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 phraseobsessed 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?

20 Responses

  1. A-freaking-men. As a bloke I’ve avoided this madness, but thanks to my sister I’ve learnt second hand about the phenom. Her description of the Twilight fandom was thus:

    “Take the most obsessive of the Harry Potter fangirls at the height of it’s fame and multiply by 10.”

    I decided to avoid.

  2. And yet, the parts of the movie I enjoyed were about Bella’s high school friends – interesting and vital characters – and the way the director showed them fading into the background for Bella, while Edward took up her entire view. The tension in the Cullen family was great, too – Carlisle immediately (and rather creepily) welcoming Bella as “part of the family now”, which is serious business when your family is eternal, and Rosalie’s perfectly good arguments about danger swept aside in the face of Carlisle’s encouragement of Edward’s possession of Bella. Carlisle then participates in her deceiving her own father (and later her mother) because of dangers that the Cullen family brought on her. She’s one of them, now, even though she isn’t, and complicit in their secrets. To Carlisle and Edward, it doesn’t really matter if she becomes a vampire now or later, because she is in the family now. Bella, of course, is impatient, but they have the long view.

    I found it really creepy (and I think the director went with this too, judging from the shots of her human friends literally fading into the background) that everything that tied Bella and Edward closer, no matter how threatening, was eagerly grabbed by Bella – she is so devoted to him, despite his demurral, that she really is carving away any other possibilities in her life, and I don’t just mean the romantic.

  3. @lilacsigil

    You know, I agree with this — but I couldn’t see Bella’s motivations for this. Without a look at her motivations, I found her shallow and uninteresting. I did think Carlisle was interesting, but not given enough screen time to make his threat real. And, as the neuterer-in-chief, I sort of blame him for making Edward . . . bland.

    Is this something that is made richer and more interesting if one knows the books?

  4. No idea, I haven’t read the books and really, really don’t want to! I really didn’t understand the bit where Carlisle stops Edward killing the bad guy then sends all his other kids off to do it, either. I saw Bella more as a potentially interesting person than an actually interesting person, someone who has cut off any potential she showed at the start of the movie (she was mature about her mother and step-father’s choices, she tried to get along with her dad and re-connect with people she used to know as a child, she was starting to make friends with a quirky and creative bunch of kids…then blammo, it all stops dead.)

  5. @lilacsigil

    “(she was mature about her mother and step-father’s choices, she tried to get along with her dad and re-connect with people she used to know as a child, she was starting to make friends with a quirky and creative bunch of kids…then blammo, it all stops dead.)”

    That’s such a good, and much less wordy, way of putting it.

  6. @mymatedave

    Is your sister in the fandom? On the edges of it? Does *she* understand what the attraction is?

  7. I remember having a reaction close to this one when I saw Labyrinth for the first time. I could see the potential creepiness and horror of the film but thought it became a parody of itself.

    w/r/t the books — the first is OK, not great, the rest are progressively worse, I thought. I read Westerfield’s _Uglies_ at the same time (you might remember, my mom was a YA librarian until she retired a couple of years ago) and was so drawn into that series that I bought the hardcovers. But these… I want you! But I can’t have you! But I want you! But I can’t have you! And ON and ON and ON.

    I have friends, too, who enjoy these books past where I would expect them to. One in particular is quite conservative and says she likes the “realistic portrayal of teenage sexuality without promiscuity.” Which, I could maybe see, if you were living those values. But I’m not.

  8. “Is this something that is made richer and more interesting if one knows the books?”

    No*. The bit of lilacsigil’s latest post that you quoted sums up what happens in the books too, although there’s a little more annoying and self-absorbed inner monologue when the reader is in Bella’s head all the time.

    *Or, well, maybe. I found Carlisle belief in God and Heaven a bit difficult to reconcile with him making vampires (because he was lonely and I guess wanted to save people — but that’s the part I have trouble with) because shouldn’t he believe that they’ll go to a better place if they die, rather than become a vampire? It doesn’t sound like the movie mentions that, though it’s not explored in the books either, except to give Carlisle motivation for staying “vegetarian” (despite creating all these vampires). It’s his moral greyness that I thought made him marginally more interesting, but it doesn’t get developed in any way, mostly to make way for Edward and Bella’s relationship and what seems to me to be Meyer’s inclination to keep her good characters “pure”/without any real flaws — which adds to the blandness.

    “I saw Bella more as a potentially interesting person than an actually interesting person”

    That’s how I found pretty much ALL of Meyer’s characters. (In the books; I haven’t seen the movie. It sounds like the secondary characters are three dimensional in the movie, at least.)

  9. @Liz

    “One in particular is quite conservative and says she likes the “realistic portrayal of teenage sexuality without promiscuity.” Which, I could maybe see, if you were living those values. But I’m not.”

    Oooh, that’s really interesting. I didn’t think to look at it that way . . .

  10. @handyhunter

    If the movie contained *anything* about Carlisle and God, it went by too quick for me to notice it. He made the others vampires because he was lonely, is I think the explanation . . .

