Saturday, March 3, 2018

The rapid maturation of Arnie, and other thoughts on a Schwarzenegger double feature

I'd had my appetite whetted for another viewing of Total Recall when I'd heard it discussed lovingly on a recent episode of the Blank Check podcast, which I am listening to despite the fact that it frequently annoys me and the podcasters love their own show and its inside jokes too much. And I got Predator, which I'd never seen before, out from the library last weekend.

So when my wife had to opt out of our Friday night viewing to do some work, I opted in to an Arnold Schwarzenegger double feature.

It ended up being a fortuitous pairing for such a thing. Schwarzenegger has had a very long career, so if you decided to watch two of his movies, you could separate them by 40 years or longer if you wanted. Pumping Iron (1977) and Killing Gunther (2017) might make an interesting double feature, for all I know (I've only seen the former).

But by seeing movies that came out in 1987 and 1990, I focused on a very specific snapshot of his career -- and found two very different movies.

Now I must start out by saying that this would be my sixth or seventh viewing of Total Recall, first since 2012. I saw it in the theater in 1990 and have always considered it a personal favorite. It ranks #167 on my Flickchart, and it should probably be higher. So it's both a nostalgia pick and a genuinely good movie, making any apples-to-apples comparison with Predator -- a nostalgia pick and a genuinely good movie for other people, because they saw it in the theater in 1987 -- problematic.

But I couldn't help but notice how much three years matured Schwarzenegger as an actor. And I can't even credit the directors, as John McTiernan got great performances out of his whole cast in Die Hard just a year later, while Paul Verhoeven has gotten laughable performances out of a cast (Showgirls). No, this maturation was all on Arnie.

The characters are different too, I'll give you that. Predator's Dutch is a man of few words, a mercenary trained to kill. Recall's Doug Quaid also has training in lethal fighting techniques, but he thinks he's a construction worker, and even his alter ego is more a smarmy asshole than a mercenary. So more range is required of the actor in Recall than Predator.

But he gives the range, and I never thought he was capable of it until I saw this movie. I was actually a bit resistant to Schwarzenegger before Total Recall, which is why I never saw Predator when other friends were going on breathlessly about it. I'd seen Commando on cable at a friend's house, and I had a memory of it as a lot of grunting and bodies jumping on trampolines to simulate being blown up. Even when I was like 12, when I should have been at the height of my appreciation for this sort of thing, I recognized it wasn't a high watermark of sophisticated culture. I didn't see The Terminator until after T2, and I still to this day have not seen Conan the Barbarian or its sequel. In looking at his filmography, I guess both The Running Man and Twins predated Total Recall, and I certainly saw both of those. But that's the only time I've seen both of those movies, so I guess I was not sold. Coming into Total Recall, I considered him a dubious property.

The role of Doug Quaid/Hauser (I just now realized Hauser does not get a first name) changed all that, and kicked off a honeymoon period with Schwarzenegger that lasted the better part of a decade. Whereas I hadn't rewatched any of his films prior to this, Total Recall became an immediate repeat viewing for me, as did his other 1990 release, Kindergarten Cop. It was probably that film that really served as the other half of the 1-2 punch that let me know this guy was actually a capable actor, able to play more subtle emotions than were once required of him. As I watched Total Recall last night, I noticed how much relies on small shifts in his expression as he absorbs new information or gradually changes from one emotional state to another. You tell the Arnie of Predator to do that and you'd be out of luck.

My favorite Schwarzenegger film of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, came out the following year. And though those three films are probably still my three favorite of his, I saw more of his than I missed from there on out. (I guess I'm still not an Arnie completist, though, because I still haven't seen 1994's Junior, and only saw 1996's Jingle All the Way for the first time this past Christmas.)

