Since I’m neither a thirteen-year-old girl nor a purveyor of mass popular culture, it would seem like Twilight would naturally fall outside of my wheelhouse. However, the “Twilight phenomenon” intrigues me in an anthropological sense, like a wayward straggler peaking underneath a circus tent out of curiosity, rather than as something to be accepted as a fan or rejected with a sneer.
In order to rightfully judge Twilight, I’ll probably have to read the book rather than simply watch the movies. So, it’s off to the mall! Walking through on my way to Hot Topic, I couldn’t help but think of that Louis C.K. joke about how every shopping mall should have four lions randomly placed throughout in order to speed up human evolution. Anyway, I enter Hot Topic and wander around for a bit, as if I’m not looking for anything in particular, when I finally “happen” upon the Twilight display. Scanning across Twilight lunchboxes, Twilight hair dryers, Twilight action figures, Twilight motivational tapes, and the Twilight super deluxe Library of Congress sparkle edition, I finally notice a cheap looking paperback edition of the first novel and…$7.99? Full list price? I know that doesn’t sound like much, but I’m a cheap bastard and, more importantly, I refuse to pay full list for an older book that they are probably overstocked with and should be happy to get rid of at this point. I mean, who is in the market for the first Twilight book at this stage of the game? Besides me, of course.
So, I hit up our good friends at Amazon and, lo and behold, hundreds of people are selling used copies FOR A FUCKING PENNY. That’s a real deal, Holyfield. As a side note, I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would list something for sale on Amazon for a penny when it costs a minimum of a dollar to sell something on the site. I’m sure Mia Farrow would be glad to take those books off your hands and give them to needy children in Africa so they can use them for firewood or maybe build a Twilight fort they can hide in to protect themselves from the wayward gunfire of rampaging freedom fighters. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they could use the books to make a suit of Twilight armor to help keep the malaria out. Just a thought.
Anyway, I finally receive the book and start reading and HOLY SHIT THE WRITING IS BAD. There was a time when people judged popular fiction on the actual prose and not simply on the broad strokes of the story. You know, I once read a review of a Stephen King novel where the reviewer described the experience of reading the book being akin to eating an entire tub of cool whip in one sitting. That ran through my mind as I quaffed 500 pages of a 200 page young adult romance, courtesy of our long winded friend Stephenie Meyer. Not as long winded as myself, mind you, but long winded nevertheless.
In case you have been living under a rock, the place which I call home, Bella Swan (metaphorically hinting that she may be a “beautiful swan”) is a clumsy and awkward seventeen-year-old girl that moves from Phoenix to someplace called “Forks” in Washington State to live with her father. We know she’s clumsy and awkward because she literally “stumbles off the plane”, and we also figure out that she isn’t exactly close with her dad since she keeps calling him “Charlie” when referring to him in first person narration. I can’t say I really blame her for not being close to her dad since his biggest fatherly attribute is that he happens to be wearing a mustache.
Anyway, Forks is one of those sad bastard towns where it’s always raining and nobody is happy, at least according to Bella. You know, I am reminded of a Rob Zombie interview where he complained about generic 90’s grunge bands (not that he should be talking necessarily) that might release an album with a fork on the cover and call the album “Fork”, thereby intentionally sidestepping any potential meaningful interpretation of their music. Whatever that band is, they’re the coolest band in Forks.
Bella is an awkward plain Jane that has never had a boyfriend, yet she immediately becomes the object of desire of numerous boys, especially Edward, the most perfect of them all. We know he is perfect because Meyer describes him as such roughly 700 times, as if repeating this vague value judgment over and over again adds detail. In and of itself, “perfection” as a description is meaningless if we don’t even know what constitutes Bella’s idea of perfection. Either way, Edward comes across as a cipher in the book, and I guess the young female reader is supposed to insert their own idea of “perfection”, that dreamy boy they sit next to in chemistry class. Fair enough, but there is one crucial problem with that; hundreds of pages of a story about a cipher is fucking boring.
Now, there are several other boys in school who like Bella, but they are human and realistic and therefore are of no use to her. She is only attracted to the bullshit romantic fantasy Edward represents. He is completely standoff-ish at first, but one day, he suddenly shows a great interest in Bella, endlessly asking her questions about herself rather than engaging in any meaningful exchange.
Now folks, I’ve read “How to Pick Up High School Girls” (I read it in high school, you sickos), and the book makes it very clear that establishing a sense of mystery is tantamount into tricking a girl into thinking she is in love with you. I still try to employ these lessons on first dates, introducing myself by saying “well, yes I have hobbies. I’m actually a secret agent under the…I MEAN I LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT MOVIES ON THE INTERNET! Yes, that’s what I said. What did you think I said?” I haven’t hit pay dirt with that one yet, but I’m still working on it.
