become so cool, there are no more meathead action heroes outside of The Expendables (and doesn’t the name say it all). Today, personality is way more profitable than persona, so Schwarzenegger, whose whole persona was based around his lack of personality is, like The Terminator, lost in time.

It used to be such an insult, right? If you were a girl and someone said you had a good personality, it meant you were generally polite and looked like a foot. As a kid with a little too much personality growing up, it was often made clear to me certain things were out of my reach, like leading lady roles in plays. I was the quirky best friend or the crazy cousin. One advisor told me I had the potential to be “the nerd who blossoms” like She’s All That.

Nowadays though, personality is seriously worshiped to the point that girls without much of a personality get labeled with the derogatory term “basic”. What is basic? It means your favorite movie is The Notebook and your favorite TV show is the American version of the Office. You like pumpkin spice lattes (which are certainly delicious, but ubiquitous too) and Pinteresting. You tell your friends you’re so weird because you love sushi and something that used to be unique but is in fact wholly mainstream now, like comic book movies.

It is mean to admit, but as someone who used to get a fair amount of shit for not being more basic, the development of basic into an insult is something I derive way too much joy from. I personally don’t label that many people “basic bitches”, but the idea that being mainstream is an insult gives me a lot of optimism I didn’t possess in middle school.

When I was growing up, Twin Peaks was basically the weirdest thing television had ever seen. For years, I would hear it being discussed as if broadcast television decided to air a snuff film. It redefined what TV could be, the world was obsessed with who killed Laura Palmer, and I always thought I heard it wrong when the occult got brought up.

I didn’t mishear it though. Earlier this year, I finally watched Twin Peaks for the first time. It wasn’t a snuff film, but given the reputation creator David Lynch has developed since the show, it is much tamer than I would have expected. Yes, it is incredibly bizarre, but bizarre in a quirky way, like an old school Tim Burton movie, as opposed to a freaky way like something from the mind of Eli Roth. It did go a bit South in season two with a strange veer into other dimensions, but at the core of season one is the story of quirky people in a quirky place, kind of like Stars Hollow on the Gilmore Girls.It shows you what a huge role this show played in breaking new ground for TV that TV has grown to be so unique and creative that it almost can make Twin Peaks look rather tame.

We’ve been redefining what an ideal personality is and what constitutes weird for decades, but somehow the band They Might Be Giants manages to stay on the fringe of music. They hit their popular peak in 1990 with the release of the album Flood, which included two songs popularized by music videos featured on Tiny Toon Adventures, Particle Man and Istanbul (Not Constantinople). While those songs were huge favorites of both my sister and myself, when I got back into the band in college, it was the single from the album, Birdhouse in Your Soul, that really stuck with me.

The lyrics are a little kooky when you listen to them, so my interpretation of the song might be a little off, but just the idea of a birdhouse in someone’s soul sounds so wonderful. I love a good song about pining, so the idea of someone you admire from afar just giving you a little space, not even a permanent one, just a place to visit and stock up, rest a spell, is such a lovely sentiment.

TMBG seems to be a band that actively avoids the mainstream, but now the mainstream is commodifying the nerd culture they arose from, so they have to find even stranger ways to stay on the fringes, like making children’s music and hosting a Dial-A-Song service.

I refrain from complaining about how hard people work to have to stand out and be weird these days only because I remember how much harder it was working to fit in. My mother always told me that things would really start happening for me once I grew up. I think she was just being hopeful and got lucky that now the weird kids who watched Kindergarten Cop along with me are the ones in charge now, making the rules that make basic the word I fear being called the most, while challenging me to be weirder, more creative, and more out there, trying to put a spin on the ole Welman persona.

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