I feel like an expert now. This happens a lot during the course of my research for The Series Project. If I trudge through enough chapters in a long-running film series, I automatically begin considering myself some sort of specialist in the subgenre I am studying; like the mere fact that I’ve seen every Amityville Horror movie would mean I could be called to testify as an expert witness in some twisted criminal trial. I now feel the same way about The Twilight Saga, which I have now completed, as the final chapter in the five-part film series is in theaters now.
Of course, this is just my own blustering ego bursting through. I am no expert in Twilight. I have not read Stephenie Meyer’s novels, I have not been to Forks, WA (a real town, by the way), and I have not had a torrid affair with Kirsten Stewart or Robert Pattinson. Stewart still hasn’t lifted the restraining order, and the best I could get from Pattinson was an old pair of his socks, which he claimed, in the letter of authenticity, were soaked in Natural Light. I’m not sure how that’s a selling point, but there you are. Taylor Lautner did make out with me in a hot tub at Udo Kier’s pad once, but I think he was a little drunk, and he was clearly waiting for Helen Mirren to join us. Once the two of them started making out, I was totally ignored. Don’t you hate it when celebrities you don’t know ignore you to make out with other celebrities you don’t know?
Note: One or two of the statements in the preceding paragraph were false.
But I have now seen all five of the movies in The Twilight Saga, which I know is something of an aberration for males in my age group. I now know the entire myth of how these particular vampires operate and relate, how The Volturi think, and the very nature of the eternal romance between Isabella Swan and Edward Cullen. I also feel like I understand, with a bit more detail, the ethos of the American teenage girl. As I indicated last week, Twilight taps very directly into a certain breed of sex-obsessed romance fantasy held by virginal teens everywhere. This week, we’ll actually see Edward and Bella have sex for the first time, so we’ll also be working in a kind of twisted defloration fantasy as well. I understand all of it. I was a teenager once (albeit a teenage boy), so I can kind of understand the drive toward this very particular sexual fantasy that seems to have little to do with actual sex, and more to do with achingly impossible longing.
But I admit I am still baffled by the sheer overpowering popularity of these things. I understand what they fulfill, and even that they are popular, but the volume of their popularity escapes me. Twilight is, in many regards, exactly the same as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Avengers. It is a CGI-packed multi-film genre extravaganza which taps directly into the hearts of people who are already intimately familiar with the source material. The films are not intended as expansions or explorations of their literary counterparts, but are to be taken as direct translations. The closer they cleave to the source material, the better. This approach has not only pleased the fans (which are, in all the above cases, sticklers for fealty), but built a sort-of monument to the fandom. These movies stand as statues devoted to their fans. In some cases even (the latter-day Harry Potter films notwithstanding), the films have made outsiders want to kind of be a part of the phenomenon; I imagine there are more Thor fans now than there were before the movie. In a way, it doesn’t matter of the films are even necessarily good or groundbreaking in any sort of conventional cinematic sense. They only need to be good enough, and that’s good enough. The only way they need to be groundbreaking is to interconnect.
So I guess I can say this: The Twilight movies are good enough, and they certainly interconnect. If one of the functions of The Series Project is to explore inter-film continuity, than all the film series listed above are impeccable in that regard. For an outsider like me, the Twilight movies vacillate between dull and bonkers, but for the fans they seem to do the job nicely. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 was the first of these films I saw in a theater with a live crowd, and the fans were all dutifully enthused. Plus, when Jacob took his shirt off, I was sure to coo along with all the eager young females in my immediate vicinity.
Last week, I made my way through Twilight and the second film, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. This week, I will be giving coverage on Eclipse and the two films called Breaking Dawn. Pull your harness all the way down over your shoulders and prepare to marvel at the weirdness.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (dir. David Slade, 2010)
Edward on vampire marriage: “You’ll find that the vampire/human divorce rate is lower.”
Bella: “Why didn’t you call me back?” Jacob: “I have nothing to say.” Bella: “Well I have tons!”
Edward on Bella’s future as a vampire: “You’ll be my Bella. My Bella, just less fragile.”
Bella to a werewolf: “It has nothing to do with imprinting. It has to do with how you feel.”
Edward on Jacob: “Doesn’t he own a shirt?”
Jacob to Edward, regarding body temperature: “Let’s face it. I’m hotter than you.”
Bella to Jacob, a werewolf: “Jake! Stay!”
Also, see below.
Slade previously directed the pedophile revenge drama Hard Candy, and the vampire flick 30 Days of Night.