Maybe if I'd seen Predator at the time and last night was my sixth or seventh viewing of that, I'd recognize there were subtle things he was doing there. In fact, even now I can think of one. I love the scene where he first realizes that the mud is camouflaging him from the predator's vision, which relies on sensing his heat and motion. That scene is one big moment of held breath, and in that moment he displays something that the big iconic Arnold roles had lacked before then -- fear. It reminded me of one of the things I appreciate most about McTiernan's follow-up, Die Hard, in which John McClane flashes moments of the type of fear that was usually anathema to action heroes.

But I think there's little dispute that Total Recall is a role that required a real actor, and got one. Listening to that podcast reminded me that Richard Dreyfuss had been the original actor considered for Total Recall when they planned to make a different type of movie out of it. The podcasters kind of joked about Schwarzenegger's abilities when contrasted with those of Dreyfuss, and sure, Dreyfuss is a better actor. But I don't think the gap is as large as we would assume it would be. In those few years in the late 1980s, Schwarzenegger committed himself to becoming better at his craft, and it shows.

Some other thoughts ...

Predator passes the Blackdel Test

You've heard of the Bechdel Test, right? Of course you have. It's the test for gender representation in film and other works of fiction credited to cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which tests whether the story contains a minimum of two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man. It's a purposefully minimal standard to demonstrate just how rarely films actually meet it.

Predator does not pass the Bechdel Test, as it has only one female character. But it does pass the Blackdel Test, a term I thought I invented, but when googling it, of course others have thought of it before me. It's basically the racial variant on the Bechdel Test, with black people as the underrepresented party rather than women, discussing something other than a white person rather than something other than a man.

I'd venture this is probably met more often by movies, as institutionalized sexism in films might actually be a worse problem, historically, than institutionalized racism. But that's a pretty big topic and I don't really want to dig into it or offer a definitive opinion.

I will say that you tend to notice when films of a certain era give two black people something to do that's separate from the white people, just as you would if two women were getting that spotlight. And I noticed it in Predator in this scene:

That's Bill Duke and Carl Weathers -- Mac and Dillon by name -- trying to get the drop on the predator, who does not notice them spying on him from a hidden area in the brush. They fail spectacularly, but that's not something, fortunately, that we can attribute (or that the film does attribute) to their race. The predator is just too damn smart and fast to be taken down by ordinary military stealth tactics, and camouflaging himself against the background certainly doesn't hurt.

What I think we are meant to take away from it is that both of these guys go in pursuit of the predator, rather than running from it as the other characters have done. In a short time, Duke's Mac has developed a near obsession with it, Captain Ahab style, but Weathers' Dillon is showing a different type of courage -- he's putting himself in harm's way as an attempt at redemption for his earlier deceptions, despite not naturally having the confidence that Mac has. Both of them are knowingly risking their own hides to save their dwindling number of comrades from an unimaginable threat. And, both lose their hides, Mac with a blasted head, Dillon with first a lost arm, then an impalement.

So the movie goes from two to zero black characters in the space of about a minute, but at least they were damn courageous, and for their scene together -- a couple scenes, actually, if you include the earlier interaction with the scorpion -- they talked together without talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura. (This movie is lousy with future governors.)

Total Recall gets you home in time for corn flakes

Especially compared to Predator, I noticed how much Total Recall really moves. I mean, it trucks. While Predator feels like about 38 minutes of actual plot and about an hour of filler -- which is not to say I didn't like it -- Total Recall is only ten minutes longer and has like a million more things that happen. Because that script is fast, and it just keeps moving you along.

In the climax of the film, Ronny Cox's Vilos Cohaagen (great name) tells Quaid he is going to kill him and still be home in time for corn flakes. That always struck me as a funny line -- who eats corn flakes at night? -- but it seems to describe perfectly what Total Recall does. It gives you a great, delirious burst of sights, sounds, action and existentialism, and still lets you off the rollercoaster to get you home in time for corn flakes.

