Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twilight of the Post Ironic Vampire

Adults are often accused of forgetting what it's like to be a teenager, usually by a teenager they're trying to ground.  But it's a truth rarely acknowledged that no adult ever actually forgets.  Repress, certainly, but forget?  Does a soldier forget basic training?  We bury the memories under 50 miles of concrete, and strive for the appearance of dispassionate distance.  If we didn't, we'd stop reproducing, or end our tweener children's lives with mercy killings rather than forcing them to suffer the horror that is adolescence.

My mother once said to me that the age of twelve is the cruelest age for parents.  At 12 children begin to show real evidence of the delightful people they will become, and just when a parent begins to think, wow, look at this marvelous creature I've raised, the adolescence fairies come and steal it away.  Suddenly children don't know who, or what, they are any more.  Things in which one has always found delight suddenly become stupid. The body one never even thought about before becomes a strange, clumsy, smelly, hairy casing.  Reliable friends transform into strangers. 

When you don't know who in the hell you are, no sign from the universe, be it a cross glance from a teacher or an un-ringing phone, is insignificant.  Since rebelling against one's parents is actually a necessary part of this transformation, the very people upon whom one has always relied for guidance become useless.  Parents suggest ridiculous things like having a little perspective, but there's no such thing as perspective when you're in unmapped territory.  And just when you've embarked into this completely foreign world, your body adds a brand new element to the mix: lust.

Any period of life that is so overwrought begs to be elevated (or reduced?) to artistic interpretation through metaphor.  While I'm sure that Shakespeare would spin in his grave at the thought, for all the centuries of Romeos & Juliets, Abelards & Heloises and Cathys & Heathcliffs, the simple tale of a good girl falling ass over teakettle for a vampire is as fine a metaphor for adolescent angst as any.  

I cut my eyeteeth on vampire fandom with Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Officially, I was probably too old to be so enraptured by the travails of a teenage girl with the literal weight of the world on her shoulders and her on again/off again romance with a 240 year old vampire with a soul (the off part generally coinciding with those times when his soul, due to various malevolent causes, would go missing).  

But I loved the show, still do, because it was funny and clever and incredibly well written.  It's hard to explain to any logical minded person that this show about slaying the legions of doom with stakes and wicked one liners was the most realistic show about high school ever.  But while the humor and monsters provided the leavening, the truth Buffy so universally acknowledged was that high school is hell, and the stakes really are life and death.  In a surreal underscoring of this point, when I left the Friday night showing of Twilight, NPR was broadcasting a story about Leanne Wolf, an Irish teenager who took her life after years of bullying by classmates.  So much for the anesthesia of perspective.   

The Twilight series of books and now film take this now modern classic tale of girl/vampire romance, some would say was perfected by Joss Whedon, and strips it of any ironic detachment.  This is full on romantic melodrama, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  

The director, Catherine Hardwicke, earned her reputation with a brutal unblinking look at the perils of adolescence with the film Thirteen.  Not for the faint of heart, nor, I would even say parents of teenage girls who wish to sleep again, ever, Thirteen shows the painful transformation of a quiet, Barbie playing girl (what was it my Mom said about the age of 12?) into an angry, out of control teenager experimenting with drugs, sex and petty crime, to the utter bewilderment of her mother.  In a weird way, this makes Hardwicke an obvious choice to make a film about teen angst gone to mythic proportions.  

Bella is a good, almost hyper responsible, teenager who moves to the small cloudy town of Forks, WA to live with her Dad.  The relocation is due to the fact that her sweet but flaky Mother has married a minor league baseball player and longs to follow him on the road.  Bella gets along with her parents, both of them, and even her stepfather.  She has no apparent unresolved Mommy or Daddy issues.  She's a good student and a responsible friend, making her, in Hollywood terms, practically a blank slate, ready to be writ upon.  

The writer soon appears in the form of Edward, quiet member of a soulful clan of vampires who have moved to this remote rural location to form the vampire version of a peaceful vegan commune.  They only eat animals and never kill people.  They avoid the sun not because it causes them to burst into flame, but because it causes their skin to glimmer like disco balls, which might alert the local populace to the fact that they're not really human.  In the book, this sparkling transformation sounds quite impressive but sadly, in the movie, it ends up looking like Edward had an unfortunate accident in a gay club with a glitter canon. 

Bella is drawn to quiet, brooding Edward because, well, have you seen him?  He's totally dreamy.  Edward is drawn to Bella because, apparently, to his hyper sensitive vampire senses, her pheromonal smell is overpowering to him.  To me, this idea of an irresistible scent conjures up an aromatic image of crispy bacon and cinnamon toast but, as the movie helpfully if rather drably shorthands for us, is like his own personal brand of heroin.  Who knew heroin smelled so nice?  

