Why do so many people "hate" Kristen Stewart? Note the quotes. They don't really know her so how can they hate a phantom, an image on a screen? They mistake a projected fear from their own repressed subconscious for the person behind the image and their rock-throwing hands twitch in their laps at the sight of her. These are the people who just a few hundred years ago were stoning adulteresses and burning hot young naturalists at the stake (and still are in some Islamic backwaters, so the headlines scream), and even in the 1950s and early 60s they were driving innocent kids to suicide through their malicious scandalizing gossip, ala PEYTON PLACE. But who are they, these schadenfreude-addicted bitter old gossipy finger-pointers? Do they even exist? Does the Huffington Post and AOL just cater to them as an imaginary reader, the 'atypical' middle American? I'll confess: I am the "they" who thinks the other "them" "hate" Kristen Stewart. But I can only go by what I see in the Huffington headlines, which with all but scream "Burn her!" in their coded subtext, and my paranoiac feminist's desire to protect the maiden faire clouds my own judgment. Plus my greatx8 aunt Mary Easty was hung as a witch in Salem, so perhaps I'm her reincarnation, sworn to avenge all the women who've sacrificed on the altar of mob prudery.
For the hit SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), the mainstream critics did loudly trumpet their ambivalence, as if on cue: too much snow, they wrote, too much pouting, too much CGI. Kristen Stewart's British accent alone morphed into enough raw ink for countless poison pen letter apples. The evil snow queen, played with understated elegance by the great Charlize Theron, could not hope to match this type of sneering sideline evil. If it was just badmouthing Stewart's acting it would be shameful enough but a new scandal erupted shortly after the film's release that proved pavlovian trigger for the press to devolve into a horde of foam-mouthed stone-casters, their viciousness so appalling it basically drove Robert Pattinson back together with her (she cheated on him! With the director! Whose married!) Calling Kristen names usually considered bullying or rat-fink treachery in the high school cafeteria, the critics went way too far, way too fast, the way gangs of hopped-up unconscious bullies are wont to do, and hopefully they've had pause since then to think about their own ye-without-sin-first-stone-tosser status since. I mean, what had she done to deserve such bitchiness? Seriously, Popular Press, what? Answer me! She thought you were her best friend! O Popular Press, did her minor--but to you at the time unforgivable--trespasses not provide you with the juicy gossip you so crave? Everything she do.... she do it for youuu....
Well, the release of SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN on DVD corresponds to the release of the final chapter of TWILIGHT, and in each lies the answer -- Kristen Stewart plays young, vulnerable, awkwardly beautiful women very well, and that in itself concerns critics. Mainly it's her look. It's her look they hate.
Not her looks. Her look, the way she looks, outward -- like a laser, ready to dissolve your old boundaries and definitions of the world. She looks outward from the screen and weighs and judges and forgives the hearts of those watching, and those who think themselves impure, beyond saving, recoil from her absolving gaze. These secret wretched watchers-- who pretend in public to be happy and normal but deep down consider themselves odious gollums and troglodytes--blanche from her awkward hold on their hearts. Her judgment that they too deserve love hurts them the way sunlight hearts the C.H.U.D. or the vampire. She is Esmerelda, freshly born anew like a colt onto the barn floor, watering the rows of wracked Quasimodos with her gypsy wineskin. The Frollos up in the rafters clutching their poison pens and press pass chains are disgusted by this action. They never thought her beauty should be shared with creatures more loathsome even than themselves.
And I would argue that calling Kristen Stewart a terrible actress is like calling Marilyn Monroe a terrible actress. You could, you know, if you wanted to, call her that, for like Stewart MM was more successful at preserving a sense of vulnerability and precognitive absence/presence onscreen than as a dramatic thespian of the Eve Harrington variety. Critics and audiences were more attuned to their own Freudian repressions in the 1950s so they got that subtlety, they knew the difference between an actress able to convey a sense of vulnerability to male attention and a "common slut." Now we're 'liberated' and so must burn at the stake any sign of feminine weakness. In 2050 the old patriarch critics of the day will laud Stewart's vulnerability the way they laud Monroe's now, and be crucifying some new tart whose name I can now besmirch as it has yet to be recorded: Christina Kross. Let us in safety besmirch a priori the reputation of this unborn starlet. Quickly now, before she too rises up and absolves us any further.
That terrifying tenderness is what Stewart shares with Monroe, both of them love, or at least 'feel sorry for' the creatures most of us have cast off. MM felt compassion for the gilly guy in the Black Lagoon, and didn't even mind flirting with Tom Ewell if it got her some air conditioning. Hey, princesses have kissed worse frogs for far less incentive than air conditioning on a stiflingly hot August day. That's what it boils down to, and boiling is the correct word, froggy Tom. Stewart is like the first girl you kissed, ever, though she didn't know you, hardly, at all. She was the starlet of your Middle School's Bye-Bye Birdy who let all the cast members kiss her on the lips in the doorway of her dressing room before the big premiere, for luck, and in your case, transcendental romantic ignition. To make we Quasimodo-esque viewers remember that kiss, or anticipate it, the fumbling awkward magic of it, Stewart has her own wine skin full of little facial tics and micro-lip quivers, eye dilations, the looking up at her lover's lips to his eyes to the snow below in a series of deep breathing feints and attract-repulsion micro-movements, her eyes going in and out of focus, hand on fire with twitchy, muted minor key exhilaration.
