Sunday, November 27, 2011

Twilight:Breaking Dawn I

I have a confession. I have seen every Twilight film the weekend of its release, more often than not, on the Friday. Yes, in the theaters. Yes, Newport cineplex, which in spite of encroaching gentrification, still glistens with an unmistakable ghetto-fabulous sheen that is, in equal parts, both refreshing and annoying.
I was in a sold-out theater filled with pre & post pubescent girls last Friday for Twilight Breaking Dawn I. Unlike other horror films, often packed with teenagers on opening day, there was no rowdiness, talking or texting etc. during the movie. At Twilight the quiet devotion and mesmerized attention these girls displayed resembled morning vespers at a cloistered convent, interrupted by loud sighs and titters when the vampire or the wolf-boy took off their shirts. Want to see well behaved teenage and pre-teen girls at the cinema? Go to opening day of a Twilight movie.  
I love Vampire films. It’s a genre I’ve followed and studied. The best recent Vampire film is Let the Right One In, whose American re-make, The Right One was nothalf bad. A recent addition to the genre that should have gotten a better audience was 30 Days of Night.
Son of Dracula, a Universal Horror that was a quasi sequel to Todd Browning’s Dracula is one of my favorites. Starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as the count, the film takes place in a Louisiana planation. Dracula moves to the new world under the name of Count Alucard (read it backwards) because he has fallen in love and turned into a vampire the southern belle who has inherited the swampy estate. The woman turns the tables on the Count; she wants to turn into a vampire her long term boyfriend, so they can live together forever and never grow old. The boyfriend winds up slaying both the count and the girlfriend. Why? Because vampirism is EVIL!!!
In the original Dracula, the Count turns Lucy, a friend of his real target, Mina into a vampire who wanders London sucking the blood of Children before Van Helsing  slays her. Two vampires exist at the same time, creating in a sense, a nosferatu community, at least a coven (he also has three undead wives he abandoned in Translyvannia).  
In Son, turning the love interest of the count into a femme fatale solidifies the concept of a world of vampires. Vampires no longer were bound by conflicts with mortals; they could have conflicts among themselves. This idea further evolved in the Hammer films, where one bite from Christopher Lee was enough – the concept was so rich there was a non-Lee Hammer entry into the vampire genre called Brides of Dracula, not the plural. The novels of Anne Rice, the Blade Trilogy, the truly awesome After Dark to proto-Twilight flicks like the Lost boys or more recently, Underworld (I saw a trailer for another sequel to the action-packed, relentlessly incoherent vamp vs. werewolf saga). 
Vampires live and die by rules, which change for each story teller. The need for blood, the not-dying, the stake in the heart, crucifixes, all the various details shift.  As religion became less popular, seems the cross as kryptonite weakness has gone the way of Limbo, but still there are rules to the universe and with rules become social mores thus the community of vampires often have cliques and rivalries. What started as clever pulpy twist on Dracula, made by that most pulpy of genre film studios, Universal, has expanded into a world in and of itself, with little to no relation to the real world. Since the struggle of competing groups for power always resembles High School, why not put the beings who never age in an actual high school where they can meet a precocious, wise beyond her years teen starlet?  

As vampire films they’re terrible. As vampire rules go, the ability to walk in the sunlight and have your skin glitters is really ludicrous. I’m not an Anne Rice fan and while I like the idea a vampire can sustain themselves on non-human blood, I do not like the idea of vampires who are not monsters. But we live in different times. What I do like about the Twilight films is the high school part, they take being a teenager seriously. I wish I was happier when I was a teenager. But I remember when so many things were new, important, when the world revolved around me and my problems, my friend’s problems, and my problems with my friend’s problems. The strength of the Twilight films is the teenager experience is not dismissed or made into camp, turned into laughs. There is no condescension about the experience. I find this enriching, if forgettable entertainment – the opposite impact that being a teenager has on life.
Forgettable, yes. Very. I don’t quite remember these movies. I have seen all of them, there are four now, but I can’t tell you the specifics of each. Oh, the first one had that great scene where the vamps enter the high school cafeteria and its love at first sight for this 21st century Juliet & Romeo. And the establishment of the relationships between the vampires and the Native American werewolves (see MGM’s Return of the Vampire, where Bela as Dracula in everything but name (copyright laws) has a werewolf accomplice). The details of each film blur.  Bella, the twilight girl, dated Jacob and hung out with the Native Americans for a while; another one had a trip to Europe where Dakota Fanning was a vampire queen. Teenage rumbles were in a few. These movies are cotton candy. You eat cotton candy at the fair. You remember the fair and since you eat cotton candy at the fair you remember eating cotton candy. Sugary and fun to eat – what else is there to remember about cotton candy, besides the fair?

