I AM A GREAT ADMIRER of Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is not an easy confession: It makes me feel a bit violated to say it, but deep down, it feels right. Certainly, in many ways, he is the least of our movie stars: He is graceless, uncharming, blunt, and illiterate. He has no wit; he is oafish; he is the quantifiable antithesis of seductive. He is thick all around, given to undeserved expressions of vanity, and, worst of all, he may actually be evil. Indeed, his only outstanding qualities are bulk and egotism--and yet, to his credit, he has parlayed these common, humble traits into a full-blown philosophy that informs what may be the most unique, consistent body of work yet in the blockbuster genre.

Schwarzenegger wins by the sheer weight of his obliviousness. He seems to have no perception of himself as a natural form, rather seeing himself as a pure creation of himself. His very Teutonic obsession with bodybuilding, with flagrantly embodying a stance against nature and the given human form, reinforces this perception: The only actual talent the actor has ever evinced is, quite simply, having more mass than anyone else.

And yet, the key to Schwarzenegger's ease in conquering Hollywood (and, by proxy, the entire world) has always been his shockingly articulated ego. This ego is most often expressed by his insistence on bending reality to suit his whims, in bold disregard of any sense of responsibility to nature or humanity at large. Indeed, his supreme belief in his ability to manipulate fate to get his way--despite an almost total lack of discernible talent--is so utter as to be almost spiritual. Simply put, Schwarzenegger has managed to uplift his self-image to what must be considered a religious dimension--a sort of Nihilistic Spiritual Narcissism.

From Total Recall through the current The 6th Day, Schwarzenegger has refined his outrageous, self-loving thesis by posing a series of conundrums concerning the nature of identity--not in the general sense of human identity, but in the specific sense of the identity of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In each of these films, he ends with the assumption that the natural order that is responsible for his original, human identity may be utterly overwhelmed simply by believing in his own self-reflexively narcissistic fantasy.

Total Recall represents the first mature expression of this philosophy. The film can be read as an explicit allegory for Schwarzenegger's career itself. Arnold plays Quaid, a blue-collar hero for an underground movement dedicated to freeing Mars. However, near the film's end, he discovers that, in reality, he is actually Hauser, an evil, self-interested capitalist with none of the innately good characteristics of Quaid. It is only by the massive application of his will (equal parts bulk and ego) that Schwarzenegger is able to subvert his own true identity and assume the more alluring identity of Quaid.

This basic formula for the transference of identity onto a mythical construct is refined further in The Last Action Hero. This time, Schwarzenegger conveniently does away with an original self entirely, entering the world solely on his own terms, as a movie star. However, by the end of the film, he has managed to graft this narcissistic fiction onto what is presented as the real world. Schwarzenegger has thus obliterated all ties with reality, and assumed the pure form of a living fiction.

True Lies is an important restatement of Schwarzenegger's basic philosophy. The film has often been misinterpreted by scholars as a regression; in fact, it expands his philosophy significantly. Once again, the film shows Schwarzenegger's fantastical identity--that of a top-secret government operative--overwhelming his other, pedestrian identity as a businessman. The film ends with his more fantastical self actually infecting his wife with her own fantastical identity, in essence converting her to the same religion of Nihilistic Spiritual Narcissism. In short, he has re-created her in his image.

Schwarzenegger's newest film, The 6th Day, elegantly unifies the somewhat divergent theses of his past work, putting forth a powerful synthesis. In this film, Schwarzenegger becomes his own clone, again yielding two identities: one, the pedestrian Everyman (with a penchant for cigars and a wife who's a dead ringer for Maria Shriver) in ordinary situations; the second, a fantastical action hero in extraordinary situations. Again, the action hero Schwarzenegger manages to temporarily infect the pedestrian Schwarzenegger, causing him to become an action hero in his own right.

But most significantly, at the end of the film, both identities are left intact. The implication is clear: The fantastical identity of Schwarzenegger is now so confident that it is able to allow pedestrian images of himself to flourish, secure in his knowledge that there no longer exists an objective reality to which such identities are beholden. The world has bent to his will; he may live comfortably as a pure fiction, or even a clone of that pure fiction. In short, he may live in a world ruled not by any form of objective reality, but rather by the unique, Schwarzeneggerian dictates of Nihilistic Spiritual Narcissism.

Sponsored
Day In • Day Out returns this summer, August 12th thru 14th!
Featuring The National, Mitski, Mac DeMarco and more! Full lineup and tickets at dayindayoutfest.com