  11. For such female-centric fiction (and I agree, it is), the books are very popular with all sorts of teens I see in the junior and senior high schools – boys and girls.

    I think the boys are drawn to the werewolves, personally.

    so – there’s a trope to consider: werewolves are to boys as vampirism is to girls.

  12. @ Windy
    “werewolves are to boys as vampirism is to girls.”

    Oh, wow. I had never thought about that, but now that you’ve said it, it makes so much sense. It’s making my brain fizz in interesting ways, but I’m having trouble making it gel, dangit.

  13. @Windy @Mouse — Werewolves are fundamentally about being afraid of what you’ll DO, vampires are about being afraid of what you WANT.

  14. Sig, you might find the commentary at this site interesting:

    Compares the worldview between the ‘fairly progressive’ Harry Potter books and the ‘fairly conservative’ Twilight books. Admittedly I haven’t read either series, but found the comments on how classes are defined in fantasy worlds particularly cool.

  15. THAT IS FASCINATING. Also, I didn’t know Meyer is a conservative religious sort, or that Rowling is a progressive. Interesting, thank you!

  16. One more re: Meyer and Mormonism:

    In a retelling of the book plot, the writer points out that the description of Edward is pretty much = the founder of Mormonism.

  17. “Twilight” the book is popular because it’s borderline erotica. Most of the teens obsessed with the book have never read erotica before, and their inner-sexual-selves crave for more of the purple prose found within the book.

    Stephenie Meyers uses too many adjectives, but the teens and adults, alike, love that.

    Twilight is also popular because of the protagonist – err, shall I say – Edward. Girls just love him and can’t get enough of him because he’s “perfect,” tall, “handsome,” and obsessed with Bella, an “average” girl who has many “flaws” (but she really only has one flaw, which is being flighty (DUH! Mary Sue). They want a man who is as committed as Edward is committed to Bella. They want a perfect man.

    And that’s the problem.

    There is no such thing as a perfect man.

    I cannot stand Twilight. The book is so insulting to both men and women.

    Bella gives up who she is in order to be with Edward.

    Edward is a creepy stalker. That is NOT love. That is a CREEPY STALKER.

    And, I can go on and on about why I hate Twilight, but I’d rather not. Been there, done that. ::screams::

  18. Nice to meet you, Sigrid~

    I think I’ve figured it out; I’ve know a group or two that will defend the book with their lives, and I was forced to read the first two books by a friend of mine. As it’s been said before, Edward appears to be the perfect guy, who cares for Bella above anything else, is perfectly beautiful and attractive in the usual dark, lusty way vampires are, and, well, he’s supernatural, and can offer experiences and dreams unlike anyone else. He understands her, and loves her. Those details cover somewhere between most and all of what girls consider their *dream guy*.

    More than that, though, I think this whole phenom coincides with my Japanophile theory. I’ve come to find that Japanese manga and anime are extremely popular, often intertwining with groups like the rabid Twilight fans. The art especially is everywhere; the artists my age (that I know, at least, though I know quite a few) hardly draw people any other way. My theory is that the style, having originated from Japan, reflects the culture of its birthplace. They have a very strict set of cultural guidelines and etiquette, so these art forms were used as an escape (because we all have those sorts of feelings, whether we wish to or not; the Japanese couldn’t express those feelings publicly, so alternatively, the feelings almost drip off of their art and literature). This is all well and good for them, but when the art came to America and Europe, you have all the same overly-emotive, overly-lustful art and literature, only without the built in inhibitions and social guidelines. Our culture drinks the big, emotive eyes and the not-even-remotely-proportionate anatomy like a sponge, but unlike the Japanese, we never shut off, and have no reason to hide it. Once the comics became a craze of sorts, people didn’t even notice their inhibitions lowering; suddenly, it’s fine to see girls in abnormally short skirts and various other things that defy the laws of gravity, and why? Because everyone reads these comics. Because the characters are perfect; they… sparkle. Because the characters make you want to want it, to turn out Happy, for the guy to get the girl or vice versa. it doesn’t take too long; you read too much of it, and you start thinking with your heart and your body before you think with your head, and you don’t even realize it.

    So, Edward sparkles (literally, actually). He’s overly emotive, and he’s perfect; just like Kyo, Yuki, Ichigo, L, Naruto, Sasuke, on and on and on… I could go all day, listing all the characters my friends crush on, and those are just the males. In all honesty, I find Edward to be the perfect example of this; because another thing vampires are symbols of are the internal battle of right and wrong. All the power to do good, but all the desire to do evil, and the resistance thereof. But the whole story drops that in a noticeable way; the story makes you want them to give in.

    But, err.. Sorry for rambling~

  19. seems likely that they will come out with a Twilight sequel pretty soon, there’s a crazy lot of ticket sales at stake

  20. Great critique!

    I caught a slight mistake, though.

    When talking about the cast for Thirteen, Nikki’s last name gets switched with Evan Rachel’s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: