Total Recoil

Photos by James BunoanYou know that sci-fi film Event Horizon, in which a rescue crew boards a dimension-hopping spacecraft that had gone missing, only to find that it had sojourned through hell and they were all doomed to descend into inchoate blood-frothing, limb-hacking madness?

Well, things are probably better than that.

We will, however, have to sift all of California's doings through a Hollywood lens from now on. CNN caught the drift Tuesday night, when, for analysis of Arnold Schwarzenegger's recall win, they turned to expert commentators Rob Lowe and Ron Silver. And let's get Gabe Kaplan in to discuss education reform, shall we?

If you are still wondering what just happened in our state, look no further than the plot of Arnold's own The Last Action Hero, wherein a disaffected boy (let's call him California) uses a magic ticket (the recall ballot) to enter the movie world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater (Arnold, playing Arnold), where everything's exciting and mundane day-to-day reality is replaced by decisive action involving gunplay and busty chicks. The boy is drawn entirely into this fictitious world, but, via the misused magic ticket, its chaotic comic-book violence—Arnold and all—spills over into the real world, and, oh my, it makes for a messy, messy situation.

And now we have it that Arnold has stepped directly from the fantasy movie screen into the governor's office, elected by voters so disaffected with the grim budget crisis and Gray Davis' glum leadership, so yearning for decisive, simplistic solutions they were willing to overlook the fact that they have no idea what Schwarzenegger intends to do in office.

I did, however, see him crush a car last Thursday at the Orange County Fairgrounds. Not with his bare hands—he wussed out and used a wrecking ball and crane—but it was crushed up real good just the same. "In movies, I played a character that if I didn't like something, I destroyed it! I wiped it out!" he exulted, raising the quality of American political oratory to a level scarcely seen since the days of Adlai Stevenson. Then he pointed to an auto with "Davis Car Tax" spray-painted on the side, gave the order to his special-effects crew, and the wrecking ball came crashing down on the hood, with glass flying everywhere.

Does this mean Arnold will blow up schools when there's a school tax he doesn't like?

Political candidates don't usually have a special-effects crew. (Interesting, isn't it, that Schwarzenegger can deface and destroy cars and it's great PR, yet when environmentalists do it, it's "domestic terrorism"?) Other candidates don't announce they're running on The Tonight Show or have Jay Leno warm up the crowd for their victory speech. They don't run a campaign of three-minute speeches packed with movie tough-guy lines, while ducking debates and refusing to discuss what steps they'll take to mend our ulcerating state.

There's also this other matter, where it appears Arnold hasn't merely been groping for words. About this I must first say that the LA Times is most certainly not a liberal mouthpiece given to hit pieces. It is a mainstream and often entirely timid publication that has fully earned its reputation as "the paper that always boldly calls for further study." Prior to the groping revelations, they had given massive and largely uncritical coverage to Schwarzenegger's campaign. If they ran the groping story in the 11th hour, it was only because they were busy making sure their ass was covered, which it was to anyone who bothered to read the pieces. Even if not every woman's story was true, the Times at least made sure they were corroborated by others who had heard their accounts long before Arnold was a candidate.

More than its sexual content, it was solid reporting that questioned whether Schwarzenegger is a man to be trusted with power. It was deserving of a full response from the candidate, which he promised to give—after the election. Why? "I can't talk about it right now; I'm too busy not talking about the issues," he might have said.

Maybe Arnold will do just fine. I don't know that he'll be a dreadful governor. But that's just the thing: I don't know. You don't know. If Arnold knows, he sure wasn't telling us. In commercials, he promised that, once he was elected, we vill open de books in Sacramento and take care of zis crazy budget goings-on. The books are already open, goddamn it! Anyone can look at them, and it's absolute bullshit, on a par with Nixon's 1968 "secret plan to end the war" promise, to not give Californians a concrete plan on this very real crisis instead of in essence just saying, "Trust me. Come mit me iff you vant to liff!"

Remember when Orange County had its bankruptcy crisis in 1994? We didn't get Chuck Norris to fix it. There were hard and dire choices to be made. Even with a special-effects team, how do you plug a $10 billion-and-growing deficit while lowering taxes and improving or at least preserving education and other crucial state services? Some experts are so churlish as to suggest that this can't be done, and there is the rather glaring example of Arnold's compassionate "I'm a uniter!" Republican bunkmate George W. Bush, who has managed to slash government services, favor the rich and corporations with tax cuts, and run up the hugest deficit in the entire history of humankind.

There are dark portents here. Maybe Arnold's election is the result of a populist uprising, of common folks hungering for a common-sense leader who will sweep the crap out of the capitol. Hooray. On the other side, though, this election has lowered the bar for all future elections, where the parties now know their candidates don't have to say jack shit in the way of substance or accountability. Why stop at movie stars? You can get Itchy and Scratchy elected so long as they blow up enough stuff.

And you only have to peel back a flap of Arnold's human skin to see the Republican machine at work, where the recall is of a piece with Clinton's impeachment, Bush's Florida electoral hijacking and the Texas gerrymandering. Gray Davis is indeed a vicious campaigner, but he shoots spitwads compared to the sort of live ammo Republicans have been bringing to the fight.

The beefs most Californians had with Davis—the deficit and his handling of the energy crisis—were hardly of his making. Every single state in the union is undergoing a fiscal crisis, which suggests maybe you should look to Washington for the source. Meanwhile, the groundwork for the energy crisis was laid by Governor Pete Wilson—now Arnold's top adviser—when he pushed deregulating the industry, and then California was pushed over the precipice by frauds perpetrated on us by Bush's friends/contributors/advisors in the energy biz. Again, we can look to Hollywood for the template, to Arnold's most famous franchise, where the machines are laying waste to us so we turn to the "friendly" machine to save us.

Whether Arnold turns out to indeed be a kinder, gentler leader who lives up to his promise to represent everybody, or whether, like Bush, he does the exact opposite, the voters didn't seem to worry much about what they were getting so long as it was a man of action. You know how there was Nicaraguan Strongman Anastasio Somoza and Salvadoran Strongman Roberto D'Aubuisson? Now, for better or worse, we've got California Strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger, which may just be one more way America is becoming like a Central American oligarchy.

It is nothing but fact that the very rich in America keep getting richer, while everyone else is getting poorer, and the qualities by which a civilization is measured—health care, justice, freedom, literacy, compassion and such—are sliding away. There is a sad dynamic seen in some of our southern neighbors, where people are so downtrodden they align themselves with power—any power, whether it's a druglord or the same monied rulers who are oppressing them—just so they can feel they're on the winning side. It's sort of like the way you come out of an Arnold movie feeling pumped-up. Our unquestioning elevation of him—instead of thoughtful and candid candidates such as Tom McClintock or Peter Camejo—makes me wonder if we've come to that.

The finest moments in any Arnold film are in The Last Action Hero.The kid in the movie nods off in class during a screening of the Olivier Hamlet and dreams of Arnold in the role of the cerebral, indecisive prince. "Something is rotten in Denmark, and Hamlet is taking out the trash!" says a voice-over as Arnold machineguns everyone, has a brief soliloquy—"To be or not to be . . . NOT TO BE!" and blows up Elsinore castle.

It's big fun on the screen. But Hamlet was only indecisive because he was just. He acted, but first he waited, holding in check the ghostly presentiments of his father's murder and his own feelings so that proof and reason might catch up. It's as if the prince embodied mankind's progression from superstition and instinct to reason, the shift the species was making from God-sanctioned monarchy to democracy and the rule of man-made laws. We took a long time to get there, and we may yet regret tossing it all aside for a guy who crushes cars real good.


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