Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bella's Big Bounce - TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN - PART II (2012)

To those of us who recognize her special gifts, who know how to appreciate the beauty within her sullen reticence, part two of BREAKING DAWN proves to be the deeply Jungian-delible feast where we get to see a new, ass-kicking side of Kristen Stewart. Now officially a vampire, she looks more alive than she used to as a human. She was meant to be this way, born to become a vampire! The 'I wish someone had tried to save my soul before I too was turned' types who complained every step of the way through the previous four long films are forever shut down. She's been Antigone adamant about death all the while, she's been like that kid who's compelled to seek out LSD despite the warnings of his friends, and now she finds her reward. And since, within the mythos of the series, Stewart's Bella is a "newborn" she can outvamp all those who previously lorded over her. Gone is the usual insecure adrift, Bronte-ish innocent! In her stead, monster bitch.

Forgive me if I sound enamored of it all. I'm now almost old as Bella's dad, Charlie (Billy Burke), was at the start of the series (2008) so my view of the series has changed, from bemused, slightly intoxicated outsider fondness (and nostalgia for my year of living in the Pacific Northwest) to mopey adoration for NEW MOON's whole 'Baby Jane-en-verso' aging ur-text, to weary respect for something that has a demographic other than my own. Now with the final installment I am already way past the point of feeling a direct connection to my old awkward high school passions. See, when I was Twilight-appropriate age I was all in the comic book Elfquest, and had fantasized my way into a very similar tribe, the Wolf Riders. I tried, really tried, after one achingly perfect, mystical dream, to disappear into the Elfquestverse, the way I'm sure kids do today with the Twilight; they're similar tribal fantasias of belonging with the cool weird beautiful people clique. I forget how I grew out of it - there just wasn't enough material to maintain the fire, and now I could give a shit about it. Enough time has passed that the dream belongs to someone else, some different assemblage of cells and thoughts, one still strung-out by public school days and lonesome comic book night teen trauma. Now all I want is a comfy coffin for my weary vamp soul. Now I'm like the world-weary seen-it-all Volturi member, Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl).

But I still kind of am in love with Alice, the psychic vampire who wins over Charlie and effortless makes every moment special. She's the fantasy 'it' girl for my straggling type - I'm wagering, and she fits perfect. She's what Sabrina was for me in the 70s (in CHARLIE'S ANGELS), the brainy cute one who 'understands' our shyness and takes the lead with a gentle, babysitter-like patient fondness.

With my  first praiseful post on the Twilight series, over at Bright Lights in 09,  I felt I was was a defense lawyer for the series, trying to justify my intellectual curiosity against the pooh-poohing of my critic peers, culminating in my opus "Someone to Fight Over Me."  But all that gazing into the pool of youth left me aging rapidly and the generations of hyper-evolved youth just keep coming, as do new apps and platforms and operating systems for my Mac; the technology grows at an exponential rate and I can no longer keep up. I'm a reverse vampire, aging faster than a regular mortal, crumbling to dust like David Bowie in THE HUNGER.

That's why in this last and final incarnation, the TWILIGHT saga is no longer a contrast or fantasy or escape but a breath of misty old growth forest air. I appreciate that ADD trendiness is ignored by these teen Methuselahs. Their every... sentence... takes whole Antonioni films to come out... but... the molasses pace... can prove a dreamy kick and Robert Pattinson is a master at making certain phrases twist and turn in the waves like frogs. One has time to wrestle with the Big Issues of life, not just as a teen girl or old man in a young man's body, but both rolled into one immortal soul, a Benjamina Button conjoined twin set, one aging chronologically the other the reverse, until they meet as grandparent and newborn child, and then disappear beyond the veil.

In this fifth and final installment the Cullens assemble a host of quirky vamp clans to stand firm against the onrushing Catholic stand-in, the Voltari, who plan to wipe out said Cullens. The clans are all ageless of course, so include hunks from the Civil War to the days of the ancient Romans, allowing a vast new array of options as far as fantasy-adoptive families. The film is carefully crafted to create just such a sense of belonging, the 'teams' of Edward and Jacob have just expanded to a whole league, and they would never say a word like 'yolo'. Every character in the clan is unique: creepy, hot, or creepy-hot; as long as the viewer stays unseen in the vampiric dark he or she fits right into the mix.

I may not be able to see the youth clearly now... the world in my ball has gone dim... their outlines alone shimmer in the glow of their digital screen surroundings and my glasses seem to work less and less well with each passing film--but I can still meet them halfway, at the forest of one of their own primal mythic worlds, where everyone is centuries-old and frozen at youth on TCM, or how I still see myself as 21 in the bathroom mirror when the Baby Jane clarity is fogged by the steam of showers. I can still meet them at the halfway point where those who strive for eternal youth settle for an early death. Call my deconstruction of the series dangerous to its intended youthful demographic if you prefer, but there is a rich modernist ancestry to that subtext, as I've pointed out in a past post, particularly to films from the 1930s like DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, THE WIND, and MOROCCO.