Although Edward finds himself unable to stay away from Bella, due a great deal to her habit of almost accidentally dying in a variety of ways which demand rescue, he can hardly bring himself to even kiss her, though he longs to, as does she.  But Edward responsibly fears that to kiss her might unleash the demon inside him, killing Bella in the process.  Edward loves Bella so much, he cannot bear to kill her, even if it meant he could turn her into his contented vampire bride.  

To practical Bella, however, being turned into Edward's contented vampire bride seems like an obvious solution to their dilemma.  After all, they could totally make out all the time then, for eternity.  Edward's dilemma is an interesting one.  He recognizes that what he loves about Bella is, in fact, her humanity (it's not clear to me if her cinnamon toast & bacon...I mean heroin...perfume would evaporate upon her turning into a vampire, but it certainly seems possible).  

The parallels to the loss of virginity seem way too obvious to mention, but they are at the heart of this are they not?  Stripped of romanticism, Edward might get to enjoy one crazed night of passion with the virgin Bella only to awake to an eternity of (now demonized?) nagging vampire wife Bella.  I'm not saying...I'm just saying.  Did I mention Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, is Mormon?  I don't know why I just thought of that.    

My post-adolescent adult perspective finds much to be troubled by in the Twilight series, but I have to concede that Meyer has tapped in to some very elemental emotional fantasies with this series.  What woman (be honest) has not fantasized about having a man madly, irresistibly, passionately  enthralled by us.  Not even because of our looks or gifts or skills but simply because we are.  It would certainly take the pressure off.  

As much as I long to roll my eyes at Bella's compulsion to literally throw her life away to keep Edward close, I find myself remembering the time a woman I knew told me that she was considering allowing her boyfriend, whom she'd been with for only a few months, to infect her with his herpes, just to make things "easier".  If they were going to be together "forever" she couldn't imagine he'd be willing to put up with condoms and irregular sex "forever".  Considering this woman had at least two decades on Bella, I can't deny that women well beyond adolescence often consider the strangest things to be reasonable sacrifices.   

But jeez, why so serious?  Twilight was essentially and undoubtedly not made for me.  It was made for the hundreds of teen girls watching the movie with me, and even, with its vampiric action, the teen boys who came with them.  I was wracking my brain to remember what the Twilight of my own teen generation might have been.  The best I could come up with was Sixteen Candles which, while great, was hardly the Cathy and Heathcliff for a new generation.  Twilight is well directed and acted and as well written as it could be considering the source material.      

The film has a few issues which only someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest would probably care to notice.  The town of Forks, or at least its high school, has been transformed into a veritable UN of hip multicultural ethnicity.  Not so much a stretch for a Seattle high school, but perhaps startling for a town that's at least 80% genetically pale.  Of course, this Disneyesque Small World of nations only serves to emphasize the startling paleness of the marble skinned Cullen family.  In (I can't believe I'm using this term) reality, should a family of incredibly pale people wish to move someplace where it rains all the time, they probably couldn't find a better place to go unnoticed than the actual town of Forks, but Hollywood has placed them in a Benneton ad, the better to emphasize their exquisite alabaster cheekbones.

Perhaps because I was so desperate for a shock of Whedonesque irony, I did find myself laughing at the Sheriff announcing that the mysterious barefoot killers (who we all know to be evil, non vegan, vampires) have "moved south" and are "Kitsap County's problem now".  As someone who was once marooned for two years in the verdant purgatory that is Kitsap County, I could only think that two marauding vampires would still be the least of their problems, well behind payday at Toy's Topless and any week an aircraft carrier is in town.  But these are mere quibbles.  If this movie is for you, and you already know who you are, enjoy.  There will be plenty of time for adult perspective later.  


Epilogue - one of the fun things about going to a movie like this is getting to hear the teen barometer to upcoming previews.  Based on the responses I heard from the audience, it looks like  Will Smith's Seven Pounds gets rapt attention from the teens, as does trippy actioner Push.  Omen inspired The Unborn had them gasping, ew-ing and hiding their eyes, and the Wayans Brothers Dance Flick already has them rolling in the aisles.  Based on the laughter mixed with impatient snorts I think we can predict that Tom Cruise's Valkyrie is dead on arrival.  Someone needs to tell the studios that World War II is like, so over, and so is Tom Cruise.  The Nic Cage actioner Knowing, about a sheet of numbers from the past which seem to predict the future, proves that, in America at least, math sucks and no distraction from Nic's toupee is going to change that.  

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