The point is, you can’t just go up to a girl and say “HI MY NAME IS BOB AND I LIKE TO READ SCIENCE FICTION AND I AM LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO LOVE SO I FEEL LESS LONELY AND BESIDES MY MOM IS FORCING ME TO GET A GIRLFRIEND SO I CAN EVENTUALLY GET MARRIED AND MOVE OUT OF THE BASEMENT”. You’re supposed to brood and pretend that you don’t care one iota about going out with anyone. She becomes tantalized by your aloof brooding and eventually walks up to you and asks you to the prom, at which point say “whatever” and walk away. Eventually, you’re supposed to succumb to her charms, as if to say “I cannot love, but since you are truly special, I will make an exception”. At this point you ask her an endless parade of questions. You see, women love to be asked questions. Every marriage counselor in the world will suggest to the husband “why don’t you ask your wife about her day when you come home from work?” Edward isn’t some suave guy that read the same handbook I did but manages to actually apply those lessons with some level of competence. He IS the handbook.
I know I’m overanalyzing things, but why would Edward be enraptured by Bella to begin with? As he puts it, “you fascinate me…you always take me by surprise.” Bullshit. He’s a 100 year-old vampire, and he’s suddenly fascinated by the most boring girl in school? Bella, whose only attributes are that she keeps falling over and occasionally complains about having to take a trigonometry test? In order for the likes of Edward to be fascinated and constantly surprised by a human female, I’d imagine she’d have to be a painter who moonlights as a motorcycle daredevil, which is actually a cover for her secret life as an assassin for the KGB. I thought immortals were supposed to be world weary.
Not only that, but what the fuck is a vampire doing attending high school? What’s the point of being an immortal creature of the night who can fly around if you have to spend all day in the most boring place on earth? Also, he doesn’t bite people on the neck or live in a castle or go up in flames when exposed to sunlight or holy water. Why bother making him a vampire when he doesn’t follow ANY of the friggin' rules of being a vampire? He glitters and sometimes plays baseball. Big freakin’ deal. Edward’s “vampirism” is more like a stylistic affectation, just a slight variation on the guy who decides to go goth with a Hot Topic spending spree using his dad’s credit card.
Now, it’s not a total stretch for a 17-year-old’s life to entirely revolve around a brand new crush, pushing aside any potential hobbies or future plans in the process, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It also makes for an incredibly boring protagonist, considering her entire character arc is to occasionally find herself in peril so she can be rescued by Edward. I guess this can all be considered part of the fantasy; a knight on a white horse saving your ass over and over again. However, Bella happens to be one of the most popular “heroines” of recent times, yet she’s completely passive and entirely dependent on a male, both physically and emotionally. While a female viewer can enjoy the story as a complete fantasy that in no way relates to real human relationships, these kind of stories (particularly those that are extremely popular) help feed this notion that women should be passive and let men take care of everything and make all the decisions. Trust me, you don’t want men making all the decisions. Remember the atomic bomb? Some dude made that. I rest my case.
Edward also has a certain “bad boy” appeal, in the sense that he has to repress his violent urge to bite Bella on the neck, just as a female might find a violent bad boy romantic, what with him repressing his desire to punch people in the face to be with her. However, the problem with dating someone who is repressing his desire to punch someone in the face is that he will invariably get angry and punch you in the face. It should be noted that there never seems to be any real danger emanating from Edward’s vampirism. There’s just a romantic idea that he would change his very essence for her. This could also be a bad example for young woman, romanticizing the process of “reforming” a bad boy, rather than celebrating the nice boy. Remember the saying “nice guys finish last?” Bullshit like this is one of the reasons.
Edward’s vampirism also provides an excuse for them not to be able to have sex, and somehow this abstinence equates to true love. Or, as Bella puts it, “I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.” Why? Because you keep glancing at the hottest boy in school and eventually kiss him and that’s as deep as it goes? I could see a 13-year-old girl naively coming to that conclusion, but Meyer is not critiquing this notion or presenting it “warts and all”, but rather exalting it as the one true idea of love; junior high school puppy love without the pre-marital sex. What’s the fun of a shallow love affair if you can’t roll around in the hay a little? It’s like an erotic fantasy minus the erotic part. Well, in fairness, my idea of “erotic” is probably a bit different than that of a 13-year-old girl. I’d rather not get into it though. Oh all right...it involves a lady plumber and a watermelon. That’s as far as I’ll go.
Of course, there is also Jacob, a different kind of cipher that also takes a shining to Bella. I haven’t read past the first book, where he doesn’t yet develop a real relationship with Bella, but the movies present him as a rural counterpoint to well-dressed society boy Edward. He is also younger (15 vs. 100) and more innocent than Edward, and is also a wolf man, of course. Again, similar to Edward, Jacob is the least wolfy wolf man I've ever seen. His “werewolfisms” usually consist of something along the lines of the scene where he growls a little after walking out of a movie he didn’t quite care for. Well hell, I do that all the time, except I actually have chest hair. I’m more of a werewolf than this fucking guy.
