A couple of years ago, Ken and I were speaking to an out of town film critic—from a much bigger city than Asheville—who had somehow managed to finagle her way into a position where she only reviewed what most people would consider high-brow fare—your art films, your foreign features and the like. What this meant was that she never got subjected to the mainstream cinema of the huddled masses, something that caused her to be what can only be described as shocked to find out that both Ken and I watched what were obviously going to be bad movies, not because we were getting paid as critics to do so, but rather because we wanted to due to their standing as pop culture artifacts. Never have I seen someone amazed to find out I watched Transformers of my own volition.
Since I started reviewing movies for the Xpress a few years ago, it’s been my policy (and a notion I picked up from Ken) to watch as many theatrical releases as possible, especially the great big blockbusters that clog up multiplexes every week. Part of this is necessary for building the movie fan’s greatest asset, a frame of reference, but also to understand what is happening within the world of film at large. As much as I casually despise Star Wars, if George Lucas plopped down Episode VII I’d still watch it, because as much as I might want to ignore its existence, it’d be impossible; there are some things too big, too much of a pop culture behemoth to be ignored, and because art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, bits and pieces are bound to be assimilated into the things I enjoy.
So it was in this spirit that I decided to undertake what I consider to be the most grueling of filmgoing experiences I have partaken of to date: sitting through both Twilight and its brand new sequel, New Moon, back to back, on the opening night of this newest entry into the series. First off, you have to understand that my dealings with the phenomenon known as Twilight have only been peripheral. I missed the first film when it creeped its way into theaters last fall, and I don’t dare pick up one of the Stephenie Meyer’s source novels for fear of my brain melting out of my ears. But these are all assumptions based on hearsay; just the idea of Twilight and its goopy teenage vampire romance was enough to turn me off, because sometimes you just know what’s not for you.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t kept me from simply being fascinated by how far-reaching the trend itself is. I know intelligent, well-read, well-spoken, independent people who I’d never have guessed would love this stuff, but in actuality adore it and its overwrought romance. At the same time, I can’t think of another pop culture curio that attracts as much ire from its detractors as Twilight. Tons of people love Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Spider-Man, but none of these franchises draw near the amount—or the ferocity—of vitriol as Stephenie Meyer’s creation. With all of this in mind—as both a fan of film and a merely inquisitive, curious soul—I decided to experience Twilight for myself with slight hopes I would come out on the other end unscathed.
The popularization of digital technology in major theater chains has brought along with it a nice side effect, in that theaters and studios are now more easily able to run older films that have long since exited theaters. One day, this will hopefully be a boon to film fans, but for now—at least locally—it’s only translated into a Saw marathon and a Thursday night screening of Twilight just before the midnight premiere of New Moon. And this is where I found myself last night, crouched down in my theater seat a couple of rows behind two young ladies sporting tiaras. And as I watched the movie, I’ll have to say I was a bit disappointed. Not because the movie was bad, but because it wasn’t quite as overwhelmingly awful and incompetent as I had built it up in my mind, but this is the danger of expectations I suppose.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Twilight is not good filmmaking by any means. Director Catherine Hardwicke shoots everything in these bland, murky, washed out colors, while using what’s quickly becoming my biggest pet peeve (Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men to one side), this shaky, handheld, faux documentary sort of cinematography. I’m convinced people only use this when they want to fake their way through having style or don’t have a clue how to compose a shot, and Hardwicke’s movie did nothing to convince me otherwise.
Then you have the leads. Kristen Stewart—as the lovesick Bella—spends the entire movie fidgeting around liking she needs a cigarette, but she still comes across better than Robert Pattison, who plays teen vamp heartthrob Edward Cullen. In Twilight, he’s perfected this odd amalgamation of early Christian Slater, Morrissey and a man in dire need of more fiber in his diet. But regardless, the bottom line is that neither performer has any charm or personality, either onscreen or with each other, and their range is pretty much nonexistent.
A lot of this certainly has a good bit to do with their limitations as actors, but the material they’ve been handed does them zero good. I’d like to see an actor—any actor—deliver the line “It’s like you’re my own personal brand of heroin” and not get a laugh out of me. Speaking of chuckles, there’s also Edward’s vampire super powers. I’m not just talking about the oddball vampire mythology Twilight trots out where vampires sparkle like Ziggy Stardust or Liberace’s dinner jacket when they enter sunlight. No, there’s also Edward’s ability to run through the woods really fast like he’s in a Warner Brothers’ cartoon, or scurry up trees like a squirrel, two of the sillier things I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. And don’t get me started on vampire baseball. Really?
