Catherine Hardwicke knows that adolescence is not pedestrian. She and Nikki Reed made Thirteen a disturbing drama that jolts you into horrified laughter. Adolescence is selfish, self-absorbed, and can be self-destructive. The chemical changes in the brain in teenagers leads to greater risk, to impossibly bad decision-making. Even friendship in teenagers can suffer this poor judgment — keeping secrets that should not be kept. Hardwicke knows this. She’s brought this to life on the screen before. So how, how do we get this stultifyingly uninteresting film?
And why is it so popular?
Four weeks ago I was at open-gym hour at a local gymnastics school. The place was crawling with preschool and kindergarten-aged kids. My kids were tearing around, me trailing along keeping an idle eye on the proceedings. I was chatting in that distracted-parent way with another parent I know. This other parent, T., was blushing, stammering. She was trying to explain why she had a camera with her. I hadn’t paid any attention to the camera, honestly. I mean, I take action-snapshots of my kids when out and send the photos to Grandma. But T. had brought her camera to take a picture of one of the gymnastics coaches. Because, she said, “he looks like Edward Cullen.”
T. is around my age. Maybe a little younger, maybe thirty years old. She is madly, passionately, in love with the Meyer books. She is obsessed with Edward Cullen. She has fought with her husband over her obsession. He wants her to stop reading the books because she spends too much time with a book in her hand. But she won’t stop reading the books, over and over. And I know she’s not the only grown, adult woman who feels this way.
A quick Google search of the phrase “obsessed with Twilight” reveals a world of people who live and breathe Twilight. This pop cult phenom, this I had to try to understand. So, having not read the books, knowing nothing of the story, I took myself to see Twilight.
I walked into the Oakdale 20 multiplex at 12:40 on the day after Christmas, got my nachos and Coke, and settled into my seat as the last of the pre-show advertisements masquerading as entertainment or news flickered off the screen. Glancing around I took note of the audience. The small theater was two-thirds full. I didn’t see any men, not one. The women and girls ranged in age from late teens to mid-fifties. A rough guess showed most of the audience was over thirty years old, there in groups of two or three. Friends, going to catch a show together.
The trailers, as they began, confused me. The first was for Hotel for Dogs, a quirky family comedy about teens who rescue strays. Next was Gran Torino, the Clint Eastwood drama about a war vet who ends up fighting on behalf of his neighborhood. The Unborn, the gruesome horror film by David Goyer, was next. Then the Morris Chestnut romance Not Easily Broken. The final trailer was for the Gary Winick flick, Bride Wars.
At first I couldn’t figure out what the heck these all have in common. But as I stood loading the dishwasher in my kitchen four hours later, the penny dropped. Those are all movies women will go see. I don’t imagine that the same women will see any two of those. But women will see all five. Younger teens and pre-adolescent girls will see Hotel for Dogs, with its spunky heroine Emma Roberts — lead of the film Nancy Drew. Everyone, male and female, will likely see Gran Torino, with it’s critical acclaim and Golden Globe nominations and dramatic cast. The Unborn not only stars Cam Gigandet from Twilight, it stars Odette Yustman from Cloverfield. That gets the twenty- and thirty-something horror fans. For those who are at Twilight because they love romance we have the incredibly attractive Morris Chestnut in a film all about men’s feelings. And Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway draw women in to see their worst wedding nightmares come to life in Bride Wars. A little something for everyone. Horror, romance, female stars, light comedy, serious drama, attractive men — the trailers for Twilight had it all.
I watched this movie fully prepared to be swept up. The lights went down, the credits rolled, Kristen Stewart’s voice-over began to talk about death and I waited to see the thing that had swept away so many. And I waited. And waited.
For those not familiar with the events in Twilight, a recap.
Bella, who likes and gets along with her mom and stepfather, moves across the country to live with her dad. She does this so her mom and stepfather can pursue their goals for a while. Bella and her dad don’t know each other particularly well, but they get along, care about each other, and have a nice relationship of mutual regard even though it’s awkward. Bella goes to the new school where she makes friends pretty easily. Bella gets a crush on a guy who seems to not like her very much, Edward Cullen. The Cullens are considered odd by the local town. Yet they are accepted and tolerated, not attacked or ostracized. Edward seems hot and cold towards Bella. Bella is irritated and fascinated in turn. Edward saves Bella’s life through a supernatural display of strength. Bella figures out he’s a vampire. She meets the Cullen family, who accept her because they are moral, vegetarian, vampires who drink only from animals. Bad vampires come to town killing humans. The bad vampires are warned off by the Cullens and agree to leave. But one of the bad vampires wants to kill Bella. A chase ensues, Bella is injured, the bad vampire is killed, Bella is rescued by Edward, everyone gets what they want. The end.
As plots go, this is pretty straightforward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The plot of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a labyrinthine David Mamet play, and it’s still a good movie. What makes it good is the complex interplay of relationships between Butch, Sundance, and the people in their lives. What makes it good is the slow revelation of depth of character.
As I watched Twilight I thought of another movie about a woman obsessed with a man who wants her but denies himself. The Secretary is a romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. In the film, Gyllenhall’s character, Lee, finds herself at loose ends after her release from some sort of mental hospital where had received therapy for cutting and an accidental suicide attempt. Yet Lee knows perfectly well she doesn’t want to die. Like Bella, Lee has a family that loves her, friends who attempt to support her, she just . . . . she just can’t stand her life. Lee takes employment as the secretary of Mr. Grey. They are attracted to each other and a kinky sexual relationship arises, formed round their relationship as employer and employee. Events occur, Mr. Grey insists this is wrong, it is bad for Lee, he won’t do it any longer. Lee disagrees. She sets out to prove to Mr. Grey that she wants this. That this is not a further form of self-abuse, this relationship with him is, in fact, a vital expression of who she really is. The entire last third of the film is Lee defending and explaining her decision to everyone — most especially Mr. Grey.