What we have in this one are some psychedelic bad trip haunted swamp visuals to beat the band. The poison gas belched out by some rotten spores abounding in the swamp makes Snow White hallucinate black snake branches; "the swamp feeds on your weakness!" the Huntsman explains. The evil duke looks like Max Von Sydow in THE SEVENTH SEAL or THE VIRGIN SPRING. I like the weird fairy forest with its beautiful hart, and the tender effect Snow White has on all life around her, including a big ugly troll that in a movie for boys would be slain with thunderous 3-D sword swings. Instead it's all elegantly done and if some of it is overdone, as in the dwarf's Brit character actor business, I forgive them, as the spirit of Snow White forgives me, even as I write this, and forgives you, even as you read this.
If SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN never strays from its archetypal Jungian template resonance then all the better to entrain its frequency to the experience of teenage maturation, the dangers, pains, triumphs, heartaches, and treacherous currents all of us face, or have faced, on the road to the fullest bloom of our adulthood, my precious.
So back to the Stewart gaze: I know some of my regular readers can't stand Kristen Stewart and maybe I'm blinded by my affection, but I think her appeal is deeper than just hipster hotness. She's never really been marketed as a sex symbol, wisely, and in SNOW she looks pretty bedraggled throughout, first she's a prisoner, then a bedraggled half-drowned swamp rat, then dead, then reborn and always unkempt. I don't think she gets more than one bath or shower in the whole damned film. I can't even remember so surely there was no erotic bathing scene. Like most of her fans I don't go to sleep fantasizing about dating her or ravishing her and I don't even worship her. Better than all that I identify with her. I admire her pluck, and feel protective. I admire anyone with the courage to lay it all on the line, to open themselves up to a blue screen and trust a monster or giant hart will be inserted later so she doesn't look like a homeless mime. Anyone can be removed and aloof to a blue screen (like Angelina Jolie's been doing lately to name one). But it takes true courage to be open-hearted and vulnerable even when you know the closed-hearted are going to send slings and arrows at you to validate their own fears about opening. We've seen coltish young starlets gambol around in enchanted countrysides before (STEALING BEAUTY), but aside from her occasional moments as a side player (as in INTO THE WILD) Stewart's seldom cast as a sex object. She is the objectifier.
|Into the Wild|
A classicist may prefer to follow along as a woman like Janet Leigh is gradually driven mad or sliced up by our male gaze desire and think he's understanding the male gaze's destructive drive even as he indulges it, hey, we all do that too, but it's Kristen's gaze that has the power and it actually reverses that devouring destructive Norman's mother gaze like she's flashing a mirror at Medusa. Her gaze may devour and objectify the male, but in a feminine, open, compassionate way. She stops the pendulum swings from phoenix to ash and back again and focuses in on some genuine romantic gazing, back and forth slowly, gently, like calming a spooked horse. And that's such a shock for some viewers they can't get over it; no matter how patiently she whispers to them they just won't gentle. They've got burrs under their leather shoulder-patched tweed suit jacket saddles. How dare Kristen Stewart, in a sense, look back at them as they stamp and snort and kick the back of their stalls in outrage, unable to shake that burr no matter how vitriolic their reviews.
Hey hoss, you can fight it all you want, but the young, vulnerable feminine awkward bravery Kristen Stewart conveys onscreen is something so old it's beyond new. It's here to stay because it never left, it was just asleep, dormant, ready to be renewed at the close of the century-long witch's sleep spell. Still semi-sleepy but ready to fully flower any moment, Stewart is our Lillian Gish on the ice floe in WAY DOWN EAST; she's Mary Pickford leading her fellow orphans through the gator-filled swamps in SPARROWS; she's Judy Garland about to throw that bucket of water in WIZARD OF OZ; she's Greta Garbo as ANNA CHRISTIE, slouching and mumbling towards Brooklyn to be born again, not as some twisted version of a milk-drinking lady but an abused and still triumphant, whiskey-drinking woman. You may moan and kvetch and sign up on the next tramp steamer out of town but it's far too late to change the tide--your gaze has lost its power. Her gaze reigns and is neither as good or as bad as you think it is, it's just a harbinger of your own spectatorial dissolution. Don't blame the messenger if she points out your eye is meltingggg.... oh what a world. Be kind to it, Kristen. It's only our heart, our cheap tin 'testimonial.'