Any true horror fan knows, that real ambivalent attitudes towards life and death are rare even in the classics. So many filmmakers looking for a quick signifier mistake gore for subversion. In Meyers' work, moral ambivalence isn't avoided just because the Cullens are 'vegetarians' - i.e. hunt only deer and cougars. The parallels with some kind of cult or drug scene are never avoided and parents should be scared that their impressionable TWILIGHT fan daughters will be predisposed to roll with the next pale, good-looking junky clan that happens by, and soon they're learning all the tips of how to not seem stoned out of her gourd when having 'serious talks' with her parents (the other vamps have to remind Bella to blink once in awhile and to wear non-red contact lenses, the way stoners use Visine.

Such worries by parents are perhaps dispelled, allegedly, originally, through the popular press's misinterpretation of the series as advocating celibacy, but celibacy isn't always adherence to a restrictive social order. It can be a renouncement of societal expectations and a stand against the impetus towards unconscious reproductive urges, marriage, peer pressure, and male desire. Not only do Edward and Bella wait for their wedding to 'do it' but once 'it's' done 'it' triggers an accelerated pregnancy that kills the mortal Bella. Not since SPECIES (here) has a fantasy film so cleverly tapped into our secret revulsion towards the Cronenbergian biological express train nightmare underbelly of sexual desire. Once you slow down time you can speed it up too but God drags pregnancy out as long as possible so the full horror of it doesn't have time to settle; it moves along to slow to defend against. In her brilliance, Meyer floors it, so the full monstrousness of the 'right to life' idea is revealed.

And you can fault the mopey teen trappings all you want, but this last installment especially has the guts to go deep into the more taboo realms of mating and pair-bonding: Much time is spent explaining that Jacob is not a pedophile just because he's 'imprinted' on Bella's baby girl, Renesme. It's "not like you think!" he explains over and over as all react in understandable disgust. A normal film would prove just how much 'it's not like you think' by cutting out that whole sub-plot, lest any unsightly criticism be drawn. But with the substantial heft of Stephanie Meyer's franchise behind it, the ickiness goes unfiltered, and that's so punk rock!

Another punk element is the scene with Bella at he first hunt, crouching up on a rock like a feral stalking beast, and later coming home and trying to explain why she's not dead to her one-note worrywart dad Charlie. He doesn't like it, but what choice does he have? Where can you find a deprogrammer in rural Washington State? In the 00s? Meanwhile, his granddaughter grows way too fast, and Bella's cold to the touch and has weird eyes, or uses eye drops so he won't see how red they are, like any good daughter grass smoker. But if Charlie says anything to anyone about how weird it all is, Bella's going to do an even bigger bounce and he can't deal with that and thus it is yet again that Bella uses her dream child to dominate not just Edward (she forced his hand so he had to turn her into a vampire, finally, at the end of Part I) but her father as well. To create a situation where your father has no choice but to allow you freedom to be stoned and/or stone, to leave you and your bad boy alone as immortal statues left for centuries in overgrown gardens, hidden from his meddling overprotection, is devoutly to be wished by any and all 6-17 year-olds.  Bella has indirectly attacked Charlie via nightmare screaming in previous films, and attacked Edward via a reckless pursuit of danger (the only thing that makes a phantom image of Edward appear as if a symptom of adrenalin-poisoning) but nothing beats a miracle gro baby as a tool for moral high ground. And besides, dads in coming-of-age myths exist mainly to be ignored.

Understanding the lost ability of these kind of 'child as tool of revenge' sagas can shed light on our darker instincts and help us in understanding just why American folk heroines are so different than Europe's Red Riding Hoods and Gretels. Through myth we can embrace the irony: America's population is composed of wanderers and the descendants of wanderers: Ellis Island, Vikings, colonialists, and slave-owning ex-Irish penal colonists. The rest of the world is full of people willing to stay where they are, their fidgety neighbors who used to ramble on about their plans for exploring are all long-since moved to America. And so it is that we in the USA find fantasizing about wandering an unrewarding use of time. We have to do it for real, as our ancestors did, or not at all. Our fantasies are of staying still, but surrounded by cool peers-- Hogwarts, the Shire, Forks--as long as parents aren't there. Those who paint the best fantasy homes get visited by others, until a world beautiful is created online, only to have marauders break in and slaughter everyone during the big wedding.