So I’ve noticed a definite pattern in the Twilight films. The first half of each film (the fifth notwithstanding) will center entirely on the tortured romance between Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) the ultra-handsome vampire, and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) the Plain Jane human who moved into his hometown. The second half of each film will then shift into a plot about the politics of the local monsters, and monsters fighting amongst themselves. In all, the monster-fights will be unwittingly instigated by the romance between Bella and Edward, so I guess the two stories kind of link. Many critics have said that Bella is a horrible person because her insistence on the romance has only caused wars and fighting. I would argue that there is no malice on her part, and that the series is trying (and only occasionally succeeding) to reach for something mythic with the romance-as-war angle. Her face doesn’t exactly launch a thousand ships, but it does make some vampires mad.
The romance at the beginning of Eclipse carries over from New Moon, in that Bella is now kind of torn between Edward and the handsome and oft-shirtless werewolf boy Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Bella is in love with both of them, but has chosen to be with Edward. Her emotional ambivalence instigates the ire of both boys, and there are several scenes wherein they stand chest-to-chest and nose-to-nose, staring each other down in violent anger. Really, that’s about all that happens for the first 60 minutes of the film. Bella expresses her angsty ambivalence, and the boys crush into each other. They never fight, but they might. Surely I wasn’t the only one who sensed a stronger chemistry between Edward and Jacob than I did with Edward and Bella. Surely I wasn’t the only one who thought the two boys were about to start kissing at any moment.
Indeed, there is a pretty magical exchange of dialogue between the two boys later in the film. Bella has been spirited off to a tent up in the snowy mountains (she’s hiding from evil vampires), when she begins to shiver and suffer from hypothermia. She passes out from the cold. Edward, in the tent with her, can only look on in impotence; vampires can’t provide body heat. Jake, however, is a werewolf, and he enters the tent, takes off his shirt, and gets into the sleeping bag with Bella. Any Boy Scout will tell you that that is the cure for hypothermia. It’s here that Jake looks into Edward’s eyes and says “I’m hotter than you.”
While Bella lays still in freezing unconsciousness, the boys begin to warm to one another. They have the following exchange, and I can swear it’s less about their mutual love for Bella, and more about their attraction to each other. Edward: “If we weren’t natural enemies, and you weren’t trying to steal the reason for my existence, I might actually like you.” Jacob: “Well, if you weren’t planning on sucking the life out of the girl I love, I might… No. Not even then.” Doesn’t it sound like straight bros debating whether or not they might, under the right circumstances, have sex with each other?
Anyway, the romance subplot is completed in this film when Bella agrees to marry Edward. If you’ll recall, Edward proposed right at the end of the last film, and Bella did not agree. Edward, it turns out, will not have sex with her until they are married. “He’s really old school.” Bella also reveals to her dad (Billy Burke) that she is a virgin, which negates my suspicions about her sexual experience; I assumed she was not a virgin.
The monster plot involves the character of Victoria (previously Rachael LeFevre, now Bryce Dallas Howard) whose boyfriend was killed by Edward in the first film. To get revenge on him, Victoria has been amassing an army of “newborns” (that is, humans recently converted into vampires) to kill Bella. Converting humans is a big no-no in the vampire world, and newborns are considered to be particularly dangerous; evidently when you’re first turned into a vampire in this universe, you’re extra strong and fast and hungry. To combat the oncoming army of newborns, the entire Cullen clan must team up with the local werewolves (vampires and werewolves hate each other, by the way), and go through vampire kung-fu training. Seriously. There’s a vampire kung fu training sequence.
The only way to kill a vampire is to pull off their head, and then set them on fire. Luckily, vampire heads seem to come off like champagne corks in this universe. By the fifth film, heads’ll go flying everywhere.
And that’s all I can really say. Eclipse is kind of a dull film. Not much happens, and even when the monsters go a-fighting, it’s not very thrilling. We want the three principal characters to live, but beyond that – since so few characters have much personality – everyone is kind of disposable. Even the chicly designed Cullen clan. Even the fire-haired villainess. Good job, Eclipse, you made me not care about Bryce Dallas Howard. The first Twilight was the boring one. The second one was the bad one. The third one is the boring one.
The next one will be the bonkers one…
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (dir. Bill Condon, 2011)
Bella, justifying Edward’s vampire-hood: “Well, you probably saved more lives than you took.”
Anna Kendrick at Bella and Edward’s wedding: “Bella was just like everyone else: totally mesmerized by Edward. Or ‘The Hair,’ as I like to call him.”
Dad, giving a speech at the wedding: “I have a gun.”
