Jun 30, 2013

Reading the Movies: Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived an incredibly interesting and unusual life but, disappointingly, his autobiography is a tedious and one note dud, obviously delivered by a ghostwriter transcribing the Austrian Oak’s monologued reminiscences.

Total Recall is a pretty hefty tome, as you might expect from a man who has been in the public eye – first as a body builder, then as an actor and finally as a politician – for almost fifty years but what really struck me about the book’s relationship to its title was the astounding lack of totality with which it approaches Arnie’s life. Yes, it runs through the major events in chronological order, but whether by Schwarzenegger, his ghost writer or his publishers (I suspect the first) almost anything negative, anything that could paint its subject in a weak or unfavourable light is either omitted or glossed over.

An even bigger disappointment for fans (and I count myself as one, if not one of the biggest, when it comes to much of his on screen work) is the lack of detail provided on all but a handful of films. It is almost as though Schwarzenegger lost interest in discussing his films in detail at some point, as there are good stories about the early days, and especially the acting classes he took at Bob Rafleson’s insistence to prepare for Stay Hungry. There are also some good reflections on the first Conan and on getting the Terminator job, but outside of these his recollections largely extend to bland banalities focused more on his salary (in one crass moment he lists his growing salary demands chronologically from Conan up to his $15 million Total Recall days, though he also glosses here, neglecting to mention the staggering $30m or more he made for Terminator 3, perhaps recognising the obscenity of that price tag in a rare moment of lucid restraint).

Aside from its relentlessly self aggrandising and self promoting tone the biggest problem with the book is its style; there’s no real reflection or insight, just a sense that you are sitting listening as Schwarzenegger loudly informs you of all of his greatest achievements, before expounding at length on his philosophies. It’s undeniable how successful he is, but there’s a really obnoxious feeling to the way that so much of the book is dedicated to a celebration of that. By the same token I admire Schwarzenegger for his hard work and single minded approach, but his philosophy is blinkered and defined by wealth. This may also be why he seems to show little interest in really discussing most of his films, he appears not to concern himself with their artistic merits as much as their receipts and the money he’ll be allowed to demand next time. This is most acutely seen in a caption on one of the photo pages, with posters of all of Arnie’s films, where he says that the first thing he asks about a project is “What’s the poster?”

The same relentless positivity that defines the rest of the book also comes through when it addresses Schwarzenegger’s two terms as Governor of California. Everything feels spun, the brutality of a budget cutting administration that said it wouldn’t raise taxes (but which raised many other costs) goes unacknowledged and political mistakes – like other politically incorrect moments throughout the book – are put down to a lack of understanding (by this time Arnold has been an American citizen for 20 odd years, and politically active for about the same amount of time). He does seem to have accomplished worthwhile political things before, during and after his administration, but it’s hard to sift them from the bluster and spin.

The early chapters, up until the halfway point of the book, when we see Arnold married to Maria Shriver and happily installed as the top movie star in the world, are decent, the passages about his early weight training and competitions are filled with eye rollingly simplistic rhetoric, but at least there’s detail, colour, and a sense of what it meant to him. The back half, in which Schwarzenegger seems ever more concerned with protecting his image, is pretty awful. This is also seen in the chapter regarding his love child. Of how it came about he simply says that Maria and the kids were away and he found himself alone with his housekeeper. That’s IT, he’s clearly sorry in the aftermath, but there’s a sense of entitlement and self aggrandisment even in this.

On the whole Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t come out of this book well. He tells an interesting tale in a boring and frequently irritating fashion, and more often than not comes off as avoidant, and, honestly, a bit of a prick. It’s like having a man yell his life story at you and lose interest part way through.

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