2
Aug
2011
Confessions: Adventures in the Awesomely Awful
the Twilight Saga
Rachel

We all have them: guilty pleasures. Those shows we don't tell our friends we watch, those movies we see over and over when we don't want to think, the books we hide under our beds. In Confessions, I try to explore what makes these particular pop-culture gems so compelling, and try to exorcise some of the bad mojo that surrounds them.

Books by Stephanie Meyer

Twilight

New Moon

Eclipse

Breaking Dawn (upcoming film in two parts)

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Kellan Lutz, Ashley Greene, Anna Kendrick, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Michael Welch, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser

In a delightful piece for Esquire Chuck Klosterman rips apart the term "guilty pleasure," saying that our pop-culture tastes, no matter what they entail, don't need to be shameful. Hypothetically, I agree. But I have a fancy, new college degree in literature and a fantastic group of judgmental and argumentative friends that have made me into a particularly discerning asshole, so I generally don't like to let on that I buy into fads, watch movies that wouldn't make an AFI best-of list, or follow television shows that aren't known for their scathing wit, harsh social commentary, or average-audience confounding irony.

But when I'm alone in my room, ensconced in the corner of a coffee shop with a nice pair of headphones, or curled up sick on the couch, I cannot lie: I love watching and reading things generally considered awful. Maybe it's because I've spent so much of my life attempting to submerse myself in things that academia would consider worthy of serious study. But I need a palate cleanser every once in a while, and I usually find that in the form of a SyFy channel movie about giant prehistoric sharks, the season's most maligned romantic comedy, or a book with a cover the color of bubblegum. Often these are the things I connect most strongly over with friends or new encounters, as if we share some kind of secret and are therefore bonded together by a weird form of mutually assured destruction.

So I'm here to say, come out of the closet, ye Chick Lit lovers and secret top-20 listeners! Embrace those big budget movies devoid of any actual substance! Forget the stigma. Because really, if you're too embarrassed to share your pop culture with someone, you're most likely partaking in some real serious secret shit that will debase any kind of connection way worse than admitting you like to rock out to Britney Spears on the subway. And I'm so willing to support the airing of such habits that I'm starting this column with perhaps my most shameful guilty pleasure.

My name is Rachel, and I have read/seen every book/movie in the Twilight Saga.

Let me set the stage for this one. I was a latecomer to the whole Twilight thing. The books came out while I was still in high school, and my best friend and I used to mock them whenever we walked passed their overloaded shelves in the Barnes and Noble that was our primary hangout in our small suburban New Jersey town. Vampires? Come on. Laaaame. And it didn't help that they were being positioned as "the next Harry Potter series." I mean, really, no. Just no. That was not something I was (or am, dammit!) willing to accept. In fact, I'd maintain that this is part of what drives a lot of the Twilight hatred. So many people are ridiculously attached to Harry, myself included, and these books do not share any of the characteristics that make the Harry Potter series great.

Then I spent a month living with a friend the summer after my freshman year of college, and she swore that I absolutely had to read them. By this point, the movies and cast had been announced, and I was definitely enticed by the fact that that hot dude who died in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Robert Pattinson. Swoon.) was going to play the too-hot-to-be-mortal male lead. Plus, it was hot out, I was bored, and they were there. She was a book ahead of me, and we wound up reading all three (at the time) books in four days. Pathetic, I know.

Part of what makes the Twilight Saga (books, movies, and fandom all included) is just how seriously they all seem to take themselves. From the opening scene of the first movie, depicting a helpless deer being hunted by a yet unseen killer, complete with a stoic and emotionless voiceover from Kristen Stewart as Bella, talking about the virtue of dying for someone you love and Washington state weather, the entire franchise becomes acceptable when you look at it as a giant joke. In fact, I'm rewatching them now, laughing so hard I'm sure my neighbors think I've completely lost my mind. There is something oddly attractive about the complete lack of subtlety, the total absence of nuance that pervades everything Twilight, to being so thoroughly let off the hook when it comes to intellectual exertion. At least on this side of adolescence, its nice to look back and realize that everything that happened to you at 17 really wasn't as big a deal as you made it out to be (I guess I just worry about all those poor kids looking in from the other side, feeling like this franchise really gets them). Twilight wraps up all these complicated adolescent feelings, when you're discovering the death drive and giving in to your hormones at the same time. Dating a vampire covers both of those bases: yea, there is the very real chance you're going to die, but I'd bet the sex you'd have in the process would be great.