Jake, upon seeing Bella pregnant, turns to Edward: “YOU did this!”
A vampire on human/vampire pregnancy: “The fetus isn’t good for her.”
Bella on tasting human blood for the first time: “…Tastes good.”
Why “Part 1?” Why not call this film Breaking Dawn, and the next one, I dunno The Final Showdown or something? Well, because the books exist first. The films are just addenda. It’s the same logic that has the phrase “Part 1” in the seventh Harry Potter film, and “Part 2” in the eighth.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who was intimately familiar with the Twilight novels explained to me some of the events of this story. When he described what happened in the book, my first thought was to somehow ensure that David Cronenberg directed the film version. Seriously, there is so much bonkers body horror and fear of pregnancy in this story, it sounds like something out of Dead Ringers. There’s also some really twisted romantic conceits that finally get a little bloody. How this film slipped in under the aegis of a PG-13 rating is a little baffling.
Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) doesn’t have the twisted panache of David Cronenberg, but I will say that he brings more personality to this series than any of the other directors (with the exception of Catherine Hardwicke who kind of invented the look of this universe), and he also seems to know a bit more about how to film sexual matters; indeed his 2004 film Kinsey is all about sex.
So the first-hour romance film is entirely about Bella and Edward’s wedding. There are a few scenes about moving on with life, and indeed Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) are seen graduating from high school. Anna Kendrick is still around in this film, as are Bella’s human would-be friends, but they play such a tiny role, they may as well not be in the film at all. They’ll be gone from the next film entirely, leaving Bella to live entirely in the vampire world. I suppose those more interesting human kids ought to be glad that Bella has disappeared into boyfriendland. Dad (Billy Burke) and mom (Sarah Clarke) are also in the film, but they exist only to dote on Bella, and coo over how nice she looks in a dress. Indeed, all the scenes devoted to the wedding feel like a commercial for a wedding-planning boutique. The romance is so thick, you can kind of feel your gorge rising a bit.
Bella has been having more nightmares, though, and there’s a cool visual wherein Edward and Bella, in their wedding regalia, are standing atop a pile of corpses.
Once Bella and Edward are married, they go on a several-week honeymoon in an exotic tropical locale where they play chess on the beach, tickle each other, wrestle, and giggle in the sunlight. Y’know, like any newlyweds. Oh yes, and they finally have sex for the first time. Finally! Finally! Finally! So much of The Twilight Saga is devoted to not having sex and scenes of Edward pointedly staying away from Bella, that when they finally do bed down, we expect it to be an epic night of Olympic-level lovemaking. Sadly, the film being rated PG-13, it does not give us the nitty-gritty details of the act, only to show that Edward breaks the bed on the first night (!). Would a virgin girl really want to be subjected to rough bed-breaking sex the first time? There are, I’m sure, a few virgin girls out there who are into rough sex, but I’m guessing they aren’t legion enough to pack movie theaters. Well, Bella seems to be okay with it, and doesn’t even seem to mind that every time she and Edward have sex, he leaves new bruises on her body. The implication is that vampires can’t control how rough they’re being, but how refreshing if it turned out they were both just really into the rough stuff? Also, how much fun would it have been if Bella had to show off her new bruises to friends and family, and carefully explain that Edward was not being an abusive husband?
Also, Edward seems to have superpowered sperm, because after a few shags, Bella gets pregnant. Neither of them expected that a vampire could impregnate a human, but there you are. She travels back to Forks, WA, and stays under the secretive watch of the Cullen clan in their posh woods-bound mansion, only visited by Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who scowls a lot. Dad is kept in the dark about all this; he is told she is convalescing from an unnamed illness in Switzerland.
Just like in Seed of Chucky, the pregnancy only takes a few weeks, and by the end of about 30 days, Bella is already fully pregnant with a huge distended belly. Also, the vampire fetus seems to be making her really sick, and special effects are used to make Bella look even more pale and emaciated than before. Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), the head of the clan, comes to conclusion that the only way to keep the baby at rest is to have Bella drink human blood. Which she does. Out of a Styrofoam cup. Using a straw. She doesn’t seem to mind, and the blood seems to calm her down. Is this really the way Stephenie Meyer sees pregnancy? As this miserable time wherein you lose your health and body, and have to drink human blood to survive? I’ve heard of pregnant women getting odd cravings for odd food. Maybe this is just the human/vampire equivalent.