Vampire films are not typical horror films; while the monster can be horrifying, they are more often merely macabre than actually scary. When successful they also create an unnerving, creepy atmosphere. The Todd Browning Dracula and Marnu’s Nosferatu create that atmosphere successfully, as did Let The Right One In, both original and remake. The Lost Boys, probably the most apparent antecedent to the Twilight tetralogy, barely had anything unnerving or creepy, suspense of any kind was absent. Of course, the director, the guy who killed Batman in the late 90s and made one of the worst films ever made, Falling Down (the one where Michael Douglas, in a performance that calls for pineapples and cloves, spreads havoc because he can’t breakfast at a faux McDonalds), so you can’t really expect a suitable Vampire film from this hack. But Lost Boys was memorable and had a great publicity campaign – sleep all day, party all night, never grow old.
The Twilight films are not overly creepy; it’s all about teen drama and re-enactments of Sharks versus Jets scenarios, between the werewolves and the pallid blood suckers, or the good vamps against the bad vamps. But they are subconsciously creepy because of the way the material addresses sex. Vampirism has always a metaphor for sex.
In the original Dracula, vampirism was the threat against Victorian society (read Dracula Year Ano, which brilliantly develops this idea into a freak-out, way too much fun for a vampire novel, novel)). Who can forget Stoker’s brilliant scene where Dracula, with his grotesquely long fingernails, slices a wound into his chest, which Mina in his thrall, drinks from – drinking nosferatu blood is how you become a vampire – while her fiancĂ© hypnotized watches. Rice most often used Vampirism for homoerotic metaphors. Twilight it is sex and the loss of virginity.  Bella is a virgin and wants to become a vampire, but her beloved doesn’t want to go all the way in either way. The compassionate conservative family are actually self-hating vampires, because the writer believes sex is dirty and dangerous. Family values over sexual desire, seen here as self indulgent; they live these values, forever, with the sin on their faces – their skin glitters in the sunlight. There’s no pleasure in living forever and being young. They don’t party all night or sleep all day.
This obsession reaches the literal and figurative climax in the latest film; at her truly bizarre wedding, her now just friend’s Native American werewolf is appalled she is going to have sex before becoming a vampire. She wants to experience losing her virginity as a human. Apparently vampires can’t help but like it rough. The deflowering leaves the bed in shambles and bruises all over Bella. Unlike real-life piercing of the hymen, she achieves an orgasm, mind-blowing but still within PG-13 parameters. But Edward refuses to hurt her. We’ll never have sex again, he declares.
Again, only in the movies, not only was the first the best it was also the last and she’s preggers!

His demon seed has been planted. One night of bliss and vampire baby is on the way. Sexual pleasure must be punished. The gestation is sped up because the plot needed story telling technicalities and it is killing Bella; Like Mia in Rosemary’s baby, she gets thinner, which actually is horrifying. She becomes near-skeleton like, until she learns to drink blood. Bella is given blood shakes, which she drinks from a straw. Then there’s an emergency caesarian, where her new husband must cut the child out of her, something they don’t teach in Lamaze. The only way to save her now is to turn her into a vampire, but one bite won’t do it and her new husband must bite her repeatedly up and down her entire body. In the original Dracula, then expounded on by Anne Rice, is the process of vampirism begins with sucking all the blood out of the body, then having the victim drink vampire blood, and is thus “turned.” In Hammer and other films, one bite does it, unless the victim’s body is destroyed. I suppose this is the turning scenario in Twilight. I suspect the author of the novels was more intent on anti-sex propaganda than specifying the rules of her universe. I prefer pulp to culture war polemics!
Is the baby human or vampire? Stay after the credits because those bad European vamps from the previous films, who actually take pleasure in their monster status and all its privileges, are informed the hybrid baby is born (is there a spy among the good vamps?) and want this result of deflowering by demon seed. Before the credits, Bella wakes up, alive with red eyes. She’s undead.
As cliff hangers go, the set up was well done. We live in an era of sequels, why fight it. These films were made with the idea in mind, and what is fascinating about these films of how they are all of a piece. The first Twilight was directed by the director of Thirteen, contrived but compelling piece of realism in the Cassavettes style and Nativity Story, a satisfying sword and sandal bible retelling; the latest Twilight is by the director of Gods & Monsters,  the James Whale bio flick and exploration of subconscious homoeroticism, a remarkable film. I forget the middle film’s directors. Each one had a different director and Thirteen and Gods & Monsters are very different films. The material is bigger than the director; this kind of corporate production, the rule of television is becoming less and less the exception in American cinema. Movies aren’t films, they’re franchises.
I’m not sure this is always bad; although I am positive it is not always good.
The Twilight films touch on the teenage experience with an honesty that other films often fall short in achieving and they have a pop culture at the moment feel to them. They may be ludicrous and forgettable, but they provide insights into the two things I go to the movies for – Subtext and Context.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn I

Scary *
Creepy *****
Jolts **
Suspense *
Believability *
Total: ** (above average? I might have to revise my ratign system, but the reason is that the creepy has to do with subtext not action, a sort of unfair analysis. Vampires are metaphors for sexaulity, here the author’s view of sexuality is creepy. As a horror film, it is way below average. Dang, this rating system just hit a snag! How to rate a horror movie for being creepy for all the wrong reasons?)

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