It’s somewhat of a truism that we all put on masks for public consumption. The only question is, to what extent? While some people hide behind a thick barrier of curated character, others are closer to the knuckle in their personal portrayals. I believe, however, that everyone is guilty, by and large, of relying on fictionalised exaggerations. With the advent of social media, this loss of individualism is only encouraged. There’s a truth behind us all, of course, but to whom is it ever truly visible?
It often works in gradients. For example, your workplace small-talk colleague will probably meet a grander illusion than, say, your parent. There will be some people in your life who get to see a relatively unfiltered perception of your being. Even in those cases, I suggest that there are things left under the surface never brought to light. Such is the nature of human interaction. Without the occasional bout of dishonesty, our world would be in chaos.
Oddly, the use of a sculpted character can sometimes help someone to flaunt their more anxious aspects; without fear of reprisal. On the other hand, you can often expect them to be completely opposite to one’s true desires; putting people off the scent, so to speak. Evidently, it’s a complex and weaving topic that’s possibly too elusive to be writing about. Fortunately, I have the luxury of freedom and no real need to draw a conclusion. Consider this an aside of sorts, since i’ll be exploring shadowed territory with no particular aim in sight.
The creation of a character is something that’s been fascinating me lately. Obviously, I don’t mean character in the sense of Bruce Wayne or Jean-Luc Picard. I’m talking about the faces we put on in public, and the facades that certain people use in order to further their career or artistic freedom. I’m going to talk about a few examples I’ve found in contemporary culture. Hopefully, from that, i’ll be able to infer something about our own widespread deceptions.
Puddles Pity Party
As the obvious alter-ego of singer Mike Geier, Puddles is a fairly open character. We all know that he’s not just a giant clown who can only communicate through operatic song. Nonetheless, Geier has seen his greatest fame and acceptance under this persona. Despite being the leader of Kingsized and having been involved in numerous other projects, it seems that our clickbait society didn’t truly prick their ears until he took on a more viral styling.
You can’t fault the end product either. The character of Puddles allows Geier to explore the emotions of his singing with less personal constraints. What comes out is not only some of the most beautiful vocal performances around, but also comes off as a kind of satire and commentary on the very subject this article looks at. After all, taking all of the Puddles make-up off and performing with a more sincerely straight face would give his act an entirely different flavour and context.
Geier is clearly a nuanced individual of great depth within his own life. This comes back to the gradients I brought up earlier. While the Puddles we know is mute beyond his singing, as part of his mysterious appeal, it’s evident through common sense that he’s more than that underneath. While his friends, family and anyone he encounters outside of the make-up will meet Geier, his choice to use a character as a cipher for his creative expression is inspired. In this case, there’s a rigid divide between fiction and reality, but things can get quite a bit more blurred…
Throughout the majority of his excellent and influential career, Gregg Turkington has utilised characters wholesale. Be it through his over-the-top gyrations as the front-man of Zip Code Rapists, his most recognisable role as Neil Hamburger or his namesake from On Cinema, Turkington is a master of inhabiting a well-developed character for our pleasure. Over the years, this has covered the truth of Turkington in quite a thick veil.
His appearances in both Zip Code Rapists and as Neil Hamburger are, largely, extended experiments in confrontation. The conviction with which he plays Hamburger can, at times, be telling of a real cynicism and frustration but, beyond that, there’s probably very little of Turkington in the eventual character. As for the version of himself that he brings to On Cinema, he’s mentioned on several occasions how he’s drawn from his eleven-year-old self for its creation. As such, this character is possibly the most indicative of his reality; even if it is an outdated one.
Eventually, a little more of the truth would trickle out. In the wake of his film with Rick Alverson, Entertainment, Turkington was somewhat forced to go on the press-trail for some interviews. These would provide a bit more of a window into the man behind the myth. Throughout, his discomfort at such a spotlight is painfully clear. For him, the characters he plays seem to be everything for his creativity. Is it any use at all to understand the true natures of those who entertain us? Do we even have that right?
Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich
Both of these disturbing personalities seem to be using exaggeration purely for profit. Unfortunately, this one’s a little more based on assumption. There are nuggets of proof to suggest that Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich are bullshitting their way to alt-right glory, but not enough to be sure. Indeed, a lot of it probably comes from true convictions that the two hold. It just seems so evident that they can’t possibly feel the ways that they espouse. Yet, from their perspective, why should they stop when it’s bringing them success?
That’s not to excuse the questionable things they do. Jones is no more than a snake-oil salesman. Cernovich is a little scarier, whose bald-faced idiocy is an aggressive affront to reason. Both are, surely, primarily driven by money and attention. Under that lens, their tactics and approach work to give them their fix. It gives them an audience, and they can simply ignore the detractors who don’t give them more meat for their selfish quests. Their methods don’t make them better people, or somehow respectable. However, their characters have afforded them the megaphones they crave and they care very little for those who would call them out for it.