But nevertheless, with all these things going against it, I never found it to be the unmitigated mess I had hoped for or been prepared for through general word of mouth. Right after the movie, I tried talking to a good friend about Twilight in an attempt to get a better handle on what the big deal is. She, too, considers herself a fan, but at the same time sees the inherent silliness and cheesiness in all of it, and her answer for it all was, “Well, it’s kind of romantic.”
And that’s definitely the key, the romantic aspect of it all, but I also think the “kind of” part in that statement is very telling. I understand the female fantasy angle of it all—especially in a world where movies are crowded with tales of male empowerment—and the idea that some hunky, mysterious guy would take a liking to you and only, because of something special inside of you only he can see. But at the same time, there’s a level of creepiness to how far Edward goes—he watches Bella sleep, follows here around constantly—but she never finds this odd or disconcerting.
This is probably the most interesting aspect of the films. They’re certainly not engaging as filmmaking, but they do offer up all kinds of pseudo-psychological readings. With Twilight’s immense popularity, is this bizarre supernatural co-dependency what women really want, or is it simply just escapism? I have no answers, but the books and films have taken a lot of condemnation for seemingly promoting these kinds of unhealthy romantic practices. Then there’s New Moon, which has an odd streak of gay subtext running through it.
Before I watched to movie, I had jokingly created a theory that Jacob (Tyler Lautner)—a werewolf—and his werewolf-ness was actually a shrewd bit of gay subtext—this young boy hiding this creature inside of him he was afraid to display publically. All of this was in jest of course (and got me the response, when I mentioned it to a friend, to “stop pretending that Twilight’s real literature”), but I was surprised how much the film bore this out. I mean, you have this teen coming to terms with these bizarre changes in himself as he comes to maturity, that push him away from his friends while he goes to run around the woods with a bunch of shirtless dudes. On top of all this, Jacob even says at one point that his lycanthropy isn’t a “lifestyle choice,” but rather just how he is naturally. Am I reading too much into all this? Of course I am, but with a movie this flimsy and often times corny, you have to find your entertainment somewhere.
Beyond that, there’s little point to the first film, really, other than its existence making New Moon look downright sophisticated in comparison. Since Ken’s review of the film comes out Wednesday and promises to be much more scathing than anything I have to say, I won’t get into specifics as concerns the new film. I will say, however, that director Chris Weitz has a much better grasp of how to make a movie than Hardwicke showed in Twilight. Gone is all the drab gloominess and a good bit of the hokey vampire super powered cheesiness that plagued Twilight; in its place is some actual style.
Unfortunately, this style is used to gussy up a whole lot of inarticulate teenage relationship chit-chat. Actually, if you want to get down to brass tacks, the two movies are virtually the same. Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be some sort of supernatural being, then half a movie of teens floundering around with no idea what to do with themselves. The main difference is that in addition to vampires, we get a great big dose of werewolves, namely in beefy lycan Jacob. Unfortunately they’re of the pantsless variety, though they do burst out of their seemingly unlimited supply of cut-off shorts ad nauseum. The theme for these movies is starting to be that Bella just has really bad luck with relationships and should probably shy away from hooking up with supernatural creatures for a bit (though I do hope there’s a teen Swamp Thing romantic interest in the next movie).
There are a couple of differences between the two films, however, beyond what Weitz brings to the movie. New Moon is incredibly more mopey and infinitely more melodramatic. Imagine a movie based around a combination of the songs “Without You” and “Monster Mash” and you get the idea. But none of this really matters, since the bulk of the movie appears to exist so young girls can hoot and holler at all the shirtless beefcake parading around onscreen like it’s a Chippendale revue.
So, after getting through both of these movies and leaving the theater somewhere around 2:30 a.m., do I now feel like I understand Twilight any better than I did before? Do I understand its immense popularity? While I learned nothing new, it did confirm my original suspicions. Sometimes people just want a sappy romance full of sparkly vampires. It’s as harmless as that, and as long as it continues to be harmless, there’s a good chance I’ll go back to simply not paying attention to it as I had before. Even if the chances of that seem nil.