This is our history as a nation and a world, but for vampires it's history without the forgetfulness that goes on as generations snake forward through the tunnel of time, shedding memory skins with each incarnation, leaving only bad habits and alcoholism, and debt. In the Twilight realm, the original explorers who left Europe in the 1800s are all still here, and still look like they're in their early 20s, and willing to be friends with your sorry ass, thus elevating you to some Wagnerian height of 'belonging' ecstasy, a height missing from your usual high school experience. Here at last those troglodyte wallies are devoured and forgotten. If each successive generation is just a little more slackjawed than the last, gone soft from suburban slovenliness, then these vampires and shape-shifters represent a chance to undo them all, to clean house, to eradicate the slow moving herd members.

Lastly, perhaps there's no more common dream archetype than that of the instant, fast-growing baby. By putting digital transplants of one actor's face (Mackenzie Foy) over the younger and older versions, she seems truly creepy, all the more so for being cute. Her smiling face adheres to various younger bodies as she grows so that by the time she's actually wearing her own face the damage is done and she's still creepy cute. The total effect works to make her every appearance as uncomfortable as stumbling onto a baby skeleton in the lowest ebb of the uncanny valley. It serves the story, though, as well as in a probably unintentional but nonetheless valid metatextual frisson. The drama centers around the child having to prove it's not a full vampire but she's also a hybrid between digital and 'real; her CGI-edged face all but matrixes out of the screen in some 3-D Final Cut-layered feedback... even in the simulacrum she's a devouring simulacrum, the kind of child born to make haunted videotapes and project images onto film even from the bottom of the well.

If you've read the book, then you know what happens and then doesn't happen never happened, but it's still a pretty great surprise, a Sam Peckinpah / Walter Hill style bloodbath even Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich franchises at their bloodiest couldn't match. There's an eerie silence that results when characters you've spent the movie getting to know are suddenly absent, with a snap or a blam, as final and startling as an introduction to the finality of death as any child could hope to find. If you do manage to become involved in the Peckinpah-ish finality of it, and if you know the sad desperation of the lonesome teenage suburbanite for whom no amount of friends and super powers can compete with that Truman Show sense of isolation, then you know how such blanket cold can radiate so warmly, like a wedding cake corpse cooling in an unheated winter theater. In our lonesomest hours we'll risk our lives just to feel connected, even if that connecting involves the sacrifice of the last few vestiges of reality on the altar of the fantasy franchise, as long as you both shan't live.


  1. I'm a middle-aged male fan of the series too. I've gotten into paranormal romance as a genre, from Portrait of Jennie to Penelope, and Twilight is the premiere contemporary franchise. BD 2 really did beat the Underworld, Blade, and Resident Evil franchises at their own game, both the shock or it and the choreography of the deaths. BTW, reading BD the novel some years back I thought that Bella's heart ceasing to beat - especially in the context of her long yearning for undeath - was truly horrifying.

    Speaking of teen movies, have you seen The Myth of the American Sleepover? I dug it.

  2. Interesting.

    I don't see movies in any kind of systematic manner, so I have seen the second half of the first Twilight film and most of the third one...

    I wasn't very impressed by the second half of the third one, but to be fair, seeing part of every other movie is probably not giving me an accurate picture.

    The funny part is, though that your description of Part II here pretty much says that the last movie resolves what I didn't like about the third one.

    That's good that Stewart's character gets her day in the sun... no pun intended, I guess...

  3. Hah, thanks for your feedback Katy - I don't think you can develop any fondness for the series unless you start from the beginning, and see them while in a mopey funk gloom. If like me you ride the manic-depressive train, mostly depressive, it's like a nerve tonic. If not, it's probably just a lot of mopey teens acting Goth with their shirts off, the boys that is. I also find comfort in that the films aren't aimed at my demographic. it's like the heat's off, it's like I'm eavesdropping, a Hitchcockian voyeur at my big sister's slumber party.

    Anon- you should sign your replies! I haven't seen American Sleepover yet, but I see its on the stream de la Netflix.

  4. The funny thing is that in summer '08 I wrote for my friends a mini-rant championing traditional horror vamps vs latter-day pretty vamps. A few months later I saw Twilight in the theater and instantly became a Twihard, due in equal parts to Meyer's story and Hardwicke's auteur directing. (Well, and Rosenberg's screenwriting too.) The first Twilight is an indie film masterpiece, an eerie evocation of the heady intensity of high school romantic impulses.

    Perhaps only a Mormon housewife - and I mean that with respect rather than condescension, since she's also a very smart and well-read one - could have written a vampire series so psychosexually charged. It goes places that even splatter/body horror authors and filmmakers usually dare not. I don't mean just the visceral pregnancy horror (unfortunately toned down in BD1) and the imprinting weirdness but the even scarier tender vulnerability of romantic obsession. That's why Twilight freaks out insecure men so badly and induces a homophobic/misogynist reaction.

    My list of favorite vampire movies:

    Matt Baen (formerly anonymous) - not my real name


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