That’s the thought that goes through my mind every time I sit down to watch this marvellous James Cameron science-fiction film, which features some of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best work as a merciless cyborg out to prevent a rebellious future by dispatching its source preemptively. It’s an idea that bothers me often, despite my attempts to quell it. And there’s one reason for this mental anguish.
The presence of an unsympathetic character named Dr. Peter Silberman.
There’s part of me that wants to say anti-Semitism is a stretch when it comes to this picture. For Pete’s sake, it’s a sci-fi thriller that doesn’t have anything to do with a hatred of Jews, Judaism or Jewish ideology. The whole notion of this action-packed, gloomy flick somehow being against my heritage and culture is completely irrelevant—as germane as a roasted turnip is to life on Mars. It’s just absurd.
Yet the name “Silberman” resonates because of its common association with Jewish individuals. As a member of the “tribe,” I understand the laudable part my culture has played in the history of the medical profession—including the field of psychology, which is this character’s specialty. And I recognise that labels are important in the world of art, whether it’s literature or cinema. Some monikers may be chosen at random, surely, but some are not, and that can lead to deliberate connotations being conveyed … connotations that could lead readers to think one way or another about characters.
Is that what’s going on in The Terminator?
Frankly, I don’t want to believe it. But when a screenwriter, director or producer slaps a name on someone in a script, ethnicity almost always raises its head—especially if it’s an American movie, the celluloid melting pot. A lot of times, folks are careful not to bring unrelated issues into their writing, preferring to stay with tried-and-true labels that don’t call to mind any influences other than the ones they’re supposed to suggest, à la the titular Death-personified hero of Meet Joe Black (1998), for example. That way, the audience can remove any assumed stereotypes from its appreciation of the film, concentrating instead on what happens rather than on any supposed hereditary traits. It’s a win-win for both studios and audiences.
The Terminator, however, doesn’t do that.
“Silberman” isn’t necessarily a Jewish name. You’ve got the German-derived “Silber” portion of this word—the “silver” before the “man”—and that’s not just relegated to those of Semitic heritage. Still, it could be a Yiddische moniker … and Silverman, of course, is far from an unusual stamp among members of my tribe. Plus, there’s the whole historical thing about Jews associated with psychology (Freud and all that), culminating in the stereotype of the bespectacled, bearded doctor with an Eastern European accent, the hallmark of Hollywood shrinks.
Which Dr. Silberman in The Terminator isn’t, happily; he’s clean-shaven, American-accented, played very well by character actor Earl Boen without a hint of needless inflection or bigotry. So why am I so bothered by this portrayal? It seems to be all clear.
Probably because the name’s the thing, and this psychologist character is such a jerk. He’s jokey, condescending, even cruel to his patients—a personality trait that comes to a head in this movie’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), in which his smug, unpleasant self treats the heroine, Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) with more contempt than empathy. Indeed, he’s so mean-spirited that one has to wonder why he isn’t killed off in either flick, a much-followed cinematic vein that often sees villainous jackasses get their laudably just desserts. He survives to watch Connor’s nightmares come true in what must be his comeuppance, the moment that he, gaping, discovers she’s not insane but is telling the truth about the machines coming to terminate her. That’s his punishment: being wrong … not dying a horrible death. It’s a punishment he has to live with.
Is that our punishment, too? Are we doomed to infer things about characters that may not be there—or that may well be, in a subtle fashion, even though broadcasting such notions would be tantamount to committing cinematic suicide? Few would want to admit to putting an offensive stereotype into a movie, and yet it’s hard not to think about this when names are so telling. Should we bother with connecting these labels to their characters, or should we just let the character do the talking and go from there?
This question is a big one, and it’s not easily answered. Works of art ranging from The Godfather (1972) to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice have played with ideas of character versus reality—of whether audiences should take offence at something because it’s inherently offensive or whether to chalk it up to the dimensions of the writing. (I bring up The Godfather because of a line that always has bothered me, spoken by a mobster who thinks it’s OK to sell drugs to African Americans, because “they’re animals anyway,” and his colleagues are right to “let them lose their souls.”) In naming conventions, characters frequently offer leads to consumers as to which side they’re on, good or bad; this practice has been evident in Dickens, Miller, Pynchon, Peckinpah.
Is it so in Cameron? Well, you’ve got the rather blatantly labeled “unobtainium” that the villains are after in his 2009 sci-fi opus Avatar, plus a curious yet positive mix of Hebraic ideology and linguistic components that permeates the indigenous culture of the picture’s central planet, Pandora (though its own moniker is inspired by the its mythical ancient Greek namesake, the opener of that famous box). There’s also the more-than-distinct possibility that I’m reading too much into The Terminator, that my interpretation of it could be totally different from what the creator intended … an issue that affects the consumption of all art, from movies to music. I admit that my previous encounters with anti-Semitism during the course of my life—ranging from the time I was called the vile “k”-word in college to the moment I discovered that the Internet is rife with people who despise my heritage—have made me sensitive to depictions of anything that can be construed as Jewish onscreen; this is evidence of my own personal baggage, and although I’m not inured to such characterisations, I’m often walking on eggshells when it comes to viewing films, always aware of the potential for political subtext in entertainment.
So the answer to all of this is that I don’t know—I don’t know what Cameron meant, nor do I know if I’m wrong about The Terminator. What I do know is that I’m hard-pressed to turn myself away from thinking about anti-Semitism in that movie, despite all the arguments that exist to disprove its presence. I have a feeling I’m going to debate this issue internally until the day I die. And if the picture is good enough to do that to me, perhaps it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
I, for better or worse, won’t give it one bit.