Consider the scripts side by side for a minute. Predator is deliberate, you might say; slow, if you were not being generous. There's a lot of time devoted to the setup. They don't have their first interaction with the alien until the movie is 45 minutes old. Granted, there's that whole section involving taking out the insurgents, which has plenty of wham bam thank you ma'am. So it's not like you are deprived of action until 45 minutes in. But you're deprived of what the movie is really about, which I found a bit frustrating.

Then there's Total Recall. It opens with a dream sequence on Mars. By the 15-minute mark, Quaid is strapped into a chair at Rekall. All the setup they've needed to do has been fit into these first 15 minutes. Then the movie is off and running, and it never stops to catch its breath. Yet it still manages to continue to develop its characters and have them consider the nature of free will and selfhood.

Like I said, this thing trucks.

And because I love new observations about favorite films, I'll close out with a few more Total Recall tidbits:

- The line "Clever girl" was very familiar to me, and I thought it was because that line was used in (made famous by?) Jurassic Park. But I've only seen Jurassic Park once, possibly twice all the way through, and not since the 1990s. Last night I realized that Schwarzenegger says this to Sharon Stone's character when she tries to distract him from Richter's arrival by offering him sex, and it's three years earlier than JP.

- I had forgotten how disturbing the scene is where Arnie uses that guy on the escalator as a human shield. Of course, the guy had to be dead already before our hero would consider such a thing, but once he's just a slab of meat, Arnie uses him to take as many as a dozen more bullets that would have otherwise hit him. I think that might have been a seminal moment in the 16-year-old me maturing to an adult-style violence, one that felt brutally realistic in a way, despite the fact that you can describe some of Recall's violence as cartoonish. The commitment to the violence is at least somewhat like what David Cronenberg does in a movie like The History of Violence (and there's body horror here too, so Cronenberg could have easily made Total Recall).

- I love the little bow Arnie gives after he grabs the briefcase from the woman who just yelled "Fuck you, you asshole!" Unnecessary but totally charming.

- I had forgotten how many Pepsi product placements there were in this movie. In this movie, it doesn't bother me. It shows the persistence of our familiar brands in a distant future, sort of like what Blade Runner does.

- In the scene between Marshall Bell (the host of Kuato) and Arnold, it made me realize I have met both men. I talked to Marshall Bell in a supermarket once, and I shook hands with Arnie when he was governor and I saw him getting out of his car while I was sitting in an outdoor brunch spot. (He looked past me and said "Hi, how are you" in a totally emotionless voice, if you're interested.)

- I really like the shot of the Venusville residents running out of air that's taken from behind the stopped fan. I'd never specifically noticed it until last night.

- I love the sneers Michael Ironside gives when he goes from one level of angry to the next level.

- Cohaagen's soldiers, most often led by Richter, have uniforms that look a lot like those worn by the federation troopers in Starship Troopers, which is of course also directed by Verhoeven. An interesting bit of commentary between the two films, almost as though Troopers might exist in the same universe, and that Cohaagen's flunkies become mainstreamed upstanding citizens in the fascistic future represented in Troopers?

- Ronny Cox is not only Trumpian in his behavior in this movie, he even looks a little bit like Trump.

Okay, enough for today.


Wendell Ottley said...

I really like Predator, but agree Total Recall is the far better movie. And you give all the reasons why.

Love your discussion and breakdown of the scene between Duke and Weathers. I never looked at it from that angle so I really appreciate it.

Since the main idea of this post is Arnie's improvement as an actor, I'm curious if you have seen Maggie. For me, it's the best acting I've seen from him. I would love your thoughts on that.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell!

I did indeed like Maggie. It's such a slow and thoughtful film that I don't know if I imagine myself seeing it again, but it's also the type of film I'm glad got made and wish they'd make more of. I think it just proves how smart Schwarzenegger is, to have absorbed the techniques he's seen other actors display over the years, and not just skate by on his fame and his biceps. I'd have to see it again to know if it was his best, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was. It's his least demonstrative, at least since he graduated from the stage of being purposefully minimal to disguise his limited skills, and I think that in itself is saying something.