Identity & Arnie By Kyle Barrowman. In Cashiers du Cinemart #13, Pat Bishow’s "The Dichotomy of Arnold" explored a thematic trajectory discernible throughout the second half of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career...
In Cashiers du Cinemart #13, Pat Bishow’s "The Dichotomy of Arnold" explored a thematic trajectory discernible throughout the second half of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career. Whereas Dr. Dave Saunders, in his book Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies, examines the sociopolitical framework of the Schwarzenegger canon, Bishow focuses on the narrative content of the films, and in so doing, hits on a very interesting point regarding the perverse preoccupation "Arnie" has had over the years with characters suffering crises of identity.
Bishow centers his exploration on True Lies, asserting it is the "high point" of Arnold’s cinematic identity struggles. I, however, believe the film most deserving of that distinction is the 1996 family comedy Jingle All The Way. As seen in the film’s opening, Arnold’s character, Howard Langston, is very similar to the character he played in True Lies, government spy Harry Tasker. Like Tasker, Langston is excellent in the "man’s world," the workplace, but lousy at home with his wife and son. Just as with True Lies (as well as Kindergarten Cop, the film wherein Arnold first tackled this theme of poor parenting) in Jingle All The Way Arnold must find a way to offset his masculinity and "feminize" himself in order to become the ultimate father.
This masculinity dialectic is discussed at length by Susan Jeffords in her essay "The Big Switch: Hollywood Masculinity in the Nineties," from Film Theory Goes to the Movies. She points to the ending of Kindergarten Cop, which mirrors the ending of Jingle All The Way, and how it "anticipates the endings of many [’90s] films that are resolved through a man’s return to his family," which she believes is indicative of the message being conveyed in ’90s action films that contradict the paradigmatic ’80s action hero, that message being that the "emotionally whole and physically healed man of the ’80s wants nothing more than to be a father, not a warrior/cop, after all" (p. 200).
This has an interesting application to True Lies and the argument put forth by Bishow. While acknowledging that Jingle All The Way most certainly falls in line with films like Kindergarten Cop and True Lies – films wherein Arnold is dialectically examining his status as an icon of masculinity – Bishow doesn’t go far enough when he posits that the narrative motivation of Jingle All The Way is merely the spectator’s decision of whether Arnold is "a simple family man" or a "superhero (or superstar)." If I may be so presumptuous, I’d venture to say that, similar to what befell Dr. Saunders towards the end of his book, the generally low esteem in which Arnold’s latter-career films are held explains why Bishow’s engagement with Jingle All The Way is of such a perfunctory nature. I, unlike both of these men (and likely 99% of the currently living human population) have a great adoration of and respect for Jingle All The Way. In examining the film more closely, I have come to believe that it surpasses True Lies as the most entertaining and interesting treatment of this thematic thread. In Jingle All The Way, Arnold does not explore a crisis of identity for a character or even an allegorized "real life" crisis; rather, the identity with which Arnold is dialectically engaging is the "Arnie" identity, his celluloid alter ego who, at the time of Jingle All The Way, was going through a serious identity crisis from which many believe he has never recovered.
Concurrent with his seemingly endless search for a Turbo Man action figure, the storyline that anchors the film, Jingle All The Way also features a supremely intriguing subplot wherein the dissection of the Arnie phenomenon takes center stage. While running around the Twin Cities looking for the impossible-to-find action figure, Arnold is also forced to contend with comedy legend Phil Hartman, who plays divorced single parent Ted Maltin, a character Dr. Saunders writes is like Bill Paxton’s hilarious scumbag car dealer character from True Lies, "crudely portrayed as a pitifully incompetent would-be suitor for Arnold’s glamorous wife" (p. 192). The similarity is there, but contrary to Saunders’s assertion that the character is "crudely portrayed," Hartman actually represents a very potent threat to Arnold’s patriarchal rule.
Hartman serves as Arnold’s polar opposite in the film, representing the object of every housewife’s desire in the entire neighborhood. Not only is he a handyman, able to perform household repairs for the comedically oversexed mothers as well as put up the Christmas lights on the Langston house, a task the subpar father Arnold had neglected, he is also very feminine, mastering the kitchen just as easily, as seen in a scene where, in Arnold’s absence, Hartman is baking cookies with Mrs. Langston. This particular scene is a hilarious representation of Hartman’s feminine father usurping the patriarchy from the obsolete übermensch. Arnold calls home to speak to his wife, and he’s shocked when Hartman answers the phone, informing him that he’s helping his wife bake her famous sugar cookies. Arnold is horrified, even more so when he hears Hartman on the other end exclaiming in orgasmic ecstasy at the deliciousness of the cookies, metaphorically representing the consummation of his affair with the wife of the currently impotent Arnie. "Put that cookie down!" he yells with impotent indignation.
The final indictment of Arnold’s disharmonious balance between masculinity and femininity also serves as the most precise reason for Arnold’s diminishing popularity with action audiences by the ’90s. After disrupting the sanctity of Hartman’s home by attempting to steal the Turbo Man he bought for his own son from under his Christmas tree, Hartman, disgusted with Arnold, looks at him and says, "You can’t bench press your way out of this one." The very thing that initially made Arnold a success, that gave birth to "Arnie." His masculine physicality makes him a failure now, both as the character Howard Langston and as the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. By 1996, the age of the ’80s blockbuster action extravaganzas was over and Arnold was struggling to find his place in the new era of modern action fare such as Speed, where the hero isn’t of mythologically epic physical proportion, and Independence Day, the technologically-fueled science fiction actioner where the hero wasn’t of Arnold’s superhuman Aryan breed but was, of all things, a modern urban black man. Action films had shifted into a new era, and Arnold, the supremely masculine white ideal representing the quintessence of the ’80s action icon, was trying to find his place. This uncertainty of filmic identity sees its most penetrating realization not in True Lies, but in Jingle All The Way.
Provided he can make it out of his current dilemma in one piece, it will be interesting to see where, if anywhere, "Arnie" fits in the cinema landscape and how, if at all, this intriguing narrative thread will evolve in future projects. One would think that, in this nostalgic, postmodern climate where returns to the past are the norm rather than novel, the premiere self-reflexive icon will be able to find a home and begin anew the dialectic pursuit of his forever enduring filmic identity.
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