The potential appearance of a human/vampire baby in the world sends all the local monsters into a tizzy. Jake is disgusted with what the vampire baby is doing to Bella, and swears to stay by her side, mostly to spite Edward. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene wherein Jake, in wolf form, has a screaming psychic argument with other wolves. The werewolf/vampire rivalry in this film plays a lot like The Howling vs. The Lost Boys.
Then a bunch of twisted things happen in rapid succession: the fetus eventually becomes so powerful, it kicks through Bella’s ribs and breaks her spine. The doctor is out of town when this happens, so Edward lays her up on a gurney himself. He rips the baby out himself. Bella, perhaps predictably, dies on the gurney. In order to save her, Edward injects her heart with a syringe full of his own vampire venom (!), which he handily has ready for some reason. When Jacob first sees the infant, he immediately “imprints” on it, which is sort of the werewolf version of love at first sight. The film ends with Bella opening her eyes, now a vampire. When she becomes a vampire, eye makeup appears around her eyes, and she grows false eyelashes. No wonder the vampires all look like J. Crew models in this universe.
So Bella is now a vampire after being chewed on and injected for 20 minutes, and a werewolf teen has fallen in love with a bloody infant. See what I mean about wanting Cronenberg to direct this? I feel like the series could have ended here, but evidently that’s not all that happens in the books, so we’re treated to another film, which is brand new in theaters.
Proceed if you dare: I’m going to give away the ending of…
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (dir. Bill Condon, 2012)
Since I didn’t have my notebook in the theater with me, I cannot give any good quotes with reasonable accuracy. Instead, I’ll give you a few notable quotes taken from other audience members around me:
Teen boy, upon seeing Bella eat a puma: “Oh, I’ve done that.”
Teen girl, legitimately curious: “What does ‘imprinting’ mean?” Me: “I think it’s like love-at-first-sight for werewolves." Teen girl: “That’s twisted!”
Bella, on trying to behave like a human, to paraphrase: “Blink. Breathe. Move. Got it.”
Some wiseacre: “It’s all I’m really good at anyway.”
Here’s an odd phenomenon I’ve felt for all five of the Twilight movies: I felt like I had seen this all before. Not that the events of the film were clichéd (which is debatable), but that there were no surprises. The films, perhaps because they are based so stringently closely on the original novels, feel like the events are kind of pre-destined to occur. So when characters die, or something dramatic happens, it’s not so much a shock as it is a re-enactment of something that happened before. I got this feeling, even when I hadn’t read the books. Maybe it was just a weird pop cultural presence seeping into my viewing.
So Breaking Dawn II dispenses of the romance subplot altogether and focuses entirely on the monster fighting. No longer are Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) in any sort of dire romantic straits. They are now married, they have a child, and all is well in the world of vampire romance. The film picks up right where the last one left off, and we are introduced to the baby, who has been given the massively awkward name of Renesmee. As a male who grew up with the name Witney, I can attest personally to how much kids will make fun of your name. Although elementary school kids will make fun of you no matter what your name is; it’s how they communicate. I guess Renesmee is no worse than, say, Apple. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) is now spending more time with the baby than her parents, thanks to his “imprinting.” Throughout the film, Jacob will be floating around Renesmee, presumably just waiting for the exact instant she pubesces.
Bella, now a vampire, has to go through training regiments with Edward, and she eats a puma. She is also kept away from people, although she seems to be able to control her blood cravings. In addition to becoming a vampire, Bella also becomes a little more interesting. She seems lively and interested in the world. She seems happy for the first time in five movies. The pained romance of the previous four films only seemed like an ordeal for both her and Edward. Now she at the very least has some energy. There’s also a scene wherein she has to “come out” to her dad (Billy Burke). She doesn’t reveal that she’s a vampire, per se, and she tells him that Renesmee is their adopted daughter, not their biological one. Dad takes a lot of this in stride, luckily. It’s Jacob who has to force dad and Bella together. Renesmee, by the way, grows to the size of an eight-year-old with the span of a few months. Dad seems a little nonplussed by this.
Eventually word of the vampire/human hybrid baby makes its way to The Volturi in Italy. The Volturi, as you may recall from New Moon, are the Medici-like vampire ruling class who impose laws on the vampire community. They are led by the wonderfully campy Michael Sheen, and enforced by the red-eyed pain-caster Dakota Fanning. The Volturi have, many years ago, outlawed vampire babies, as they tend to murder humans by the score whenever they get hungry. In a flashback, Dakota Fanning throws a five-year-old boy into a fire. That’s fun. Alice (Ashley Greene) a supporting character in the Cullen clan, has the psychic ability to read the future, and knows that The Volturi are coming to kill the baby and all the people who know about the baby. Uh oh.