Anyway, Jacob is a Native American boy who never wears a shirt because he exists only to encapsulate a harlequin romance fantasy, and not because it is illegal in his religion to wear a shirt (although that was my first guess). He likes to work on his motorcycle while Bella watches on, which checks off another one of the rules in the “How to Pick up High School Girls” handbook; women like to see a man do manly things with their manly hands. Bella throws on the jeans and the sad bastard flannel and watches a man do all the work, momentarily sampling the rustic lifestyle. In pure soap opera fashion, the central conflict is whether Bella wants to go high society with super hottie Edward or go low society with super hottie Jacob. I guess this is Bella’s one important decision to make as a woman.
On the surface, Twilight the book seems like ripe material to be improved upon in its transition to screen, and for while, it does. The vague and leaden prose of Meyer is replaced with a somber realism (well, sort of), and the ciphers are replaced with flesh and blood human beings (kinda). You know, if Kristen Stewart starred in a show like this called “Sad Flannel”, sort of a really dumb version of My So-Called Life, I would actually watch it. However, once Edward swoops in to save the day by magically stopping a van with one hand before it crushes Bella, all semblance of high school reality is thrown out the window. In the book, you could sorta imagine that Edward was still a human being that heroically put himself on the line to save Bella, but the movie presents it as a CGI superhero feat straight out of a shitty Superman sequel (the last one, I guess). Yet, Bella doesn’t truly believe that something is amiss with the guy until she googles the word “vampire” about an hour in to the movie. Even more ridiculous is that his cover is never blown despite performing this feat in front of half the student body. It also completely undermines Bella’s character; she comes across as aware and intelligent, but suddenly has to become an oblivious moron to serve the plot.
Now, I know what you’re thinking…Kristen Stewart as Bella? Aware and intelligent? Folks, let me come clean…I LOVE KRISTEN STEWART. Remember the Oscars, where she slumped in her seat the entire time as if she was attending a lecture on quantum mechanics? I thought that was hot. Let me put this way: Hollywood is a town of big tits and confidence, and K-Stew is oblivious to big tits and confidence, and this, combined with a lithe-tomboy-next-door look, is exactly the kind of woman that gets my quarks spinning.
Having said all that, I will try to come to this with a more analytical, less crotch-oriented perspective. Kristen has her own style of acting, maybe a fumbling method, and she excels at it. Bella is the every-girl who is supposed to be clumsy and awkward and uncool (in theory), and Stewart manages to ground and breathe life into a character that was barely a character to begin with. She processes dialogue from others, stammering her way to an answer like someone fumbling in the dark, rather than as someone who spews dialogue confidently right when the other actor is finished, unleashing their acting technique drilled into them by a failed actor. If real life is a serious of awkward moments, Kristen refuses to admit otherwise. Some may call it a shtick, but I prefer to call it an honest process that is admittedly limited to certain kinds of roles.
Anyway, the film further drops the ball with the reveal of Edward’s other special powers. Not only is his ability to run fast and jump high and sparkle rendered with laughable CGI, but the reality of the film is sabotaged in the process. If you’re gonna plant the story in mundane reality, sudden flights of fancy prove incongruous, especially if these flights are computer generated and completely stupid. I can imagine an otherwise similar story that replaces the super powers with psychological horror. A girl becomes attached to a strange boy, but becomes alarmed that he may be a vampire, and the movie plays with “he can’t be, but maybe he is” dynamic (like George Romero’s Martin). Her simple crush becomes an erotic push and pull, and the danger is palpable. Of course, that would no longer be Twilight. My point is, I am not fundamentally opposed to a cheesy Lifetime Channel high school vampire romance. In fact, I was ready to welcome it with fairly low expectations. Just be either boring or stupid, but not both. You're not allowed to be both.
You know, a wise man may have once said that most things that become super popular are just the same old bullshit repackaged with a slight twist. With that in mind, there’s a scene that is a perfect encapsulation of the series. In Twilight: New Moon, Edward calls Bella’s house and Jacob answers, so he hangs up and crushes a cheap breakaway phone in his hand. The “realistic” version of the scene in a teen love triangle soap is the same, except that Edward breaks the phone by throwing it against the wall. His power to crush the phone is just cheesy genre window dressing, and the monster powers that create the conflict between them are just as forced as you’ll see in some terrible romantic comedy. Sure, there is all the backstory with the conflict between the vampire clan and the werewolf clan, but that feels like stock footage from another movie, specifically a Syfy network rip-off of Underworld.
So, whether we like it or not, Twilight is a trashy escapist fantasy elevated to the status of literary epic, and not to mention the defining love story of a big chunk of a generation. I guess it goes to show that the majority considers base escapism to be the pinnacle of art, at the expense of everything else. Why bother thinking when it feels good to just perpetually glance across the cafeteria at a perfect mystery boy?
Having said that, if Kristen gets naked in the next movie, I take everything back.