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Total Recall or Total Denial? How a New Interview Reveals the Subtext of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Movies

Total Recall or Total Denial? How a New Interview Reveals the Subtext of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Movies

The title of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newly published memoirs — Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story” — is both brilliantly appropriate and bitterly ironic. Obviously, it’s a reference to and quote from Schwarzenegger’s 1990 sci-fi movie, and as the former Governator has proven time and again, no one enjoys quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger more than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But if it fits the notion of the book, it doesn’t jive with the mentality of its subject, who, as he revealed to Lesley Stahl in a surreal and mesmerising new interview on “60 Minutes,” prefers not to dwell on his past mistakes. In fact, he actively avoids it whenever possible. Total recall? More like total denial.

At least Schwarzenegger isn’t in denial about his denial. Talking to Stahl about the key to his success in the world of bodybuilding, he describes how he learned to close off his emotions in order to achieve victory:

“The thing that can really make you lose is if you get emotionally unbalanced. If I put everything that’s happening emotionally on deep freeze — so I became an expert in living in denial.”

This revelation may come as a shock to casual observers, but it will make perfect sense to anyone who’s followed Schwarzenegger’s work closely. Arnold may not have publicly confessed the degree to which he closed himself off from his emotions before, but he’s talked about it onscreen –albeit subtextually — for decades.  

Not that you would know it by reading reviews of his movies. Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars in the world throughout the 1990s, but his films have rarely been considered important or interesting enough to merit serious study. Because he made slick entertainments for a mass audience, most assumed he was nothing more than a well-muscled showman. In fact, Schwarzenegger was a surprisingly personal filmmaker, embedding his mainstream blockbusters with all sorts of coded themes.

Consider what he says to Stahl on “60 Minutes.” Their conversation ranges from his upbringing in Austria, to his success in Hollywood, to his marriage to Maria Shriver, to his governorship of California, to his scandalous affair with his family’s housekeeper, which produced a secret child that no one discovered for years. Here is the complete interview in two parts:

Every single thing Schwarzenegger reveals about his personal life in that interview connects directly to one or more of his movies. His way of keeping secrets from his wife (like his open heart surgery) sounds like a subplot from “True Lies,” where a super spy refuses to tell his spouse that he’s not really a humble computer salesman. His “double life” of affairs and philandering calls to mind the literal double lives depicted in “Total Recall” and “The 6th Day.” His guilt about disappointing his family comes up over and over in his final wave of action vehicles before he entered politics, a series of films drenched in failure and regret that, coincidentally or not, commenced with “Batman and Robin” in 1997 — the same year his illegitimate son was born.

“Batman and Robin” is an undeniably goofy piece of schlock, and Schwarzenegger, as icy villain Mister Freeze, indulges his love of bad puns to the absolutely extreme (“Okay everyone: chill!“). But beneath the hilariously atrocious dialogue and the enormous Bat-codpieces, something about the role of Freeze spoke to Schwarzenegger on a deep, possibly even subconscious level. Look again at that key line from the “60 Minutes” interview: “I put everything that’s happening emotionally on deep freeze.” Intentionally or not, he talks in terrible Mr. Freeze puns in real life!

Schwarzenegger’s Freeze is a fallen family man whose repeated failed attempts to save his wife and marriage left him a literally cold shell of a man. Schwarzenegger went on to play similarly fallen heroes — often with lost or dead wives and children he was incapable of saving from his own mistakes or incompetence — in “End of Days” and “Collateral Damage.”

When describing his emotional deep freeze, Arnold was talking specifically about bodybuilding. But watching him speak to Stahl about the way his unfaithfulness caused “tremendous pain” to Shriver and “unbelievable pain” to his kids without also mentioning any kind of pain it caused himself, one senses that at a certain point, his athletic strategy became a much larger life choice.

It’s a choice Schwarzenegger explored, subtly but repeatedly, in film after film. Born to a cold and sometimes abusive father in Austria, Schwarzenegger dreamed of moving to America from an early age. His fantasy of escaping from trouble — of burying his past and starting a new life elsewhere — recurs constantly in his work. His very first movie, 1969’s “Hercules in New York,” is an obvious riff on his own origin myth: the titular demigod (Schwarzenegger) grows weary of life on Mount Olympus and demands his father Zeus send him somewhere he won’t be “tired of the same old things, the same old faces.” Naturally, that somewhere is modern day America.

So many Schwarzenegger characters live in denial, deep freezing their emotions. Jack Slater of “Last Action Hero” initially refuses to believe he is a creation of imagination rather than a flesh and blood human being, but after his adventure in “the real world,” he returns to the land of fiction and accepts his sad condition with a surprising lack of hand-wringing — he’s “put it away,” as Schwarzenegger himself would say. In “Raw Deal,” Arnold plays a disgraced FBI agent turned small town sheriff whose once happy marriage has degraded into a bitter, miserable existence. When the government comes to him with an offer to go undercover in the Chicago mob, he agrees — and even fakes his own death to ensure the plan works, all without telling his wife. It sounds like a ludicrous plot twist; almost as ludicrous as not telling your wife you’re going to have open heart surgery. 

The ability to “just erase” failures, as Schwarzenegger puts it to Stahl, seems to be an incredibly intoxicating one to the star. No wonder he later made “Eraser,” a movie about a man who facilitates the denial of others; erasing their lives (and their failures), so that they can start fresh with a new identity somewhere else. And we haven’t even mentioned the “Terminator” franchise, where Schwarzenegger plays his most overt exemplar of robotically emotionless determination, or the fact that in each sequel Arnold returns as an identical cyborg stripped clean of the memories of his prior heinous actions — a perfect, remorseless killing machine. A bodybuilding champion couldn’t compartmentalize trauma any better than that.

The auteur theory of film states that there is a singular author of every movie — and, as the classical model of the theory goes, that singular author is the director. But perhaps the true auteur of a movie is whoever bears the most power over a production’s artistic choices — and on Schwarzenegger’s movies, that person was often Schwarzenegger. With his clout in the industry and at the box office, he was able to handpick his material and his collaborators. By the early 1990s he only made movies he wanted to make — each for specific reasons, all speaking to his personal life in different ways. In a sense, his movies were his memoirs long before he ever wrote them. He put these things into his work, and then tried to forget them.

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