I should perhaps remind you that vampires in this universe have varied psychic powers. Edward can read minds, Alice and predict the future, etc. It’s revealed in this film that Bella has a psychic power too, in that she can create force fields against other vampire powers. This is why Edward can’t read her mind, and why Fanning’s spells didn’t work on her in the second film. In order to appeal to The Volturi, the Cullens amass a following of vampires to serve as witnesses. The vampires they amass all have their own psychic powers; there’s a woman who can electrocute you by touching you, there’s a woman who can project fantasies into your head, there’s an airbender like in The Last Airbender. There’s a bad guy who can cloud your mind with evil fog. Their powers are as random and as varied as the X-Men.
The film’s climax takes place in a frozen field wherein the Volturi and the good guys battle for the protection of Renesmee, who is, technically, not against vampire law. There’s a big fight. A big one. A buncha people die. Vampire heads pop off with ease. When a vampire is set aflame, their bodies go up like Roman Candles. All the bad guys are vanquished. But then it turns out that the entire fight was just a future prediction by Alice, and everyone is actually okay. The Volturi back off. This way, the film can have its cake and eat it too. We can kill off major character, and keep them alive at the same time.
The film’s final scene shows Edward and Bella, so very in love, sitting in a field of flowers. Bella extends her psychic shield around Edward, and he can finally read her thoughts. What does she think of? Nothing but Edward. He seems pleased with this, and they fall to the ground smooching. We see the final word of Stephenie Meyer’s final book. The word is “forever.” Then there’s a photo montage of every single actor from all five films.
Breaking Dawn II is perhaps the best film in the series, as it finally cuts to the nitty-gritty and gives us action instead of angst, but it’s still not all that great. The characters are all kind of jumbled together at the last minute, and we’re still embroiled perhaps too deeply in this goofy vampire mythology to take any of this seriously. The film takes itself seriously, no question. We just don’t take it seriously. Consider this: The vampires, in this film, build a honeymoon cottage for Edward and Bella in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It’s stocked with shabby chic furniture and books that no one opens. The candles are even lit. It looks like Bella and Edward are going to move into an Anthropologie. This series has always been more about fashion than actual romance.
Many have cited the Twilight movies as being a serious blow to feminism and sex positivity, seeing as they stress romantic game-playing, manipulation, romantic conflict, and twisted, angsty chastity over any sort of real-life healthy depiction of teen love and sexuality. I’d rather teenagers take their cues from John Hughes and Cameron Crowe movies. If there are any teenage girls reading this, I recommend Say Anything.
But consider this: Twilight became such a phenomenon that fan fiction was inevitable. This means that fans the world over began writing their own Twilight stories wherein Edward and Bella finally broke down and had sex earlier than they did in Stephenie Meyer’s version of things. Most notably, a British woman named Erika Leonard, using the nom de plume E.L. James, wrote a whole novel of Twilight sex fantasies called Fifty Shades of Grey, which you know about. Grey is a forwardly smutty novel of hardcore sex scenes and outright pornographic descriptions of some pretty extreme sex acts. It details a sub/dom relationship between a Bella Swan type and an Edward Cullen type. Only this time Edward is a human named Christian Grey, and they’re both adults.
Fifty Shades of Grey, essentially Twilight fanfic, has been massively popular, rivaling the Twilight novels themselves in terms of their pop culture presence. The books have been so popular, in fact, I hear that many of its female readers have been dragging their male partners to sex toy shops and bondage gear outlets in order to try out what they read in the book. Which means many couples are likely having serious conversations about fetishes, sexuality, and are, perhaps, becoming more open about their sexual desires. In a roundabout way, a series of chastity-themed teen romance novels has brought forth a new wave of sex positivity.
The movies, however, don’t really hint at any of that. The films are insular. Hermetically sealed for the fans. Is there anything here for the uninitiated like me? Not really. I see some broody films with a new vampire myth.
But some people need only that. I was sitting next to a whole string of teen boys as my screening who had read the books back when they were first published, and liked the vampire mayhem. Maybe they have a broader appeal than I’m giving them credit for.
Me? I may feel like an expert, but I’m not going to argue with any fans. They’d kick my butt.
And speaking of fans kicking my butt, be sure to come back next week for The Series Project. It's high time I tackled another ringer series that has immensively informed and passionate fans. It's high time for Star Wars.
Also, if you're into this sort of thing, you can now contact me on a website called "Twitter." My secret "Twitter" codename is @WitneySeibold. I promise to "Twit" bizarre things, and nothing of substance.