Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The "Twilight" Moan (By Templeton Moss)

Stories about vampires and humans loving one another are hardly new. In the consummate vampire tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Count falls madly in love with the human Mina, and tries to make her his bride, only to be thwarted in the most anticlimactic final scene in literary history (they stabbed him while he was asleep. Very heroic). In popular culture, this motif was applied most successfully by Joss Whedon when the remorseful Angel (the first vampire in history to have a human soul) falls for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Their relationship, like all other such relationships, is ultimately doomed making it a popular vehicle for tragic romance in modern literature.

And, yes, TV shows count as literature. If a writer wrote it, it’s literature. Especially if that writer is Joss “Oh my God!” Whedon.

But today, in these early years of the third millennium, the vampire/human love story has taken on new life thanks to the pen of Stephanie Meyer who, with her Twilight books and the subsequent film adaptations, has re-imagined the story as a teen-friendly melodrama with action and romance. She has, claim many, taken some unacceptable liberties with the mythos and laws governing the habits and practices of vampires, changing them, through the character of Edward Cullen, into soft, cuddly, sparkly animals who are very spiritual and loving.

Needless to say, these stories have been widely ridiculed by peoples in all walks of life.

I admit, with no small amount of shame, that I too joined in the lambasting of Ms. Meyer’s world and works. My main complaint was the fact that Joss was able to do the same thing without totally rewriting the rules of vampirism and it was excellent writing. As the books are often found on the teen lit shelves at Barnes and Noble, I assumed I would not find the same level of humor and sophistication from the chronicles of Edward and Bella.

But then it occurred to me: Isn’t it totally unfair of me to criticize these stories without checking them out for myself? Of course it is, and I didn’t want to be one of these people who jump to conclusions about someone else’s artistic efforts. I know that if someone judged my writing without at least reading it first, I would feel myself ill-used. So, I recorded a cable screening of the film adaptation on my DVR and sat down to watch it yesterday, keeping my mind open to what I might see and hear.

Again, in the interest of fairness: Here be spoilers.

The film opens with moody outcast Bella Swan who moves from sunny Phoenix, Arizona to a small town in rainy Washington State, which is almost perpetually under cloud cover. There the attractive (if unusually pale) Bella is immediately welcomed into the community with open arms. The first person her age she meets is a very nice Native American boy from the local reservation called Jacob, but he doesn’t go to her school. Luckily, when she does arrive at school, lots of nice kids make friends with her and include her in their group. Putting aside for the fact that, no matter how hot someone is, nobody makes that many friends on day one at a new school, you would think that this would make Bella happy, right?


For no reason that the film explains, Bella doesn’t seem to care about being well-liked by her classmates, loved by her father and otherwise made to feel accepted. Since acceptance is the main ambition behind most teenage action, it is a mystery how these stories have reached such a wide audience.

It is at this point in the story that we are introduced to the Cullen family. Evidently, Dr. Cullen is the patriarch and he had adopted a lot of kids who are all mysterious, pale, and generally unsettle the population of the school (especially as some of them seem to be “together” which, even given the knowledge that they’re not biologically related, is a little icky). The exception is Edward, described by one of Bella’s new friends as “gorgeous, obviously!” This I don’t understand because, to my eyes, Robert Pattinson looks like someone who has just gotten over a terrible, debilitating disease and was then immediately struck several times in the face with a two-by-four. Of course, I’m writing this from a male perspective, so maybe women are seeing something I’m not. In any case, Bella becomes fascinated with Edward, though he seems openly disdainful of her.

After seeing a few examples of strange behavior from Edward, including traits that can only be described as “super speed” and “super strength,” Bella begins to suspect something. Her research leads her to the self-evident conclusion which it nevertheless takes her close to forty-five minutes to reach: Edward is a vampire. She confronts him on this and he tells her the story. How Dr. Cullen is a vampire who, on several occasions since the early 1900’s, has been “rescuing” people on the verge of death by turning them into vampires. This is not easy, as the taste of human blood effects vampires in much the same way it effects sharks, and it takes a lot of restraint to just turn someone, rather than going to town on them like a big, person-shaped juice box.

Yeah, that was kind of gross, huh? Sorry.

Anyway, Edward explains that he and his “siblings” eat only animal blood and never kill humans. “It’s like a human living on tofu,” Edward explains. “It gives you strength, but you’re never really satisfied.” He also takes Bella up a hill, above the clouds, so she can see him in direct sunlight, which is the point where most vampire aficionados (and me) first begin to cry foul…

He sparkles.

In direct sunlight, Ms. Meyer would have us believe, a vampire’s skin sparkles like diamonds. Every other writer in the history of vampires says they turn to dust in the sun, but Edward looks like the front window of Tiffany’s. This, he explains, is why his people avoid the sun. Because everyone would know what they are.

Really? If I saw a dude sparkling, I wouldn’t think “vampire.” I’d just assume he rubbed himself with that diamond stuff from Arrested Development…remember? That body lotion with diamonds in it? Tobias covered himself with it to spy on Lindsay? Anyone? Okay, never mind.

So Bella finds herself hopelessly in love (or what melodramatic teenagers call love) with Edward…Who, in the space of exactly one dialogueless scene depicting he and Bella lying on the grass together, has completely changed. Before he was very brooding and serious, “We can’t be friends,” and “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you,” and “I’m a killer.” Now, all of a sudden, he’s joking about how he’s going to hell and making light, careless remarks about his family of vampires. One is inclined to hope that there is at least a chapter or two in the novel which explains this transformation but which, somehow, didn’t make it to the film. But, for whatever reason, the idea of her new boyfriend suddenly losing control and devouring her is laughed about, despite having been established as a very real possibility.