To an extent, that’s fair enough. Puddles and Turkington also use characters to their own benefit. The difference is that their fictions culminate in nothing more than artistry and commentary. Jones and Cernovich’s self-centred pushing of paper tigers can do real damage. Even if no direct harm were to come from their posturing, they cause ripples that can twist the aptitudes of their followers. This is where character becomes a smokescreen for things we should really be confronting. It can certainly be used to help us confront taboo, but in other cases it leads us to avoid it…
For an unfortunate few, the creation of a character can bleed all too heavily into one’s personal life. In these cases, it’s less about helping us confront taboo through creativity and more centred on avoiding negative aspects of one’s psyche. A prime example of this is the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The filter bubble he put up around himself was profound, especially considering how much it predates the modern-day Internet. This culminated in warping the man he could have been, tragically in tandem with the abuse he suffered at the hands of his controlling father.
In many ways, the surreal character of Jackson that we all know was just that; a character. The intriguing thing here is how little of it was created consciously. An argument can even be made that Jackson himself was unaware of just how much of his lifestyle was a facsimile. The pet chimps, the plastic surgery, the backyard theme parks… They were all, at least to my mind, a grand middle finger to the elephants in his room. Jackson didn’t want to confront the reality of himself, so he ran into fantasy.
It was partly because he was so large in the public eye that this happened in the first place, but it also meant that we all got to see it unfold in staggering real time. Almost the entirety of his visage, both public and private, seemed woven. However, this wasn’t the complex tapestry of a conscious originator. Jackson was papering the cracks of his mental instabilities in the only ways that made sense. This suffocated the truths of his core, leaving them as mystifying to Jackson as they were to us. We’ve all met people who use similar methodology to ignore their own issues.
Where the reality of Karl Pilkington ends and the character begins is a fascinating distinction to study. Through extensive familiarity with his work, it becomes more and more clear that there’s some deliberate crafting involved. Across his tenure of hosting a radio show on XFM, with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the audience is constantly told that his humorous idiocy is utterly genuine. Like Jones and Cernovich, I don’t doubt that it has a toe dipped into Pilkington’s inherent misunderstandings.
I’m just as sure that our old friend exaggeration poked its nose in here. There are many times, across the course of his radio shows, that he’s caught uncontrollably laughing at his own comments. He’s well aware that he’s talking bollocks most of the time. He even clearly sees the funny side. There’s evidence that he enjoys playing up the whole thing for the enjoyment of Gervais. It could be said that a form of peer pressure was key to the creation of Pilkington as we know him. Gervais and Merchant probably had as much to do with its sculpture as the bald Manc twat in question.
It’s also worth mentioning that his co-hosts would fall into step themselves; each playing hyper-real versions of themselves for the benefit of dynamic. Merchant is certainly not as straight-laced as he presents. Gervais, on the other hand, plays up his intelligence as a vicious counter to Pilkington’s magnified stupidity. Playing a character to the degree that they have can be unbelievably tiring. That’s probably why we’ve seen this little wellspring of comedic genius dry up over the past five-or-so years. After all, the less entertaining truths of Pilkington are of very little real interest to anyone outside of his personal circle. And so they should remain…
So Who Are We?
Beyond the blur, we may just be losing ourselves. It’s a sentiment echoed by much of our contemporary art. Those who proudly state their self-assurance are probably those among us that are most confused. Hiding behind exaggeration isn’t something that should be denigrated. Actually, it seems natural. It’s just something we should be more aware of. It may not be long before all we are is consciousness and an avatar. By then, we’ll have as much room as we like to be whomever we like. As such, are we really individual in our core? Do our choices of character represent their own individuality?
As stated in my opening gambit, I have no idea why I wrote this, or what exactly i’m shooting at. It’s merely some considerations that have been poking at my mind lately. I thought it would be cathartic for me to explore but, considering the character I like to play myself, i’m uncomfortable about its lack of conclusion. I would prefer to be seen as a reliable source of well-researched ideas and assertions. Indeed, on the whole, that has represented the majority of my output for Secret Cave.
With this, I’ve felt that i’m doing myself a disservice by presenting something so intangible in its subject. Alas, I also try to keep up my personality on social media, and a Twitter poll I posted decided upon this as a subject to write about. As such, I’ve felt a responsibility to have a crack at it. If you haven’t noticed, I also thought it would be remiss of me to not break the fourth wall and take a short look at the ways in which I’ve constructed my own character. What I, and any of my readers, need to keep in mind is this: Characters can evolve.