I watched Twilight and waited for this moment. I waited, while Bella and Edward did the dance of “come here, come here, come here — get away, get away, get away.” I waited for Bella to decide. But the movie transformed from a story about Bella being suspicious of Edward to being devoted to him without ever showing that moment. We see the fact of Bella’s obsession, but not why she changed her mind.
Roger Ebert pithily reviews Twilight. He also gives it three-and-a-half stars — it’s a case of, “if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll really like it.” About a third of the way into the review Ebert writes: “It’s about a teenage boy trying to practice abstinence, and how, in the heat of the moment, it’s really, really hard. And about a girl who wants to go all the way with him, and doesn’t care what might happen. He’s so beautiful she would do anything for him. She is the embodiment of the sentiment, ‘I’d die for you.’ She is, like many adolescents, a thanatophile.” This much is clear in the film. But Bella never explains herself. Without any reflection, without any motivation, Bella — despite Kristen Stewart’s hard work and good intentions — become a shallow, selfish, self-absorbed twit.
Edward is little better. Robert Pattinson doess what he can, but the makeup and special effects are distracting. The pallid skin and red, red lips detract from his acting. Edward wants to lose control and take pleasure in Bella. This is a problem universal to almost all people in the throes of lust, men and women both. Vampirism is a tried-and-true metaphor for sex, all the way back to Stoker’s Weird Sisters who tie Harker to the bed and lower their heads below his waist. But I’ve rarely seen vampirism-as-sex portrayed as pedestrianly adolescent.
Edward’s stalking is also sadly, sadly pedestrian. He ought to be creepy. He ought to give the audience pause. He is a vampire, and if he screws Bella he will likely kill her. A vampire love story ought to be consuming, compelling, and ought to give the viewer or reader pause while making the seduction plausible. Edward says he is a horrific predator who can’t date Bella. But as convincing warnings go, taking the girl on a supernatural date through the Pacific Northwest isn’t a really frightening experience. Glaring at drunk college guys, ditto.
Bella clearly finds the stalking romantic. She’s seventeen and her heart bleeds to be the center of someone’s — anyone’s — universe. And like many people, Bella confuses someone’s desire to own her for love. This makes for a dramatic plot if the stalker is obviously unsuitable. It’s a plot point if the suitor is dangerous, or his or her family is dangerous. It’s worrying if the desire to possess contains a threat to person or liberty. But Edward is never convincingly frightening on the screen. His vampire-ness is downplayed enough to make him romantic. In doing so, it neuters the threat.
If there’s no threat, what are we left with? Two slightly boring kids — or what pass for kids — who really want to have sex.
Twilight has decent creative credits. Director Catherine Hardwicke made a name for herself in production design, working on cult films such as Tank Girl and 2 Days in the Valley as well as acclaimed hits like Three Kings. But I learned Hardwicke’s name from her work on Thirteen. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, and Nikki Reed, Thirteen is an incredibly raw tale of destructive friendship between two thirteen-year-old girls. The movie was written by its costar Nikki Wood. She was fourteen years old at the time. The awards credits for Thirteen are pretty amazing. Hardwicke can, in fact, make good films. Nikki Wood can, in fact, write and act.
The other actors are no slouches, either. Peter Fascinelli is a much-credited television and movie actor, one of those guys you recognize and have trouble placing. I personally think of him as Mike Dexter from Can’t Hardly Wait, where he did a solid job giving depth to the film’s resident asshole. Anna Kendrick you know from Camp. Taylor Lautner from Love Inc and “My Own Worst Enemy.” Robert Pattinson is obviously Cedric from the Harry Potter films. Billy Burke has over forty credits. (And is not Billie Burke, a name confusion that threw me for a moment.)
And then there’s the lead. Kristen Stewart. You’ve seen Stewart, you really have. You just don’t know her name. Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room. The lead, Maddy, in Catch That Kid. Lucy in In the Land of Women. Jess in The Messengers. Looking at her IMDb page, Stewart has five movies slated to come out in 2009. She deserves it — Kristen Stewart is a solid, emotive actress with good line delivery who lends a determination to her characters’ actions. It’s a shame that her determination is forced, awkwardly, into this boring script. It makes Bella selfish, not strong.
As a vampire movie, the vampires are neutered and harmlessly boring. As a romance, the entire relationship is based on stalking. As a character study, the characters are depthless and opaque. I left the theater bemused, shaking my head. I still don’t understand why the Twilight movie is popular. Why is this a pop cult phenom? And why, disturbingly, is it a pop cult phenom built on almost exclusively on women?
I saw T. today. Our families met up for a New Year’s Day outing with the kids. And I wanted to ask her — is it that you think the stalking is romantic? Do you want, yearn, to be possessed as Edward possesses Bella? Is Bella who you identify with? Why do you want to be like her? Do you want something — anything, no matter how pedestrian and unhealthy — in your life that gives you passion, that gives you a cause to lose yourself in? Why is Bella’s abdication of self to Edward romantic or sexy? Is giving up everything for someone else romantic?
If you give up your entire self and the relationship ends — who are you, when it’s over?