Their increasingly disturbing relationship continues to develop as only a relationship between two moody teens in a movie can. Meanwhile, Bella’s father, the local chief of police, is investigating what looks, at any rate, like an animal attack. It's not until he discovers human footprints in his investigation that the trouble starts. It just so happens that there is a group of “evil” vampires (led by, apparently, the only black person in the city) who frequently cause trouble for the Cullens. When they discover that Bella is hanging out with Edward and his family, one of these bad guys, name of James, decides it would be a lot of fun to hunt and kill her.

At last! Over an hour into the movie and something exciting finally happens.

So, the chase is on. The Cullens split up to hide Bella and prepare to fight and kill James the Bad Vampire and his girlfriend (which, admittedly, is pretty cool of them to do for someone they only just met). Quite how they decided that a luxury hotel was the most logical hiding place, I can’t say. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter where they decide to wait for the inevitable gruesome death at the hands of a killing machine because Bella is lured out of hiding to save her mother who, it turns out, is in no danger whatever. It was all a trick to lure Bella to her old ballet studio in Phoenix, which looks more like a cathedral than the kind of studio a public school student could afford to go to.

Also, since Ms. Meyer decided that vampires do have reflections (again, in flat contradiction to virtually everything ever written about them before now), it’s unclear why a studio full of mirrors was chosen for the final battle scene, except that the broken glass makes it easy for Bella to get cut and bleed, though the same thing could’ve been accomplished in a rose garden or any number of dangerous locations. In any event, Edward and his family defeat the evil vampire, but not before he gets a bite of Bella. His venom (which is a thing vampires have all of a sudden) is coursing through Bella’s body and she’s losing a lot of blood…

So there’s a choice to be made.

Edward does manage to save her life without turning her into a vampire…for some reason. Personally, based on her previous behavior, I can’t help but wonder if Bella wouldn’t be happier as a vampire. I mean, heck, she’s almost there already. She’s a pale, moody outcast (by choice, mind you), a vegetarian, and she has what is, apparently, the most important part of being a vampire: A bountiful supply of estrogen! I kept hoping Sarah Michelle Gellar would turn up and put Edward out of my misery, but, let’s face it, Xander could take this wimp!

When she wakes up in the hospital, Edward says they have to be apart. He’s obviously been thinking about it for a long time, feels very strongly about it…so, it makes perfect sense that Bella is able to change his mind by saying “No!” sixteen times. I’m not even sure why they included that scene if that’s all it was going to amount to. But Bella and Edward go to the Monte Carlo themed prom (cuz that has symbolic relevance to the rest of the story!) where Jacob warns her about Edward, and there is some fairly clumsy foreshadowing to Jacob’s role as Edward’s werewolf rival in future installments. Then, at the dance, Bella says she will always want to be with Edward and basically agrees with my point from before that she wants to be a vampire. Edward, finally showing the wisdom that comes with his advanced age, refuses to turn her into a monster, but not after some dialogue which could’ve been a watered-down version of about seven episodes of Buffy.

Thus, the movie (and two precious hours of my life I’ll never see again) comes to an end. The events are wrapped up neatly, the story arc is complete, but the groundwork for the sequels has been laid and those who wish to can enjoy many more adventures with Edward, Bella and the other stultifying boring teenagers they are, for some reason, so entranced by. I am given to understand that Ms. Meyer wrote another novel, which is basically this first one from Edward’s point of view rather than Bella’s. I for one would rather see the story from the point of view of Bella’s friends at school who, while not possessed of special powers, or as hot as the two leads, are at least interesting.

The truth is there’s really nothing technically wrong with the story. And the casting is actually ideal. I was also impressed to learn that British actor Robert Pattinson was able to perfect his American accent without coaching. Plus that bit with the apple was pretty cool. It’s guilty of a few “teeny-flick” transgressions, but the same can be said for any drama aimed at pubescent boys and girls who don’t understand Shakespeare because his plays are taught wrong in our schools (which is another tirade for another day). So why am I not rushing out to buy my copy of the sequel and jump on the bandwagon?

Because, while the story works on the most technical of levels, it fails artistically. How much of this is due to the transition from page to screen, I can’t say and, honestly, don’t care. The casting may be ideal, but that’s because the characters are, almost without exception, entirely two-dimensional and thoroughly dull. At no point did they engage me on any kind of personal level and even when Bella was hanging between death and becoming one of the grateful undead (yeah I did) I didn’t really care one way or the other. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that, at the very least, a writer should see to it that the audience cares whether the good guy lives or dies.

Also, and I realize that I’m not exactly an expert on the mythology of the vampire—I’ve seen the movies and read the stories, but I haven’t made what could be called an “exhaustive” study of the—but I’m more than usually certain that, if there were such a thing as vampires, they would not play freaking baseball!!

In conclusion, the movie was not as terrible as I was expecting, but still pretty awful. On the other hand, that’s all it is: A bad movie. It’s not exactly dangerous, and, if anything, it might encourage young people to read and seek out more vampire stories (like the oft-cited and infinitely superior Buffy, for example). And, as Craig Ferguson so wisely said on his TV show lately, he’s done getting mad at stuff that’s not for him. At twenty-seven, I’m outside the scope of these stories’ target audience, so I can’t get too pissed off about them (though, as this essay will show, I have no trouble getting sarcastic). If dumb teenage girls (cuz, let’s face it, you won’t see this book in too many football players’ lockers) want to waste their time on these stories, I’m just going to have to live with that, and hope that they’ll grow out of the “I kissed a vampire and I liked it” phase as they get older. The best way I, as an artist in my own right, can fight this wave of highly-acclaimed mediocrity is to keep producing quality fiction, as I do every week at my own site, “Once Upon a Time and Long Ago.”

I know, maybe fairy tales aren’t your cup of tea, but put it this way: It can’t be worse than Twilight!

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