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Arnold hits the halls of academe

Two scholars have a curious specialty: Schwarzenegger studies.

September 29, 2003|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — Standing before a roomful of fellow PhDs, Louise Krasneiwicz wears an untucked beach shirt -- a multihued collage of musclemen and "championship" banners. Perched on a chair near her podium is a poster from Flex magazine featuring a bare-chested Arnold Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding days.

"We think that Arnold Schwarzenegger's extensive influence and remarkable presence in late 20th century American culture has gone beyond inspiration, hero worship and entertainment," she tells the captive audience at the School of American Research here, where she is a research associate.

Many of the social scientists take notes.

Schwarzenegger has been many things in his life: immigrant, weightlifter, action movie star and now gubernatorial candidate. A less known role has been academic study subject.

For the last two decades, Krasneiwicz, a cultural anthropologist, and her intellectual partner, Michael Blitz, the tenured chair of "thematic studies" at John Jay College in New York, have examined his role in popular culture. To the bewilderment of some peers, they have collected hundreds of articles and advertisements with references to Schwarzenegger, attended the bodybuilding competition he sponsors, taped the sounds inside his restaurant bathroom, watched his 30-plus movies dozens of times -- including rare finds like the 1980 TV drama "The Jayne Mansfield Story," co-starring Loni Anderson. (Arnold played Mickey Hargitay.)

It has been a pursuit so consuming that they regularly dream about their subject -- and have posted more than 150 of those dreams, ranging from the bizarre to the erotic, on their Web site (Google search: "dreaming arnold").

Avowed postmodernists, the researchers say the point of their collection is not to quantify Schwarzenegger's influence as a cultural icon -- though they do contend that his importance far exceeds that of any other living celebrity -- but to arrive at some vision of America.

"We're not really interested in studying him as a person but as a reference, a point in our culture," Krasneiwicz says.

She has many examples. An issue of Lingua Franca includes an article called "Terminating Analysis," a profile of the "Schwarzenegger of Freud-bashers." An automobile advertisement declares that "The Dodge Viper is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of sports cars." A Time magazine piece on pectoral implants proclaims the "Schwarzeneggerization of society." A Los Angeles Times piece on HIV research refers to the "Arnold Schwarzeneggers of science."

In other words, the references go far beyond weightlifting or Hollywood. Schwarzenegger has become "a prototype of power, influence, connection, of getting things done," Krasneiwicz says.

She and Blitz were fellow doctoral students at the State University of New York at Albany in the mid-1980s, the same era that "Hasta la vista, baby" joined the American lexicon. Schwarzenegger became a bridge between their disciplines (anthropology and English), the topic of a long-running conversation and the cement of their friendship.

By 1990, Krasneiwicz had moved to UCLA and Blitz to John Jay College, and their interest in Schwarzenegger had become a mild obsession.

Los Angeles, of course, was the ideal place to observe the man himself. Krasneiwicz often spotted him -- pulling into traffic in his Hummer; in a neighborhood pumpkin patch with his wife, Maria Shriver, and their children; at a Santa Monica shopping mall shooting a scene for "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

On that occasion, she managed to snap several shots of Schwarzenegger before security guards ordered her to leave.

"It was a great chance to watch people watching Arnold," she says.

Nobody, though, could keep her out of the bathroom at Schatzi on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant Schwarzenegger once ran. She recorded the sound that was piped into the restroom -- a taped lesson in German, the actor's native tongue.

The star's domain, of course, extends far beyond California. In 1991, Krasneiwicz and Blitz flew to Columbus, Ohio, for the "Third Annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic," a bodybuilding competition. There they employed the classic anthropological technique of "participant observation," paying $50 each to join a long line of fans waiting for Polaroid photographs with Schwarzenegger.

Watching the people swarm around Schwarzenegger, they realized that he was more than a celebrity. One woman who had been injured in a car accident thanked him for her recovery.

"Everybody had something to say about their attraction to Arnold," says Blitz. "A lot of people spoke about him very familiarly even though they never met him."

Their Arnold sensors on alert, the academic pair kept hearing more Arnold references. In a grocery store, Krasneiwicz overheard a man advocating a halt to illegal immigration by building a massive fence -- "one that even Arnold Schwarzenegger could not climb on a good day."

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