Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Movie Review: Twilight Saga: New Moon

So unlike a certain disgruntled fanboy whose rantings yesterday covered the same subject about which I was planning on writing today, I have seen both movies in the Twilight Saga. I haven't, however, read any of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books. So as much as I like comparing and contrasting movies with the books on which they were based, I can't do it in this case on account of because I haven't read the books in question. So, right off the bat, let me say that any generalizations I will draw about the franchise will be taken from the movies only.

Which I think is completely fair. A movie (or series of movies, as the case may be) should stand alone as a composite art form / dramatic event regardless of its source material. I of course realize that a book will always offer a more complete retelling of the story than a movie, because an author can generally fit a lot more description into 600 pages than a director can fit into 2 hours. But part of going to a movie is surrendering to a director's vision and trusting him/her to tell a compelling story, regardless of on what the script may be based.

Symbolically, New Moon's story was kind of compelling. We've all seen the vampires vs. werewolves thing before, but framing it in the context of already angsty teens gives it a nice kick, especially for that key persons 12-34 demographic. However, when you look closer at the film, you begin to see the flaws. Basically none of the dialogue - what little of it that wasn't masked by sighs and coughs and scoffs - had any bearing on what any of the characters did. And I simply can't abide what they tried to pass off as digital effects during the werewolf scenes: Nobody living in the 21st century should have to sit through such unconvincing animation. I mean, wolves actually exist! Some slightly enhanced stock footage from the Discovery channel would have been better.

But enough about the particulars of the movie. What really interests me about the Twilight saga is how it interprets vampires and how that interpretation stacks up against others from the past. Click on the jump for some historical context.

Let's review the events of the first Twilight film, since more people than I expected wouldn't possibly deign to see it: Bella meets Edward. Bella realizes that Edward has strange new powers. Bella falls in love with Edward. Bella gets into trouble. Edward rescues her.

Here's what happens in New Moon (Spoiler Alert!): Edward leaves Bella. Bella realizes her Native American friend Jacob has strange new powers, different from Edward's. Jacob falls in love with Bella. Jacob hates Edward. Bella gets in trouble. Jacob saves her. Edward tries to kill himself. Bella rescues him.

Epilogue: Edward proposes. Bella accepts.

As you can see, the plot of New Moon is basically a rehash of the plot of Twilight, with the character of Jacob replacing the character of Edward, and with werewolves replacing vampires. Now, vampires have been used as a metaphor for sexuality since Bram Stoker penned Dracula back in the 1800s. But werewolves as a metaphor for sexuality? I guess I'll buy it, provided the werewolf is played by a hot slice of Native American jailbait.

But as hunkish as Jacob might have been, there's just no historical precedent for a romantically interesting werewolf/human relationship, which is ultimately why Meyer eventually chose to have to the two main loverbirds get back together in the end. The vampire/human relationship has a much more consistent and interesting track record. Such a history means that Meyer's story has some pretty big shoes to fill. My question is: how much did Stephanie Meyer try to fill these shoes and how much did she just sort of change the rules around?

When I first saw the so-called "vampires" featured in the Twilight Saga, my first reaction was one of bewilderment. Since when do vampires sparkle? Since when do they excrete "venom" from their fangs? Since when does each one of them have special powers such as mind-reading, future-seeing, or the ability to fuck someone up real bad just by looking at them? I mean, what is this, the X-Men?

If you're going to make use of such established creatures as vampires - ones that have a long and developed history and mythology - you have a responsibility to remain somewhat faithful to the original concept. Blatantly changing all the rules and ignoring all the pre-existing conventions shows a massive disrespect for the people who contributed to establishing these conventions, the people on whose shoulders you were able to stand when you created your own work. It's the same kind of disrespect exhibited by George Lucas when he made the new Star Wars prequels.

By way of comparison, I'd like to introduce Edward's most important and influential vampire predecessor, Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Granted, there are some similarities: They both attract women using their suave, mysterious charm, and they both represent sexuality, broadly speaking. But while Edward stands for a nice, light, fluffy, Mormon sexuality that sparkles when it goes out in the sun, Dracula sleeps in a fucking coffin. Stephanie Meyer, with all her focus on the anguish of teens in love, seems to have forgotten that vampires primarily represent death and decay. For Bram Stoker, whom some believed suffered from tertiary syphilis, sexuality and death were interminably linked. And his vampire character reflects that accordingly.

The main difference between Dracula and Edward lies in how they go about turning people into vampires, specifically women. In the novel Dracula, the eponymous character transforms Mina Harker in a decidedly unconventional manner: rather than biting Mina and drinking her blood, Dracula cuts himself on the chest and forces the female protagonist to drink HIS blood. This is how Dr. Seward describes the scene in the novel: "With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. ... The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink." Count Dracula's actions perfectly embody how purists think of vampires: totally brutal and emotionless.

Contrast to this scene Edward's dealings with Bella in the Twilight Saga so far. After they fall in love, following Edward's somewhat halfhearted attempts to push her away, Bella actually wants Edward to turn her into a vampire, and Edward (gasp!) refuses. Now it's not totally improbable that a vampire could have principles: maybe vampires have gone through a period of enlightenment since the nasty Dracula-types. To me, though, the whole enterprise stinks of an author of tween fantasy/fiction trying to dumb down legitimate horror subject matter to make it more appealing to her key demographic.

At first, I ascribed this misguided alteration of vampire lore to Meyer and immediately wrote her off as a pandering hack. Despite the obvious economic feasibility of changing vampires from nasty bloodthirsty demons to sexy teen heartthrobs, the gimmick has no artistic merit whatsoever, especially considering that Stephanie Meyer was hardly the first to play up the sympathetic angle of vampires. In the 1979 film version of Dracula (starring the entrancing Frank Langella as the Count), the scene I quoted from the book - where Dracula forces Mina to drink his blood - plays in front of a surreal red background and is scored with a sensually swelling string arrangement (written by John Williams - who else?). The whole affair has the look of a love scene rather than a bite-scene.

Furthermore, in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 adaptation of the same novel (ironically entitled Bram Stoker's Dracula), Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder (Dracula and Mina, respectively) have an exchange that Stephanie Meyer basically lifted word for word for Twilight. It's the same scene as before: Dracula cuts open his breast and is about to offer it to Mina, but then shuns her at the last second. He exclaims that he loves her too much to subject her to the horrors of an undead existence. But Mina, who has apparently also fallen for her demonic tormentor, ignores his rebuke and drinks his blood willingly!

By the end of New Moon, we can see that the events of the Twilight Saga follow Coppola's shameless bastardization of one of Bram Stoker's most unsettling scenes, and Coppola didn't even change the names of his characters. There is a key difference: before Edward consents to changing Bella, he requires that they wait a few years and get married first. I see two problems with this decision: 1) isn't a Christian vampire sort of an oxymoron? and 2) isn't Bella 18 years old at the time of New Moon? Why would Edward want to wait until she turns 23 before locking that shit down for all eternity?

I don't mean to apologize for Stephanie Meyer by pointing out her place in the piecemeal sissyfication of vampires over the years. I've never bought into the school that lets people off the hook just because they were following the popular style of their times. If anything, historical context should damn her all the more: not only were her ideas spitting in the face of an old and respected tradition, but they were also totally unoriginal!

So, whether you're a fan of compelling narratives, breathtaking special effects, or just a good old traditional story about vampires, New Moon is not the film for you.

Final Rating: 16 Congos.