Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thoughts on Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger's hand and foot prints at Grauman's Chinese Theater
(from Wikipedia)

We're far removed from Arnold Schwarzenegger now. He's changed addresses, moved from the lobby poster to the political ad, from the movie theater to television news. Sure, a part of the old Schwarzenegger--the 1980s Schwarzenegger--remains on DVDs and the occasional midnight revival, but he's married to his politics now, and we can't separate the two (let alone divorce them) in our memories.

The last twenty years have infected the image of Schwarzenegger in the same way they've infected the songs of Michael Jackson. Schwarzenegger and Jackson stood out on the cultural landscape of the 1980s, so effortlessly alien. No one moved or talked quite like them. There had never been pop stars or film stars so devoid of pathos or motivation. Schwarzenegger would turn as though there were hydraulics hidden beneath his muscles; when you saw a photograph of him or Jackson, it seemed as though their bodies had been custom-built for the frame.

Schwarzenegger was not dispassionate; he simply made passion irrelevant. He approached every line of dialogue--the sarcastic quips provided by the screenwriters--with an astounding indifference. He was never human, never a feeling--he was always a sound and an image, and we never wondered what secret feelings might motivate him, but instead imagined ourselves as machines. Why have love when we could have love scenes? Why have hate when we could have a punch, a pistol shot, a well-worded put down? He made dispassion into a force, transforming inertness into inertia. He replaced acting with actions. Van Damme had an ace's cockiness, Stallone had Jerry Lewis's earnestness, Bronson had weathered distance, but Schwarzenegger would emit vaudeville puns like radio signals, as though he had a transmitter in place of vocal chords. His mouth was a slit in his face. He showed you that there was nothing human about the human body. You take the context away from a hand, a pair of shoulders, a head and it's no different from a chair, a window, a wall.

Watching his films forces me to question myself. History has a funny way of turning our interests against us. The 2003 California gubernatorial recall is an ugly but inseparable footnote to Commando and Red Heat. "Am I playing into the hands of Schwarzenegger the politician?" I think. The "man of action," the "thing that needs to be done" that exists outside of context or emotions, is the fallacy that serves as the basis of reactionary politics. The dream of the action film lead to the reality of a conservative America.

Did the dream fail? Or was it always waiting to betray us? I have a doubt, like a cough in the back of my throat: is fascination a surrender? Is interest an approval?