Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Greatest Film Actor of All Time

This video essay was conceived in part thanks to a great article I read a few months ago, titled “The Decline of the American Actor”.

The article, written by Terrence Rafferty, basically attempts to split apart the myth of great acting; that it is something that can be taught, or that is observable. It’s mainly the reframing of Marlon Brando, not as a prodigy of Method acting, but as a person with a unique energy, one which was not necessarily improved by his training.

If energy was the most important thing for acting, this opened up the field for a lot of actors who don’t claim any Method training. I thought of Gene Wilder, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Chan, Leslie Nielsen, Cary Grant; all actors who I think were brilliant, but who never went outside their comfort zones the way we’ve been taught good actors should.

Cary Grant in particular was one whose under-appreciation irked me. How could an actor star in so many brilliant films, and not be considered a great actor?

The reason I made the video essay on the topic of Schwarzenegger was because I think he’s a harder sell than those other actors. But ironically he’s also the one that the most amount of people will be able to understand his appeal. What I mean is his line delivery and interactions are often imperfect, but everybody has seen and loved him in a film. It seems like nit-picking to not consider him a great actor just because his appeal is nothing like that of Marlon Brando.

Schwarzenneger now styles himself as a man who went to America and made his fortune, and watching interviews with him, he is quite lucid about his own appeal. But at the same time, nobody asks him about acting. So many of his interviews are about weightlifting and politics, as if acting is something he lucked into.

But James Cameron saw his appeal, as did Paul Verhoeven and Bob Rafelson. So if you don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger is the greatest film actor of all time before you watch this video essay, I hope that by the end of it you at least see why he should be considered a candidate.

American Cinema’s White Supremacy Problem

“I’ve always wondered how anyone who’s not a white man could look at the history of American cinema and see anything they can relate to.”

That’s the thought that drove me to make this video essay. The fact that there is a huge problem in American cinema with diversity is becoming an increasingly hot topic. But I wanted to look at the problem from the perspective of American cinema’s history, rather than where it’s at now.

When I tried to discover why there were so few non-white men in leading roles throughout American cinema’s history, I couldn’t see any alternative reason except that the way American cinema makes villains out of whole groups of people. It’s been done with Germans, black American, Native Americans and most recently arabs, but no matter who the villain is the hero is always the same, or else stands for the same values.

I always hated villains in films, or rather I always hated the idea of “the villain”. I especially remember being a kid watching Aladdin and just not understanding Jafar at all, why he was so evil, what he was trying to achieve. It made no sense to me. And it wasn’t until years later when I started to discover cinema from other countries beyond the US that I started to realise the hero/villain/damsel-in-distress structure for films was not so widely used to tell stories outside the US.

Why did American cinema need this trope, that goes all the way back to The Birth of a Nation? And how had it affected us over the years as it became more commonplace and also more subtle in the way it demonised other ethnicities. The fact that it still happens today is what’s shocking, but I didn’t want to address it in a film that has already been as criticised as American Sniper. It seemed it made more sense to examine a film like Argo, the winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 2013.

Here was a classic example of a racist narrative, and yet the supposedly liberal Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it a resounding vote of support. I don’t think the Academy are necessarily card carrying racists, but I think the fact that they so willingly rewarded a film with such troubling racial politics begins to explain just how homogeneous American cinema still is.

Capturing the Moment: In Search of Adequate Images

The Werner Herzog quote about adequate images always stuck with me. His call for people to treat imagery with a greater respect seemed important to me, and he obviously put a lot of weight in it himself, clear from how apocalyptic his language was.

But figuring out what exactly adequate imagery looks like was not so well defined. Clearly there was something lacking in a huge amount of our visual media, but it was easier to describe what doesn’t qualify as adequate imagery than it was to describe what does.

I read a Pitchfork article about people who use camera phones at gigs and it got this video essay going. I didn’t want to demonise the people who shoot the gigs they attend, but I could never understand it. The quality of the images they get is terrible as is the sound, and I could never imagine wanting to actually look at them, so why on earth do these people attend gigs just to miss any profound moments they might have experienced by trying to capture it and watch it later?

It made more sense to me to try and explore this desire than to finger-wag, and so tying in Herzog’s concept of adequate images I attempted to link the desire to film a gig with the desire film-makers have to create images. The difference being one group is professional and the other is not.

In particular I wanted to bring the video essay around to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, easily one of the best films I saw this year and one that I believe is packed with adequate images.

One image I specifically enjoyed was how the veil is used by the director Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American. In Iran the veil is a symbol of oppression (or modesty, depending on who you ask) but Amirpour transforms it here into a vampire’s cape. As the main character stalks the streets at night, preying on sexist men, she is a realisation of a misogynist’s worst fears; a man-eating woman who wears the uniform of her oppression with a biting irony.

I don’t think people who film gigs with their cameraphones should be chastised, but I do think they are robbing themselves of the opportunity to really engage with art. We all feel that because we can all make little films now that we should. Whereas the truth is the same now as ever it was; that it takes years of practice to get good at it.

Anybody can make a great art work, but they can’t do it over night, nor by chance. And the first step to creating great art is to engage with great art. That’s what I was aiming to express in this video essay.