Sunday, January 16, 2005

How Arnold Won the West : Pumping Irony

In the summer of 2003, the world witnessed an unprecedented media spectacle when fading movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he was running for Governor of California. The announcement – like everything else about the campaign – was aimed not at the electorate of California, where an obscure law allowing the recall of a previous election was being manipulated by a wealthy Republican congressman to overturn the results of Governor Gray Davis’ re-election, but at the entire world; suitably, it took place on “The Tonight Show”, whose host, Jay Leno, would later appear at Arnold’s victory party.
Schwarzenegger’s campaign was a made-for-tv event and the media cameras turned their heads and drooled in response. Alex Cooke’s documentary “How Arnold Won the West”, which comes out on video on January 25th, is a part of that Pavlovian reaction, even as it tries to maintain a tongue-clicking disapproval of the absurdities of the recall. Shot with that eye-rolling “you won’t believe what those Americans are up to now” tone that only British journalists can master, the film documents a bizarre interlude in American politics but only hints at its real meaning.
The recall was an open door to marginal candidates and anyone who could come up with the necessary fee was an authentic candidate, - including some who campaigned solely to point out the ludicrousness of the election. The 135 recognized candidates became part of the show – in fact they even had their own show, a quickly devised competition on the Game Show Network – and while Cooke seems to look down at the spectacle, her film gives far more time to publicity seekers like former child star Gary Coleman and porno actress Mary Carey than to Arianna Huffington or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente, the challengers who posed a legitimate threat to Schwarzenegger’s ambitions. Though the film derides the media circus, it can’t help standing in the sidelines and gawking.
And who could? Part of the genius of Schwarzenegger’s success was that he and his handlers clearly knew how ridiculous the spectacle was, even while pretending to keep a straight face. Even the media efforts to ridicule the movie star’s past was hijacked by the campaign, who seized upon making puns using the titles of his own films before the headline writers got a chance..(The obvious title for the entire election?: “Total Recall”)
Though many would like to look at Schwarzenegger’s election as the kind of aberration that could only happen in California, “How Arnold Won the West” raises two issues that will be of increasing importance in politics over the next few years, neither of which speak well of the future of democracy. The first is the tendency to use political clout or plain old buying power to overturn election results, whether through the long quest to find some reason to impeach President Clinton, the play of an almost unknown law to unseat Gray Davis (if Cooke’s film has a villain, it’s clearly the smarmy Darrell Issa, the congressman who financed the recall motion to further his own career, only to have his plan hijacked by the Terminator) or the ever-growing battles over how votes are counted and delivered. The second is that argument over the media “packaging” of politics, a favorite for pundits ever since Nixon sweated his way to defeat in 1960, is over and the answer isn’t a pretty one. The secret of Schwarzenegger’s success lies within the circus it generated. He knew it all along and kept stirring it up even while pretending to stay above it. While reporters and other candidates remained stirring about in the dirt of ordinary political concerns, Arnold looked high over their heads, directly into the tv cameras, and dominated the moment. He deflected debates, ignored questions, and skillfully turned potential scandals into talking points, all the while giving a pretty good performance as a man too busy campaigning to address his critics. It was a campaign designed to stir emotions and ignore issues. As we continue in a political climate where a presidential administration can dismiss its critics as “reality based”, don’t think that the lessons of Schwarzenegger’s success are being ignored.

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