Nearly every frame of the movies is absolutely, mind-numbingly awkward, replete with sullen lip-biting, bad pancake makeup, and pained grimacing. I especially love the scene in the first movie when the Cullen clan gets introduced, a coordinating parade of white cotton and denim as they mosey into the lunch room, completely aware that they're being talked about but coolly aloof. And then there's the scene where Edward (Pattinson) first catches Bella's scent, and responds with clenched hands and looks that make it seem like he is about to projectile vomit all over the class of unsuspecting mortals. But he's so dreamy, you can't really blame him. It probably doesn't hurt that I have a soft spot (more like a large, never healing bruise that I'm constantly poking) for boys who are pale and brooding.

While the relationship timetable is drastically expedited in the books and the movies, the movies suffer even more because they pull towards the action packed, sacrificing character and relationship development. In the first movie, the relationship of our star crossed primary couple, meant to be an earth-shaking, bedrock connection, seems to erupt out of a few chance encounters and a handful of intense conversations. The major climactic action of the first movie (a band of rogue vampires coming in and attempting to kill Bella because she's apparently vampire crack ala Sookie Stackhouse) occurs on Edward and Bella's first real (very Mormon) date: baseball with the whole family. And in New Moon, most of the shots depicting the relationship simply show an enamored Bella staring at a sparkling Edward in a meadow full of wildflowers: no talking, no touching, just an overly zealous appreciation of their nubile bone structure. This is also true of the friendship between Bella and Alice; while it is shown in the films, we're left to just take it for granted that such a friendship developed, as we see only the after effects, and none of the process. This all contributes to the ridiculousness of the entire series. How am I supposed to take this connection seriously, when it is rooted so strongly in scent and sight?

Edward presents the weirdest thing about himself as the fact that his skin sparkles in the sun ("the skin of a killer," he calls it. I mean, try not to laugh at that. I dare you.) and that he is dangerously attractive. And it's true. I mean, so pretty. So very, very pretty. But there's something compelling in the way that he loves her. He goes against his better nature, against all the things he knows he should and shouldn't do, because of his feelings for her (manifested at first in an alarming attraction to the small of her blood. I'm purposefully overlooking that). He's strong and smart and capable and wants what's best for her, even going as far as to admit (repeatedly) that it probably isn't him. His constant struggle to keep her human, despite Bella's protestations, and the way he never really pressures her into any of the corners your average relationship builds, typically concerning sex, can be read as endearing and genuine, when taken with a (very large) grain of salt. He's spent his century of un-death going to school, which is incredibly attractive (I can think of no better way to spend eternity than in a classroom. But that's probably just me), and he owns basically every album ever pressed. And he looks damn good in a suit. He really comes into his own film-wise in Eclipse, where he is actually able to be a person. This happens a bit earlier in the books, but really, for the most part, you're in Bella's head, and it isn't that pleasant an experience (this makes me wish that Stephanie Meyer would suck it up and write Midnight Sun, the first book from Edward's point of view, which she kiboshed after a chapter got leaked on line).

Twilight is the girly, romantic version of a summer popcorn blockbuster, where instead of things blowing up, you get hot shirtless guys and some cheesy romance. As the plots become more action packed later into the series, the movies tried to market themselves as good for the guys as well as the gals (or gays), but really, I think that tactic is completely off base. The special effects are on par with your high-end SyFy channel movie (which I really do not understand, considering the amount of money these films pull in. Clearly Summit knows that their primary audience really doesn't care, and the studio is just looking to make as much of a profit as possible), again feeding into the B-list phenomenon that surrounds all of the movies. They're made fast, devoid of any real resonant meaning or message, and realism is definitely not a factor, so much so that I wish the wider audience and the studio would embrace the kitsch, like I so willingly have.

There is one major benefit to how over exposed The Twilight Saga has been: the redemption of Rob Pattinson. The 75 billion interviews he has done since shooting to stardom on the back of this franchise make him seem endearing (whereas Kristen Stewart kind of just seems like an ungrateful bitch). Particularly in the later movies, where he unabashedly mocks the series and proclaims how ready he is for the entire thing to be over. He always seems so quick to laugh and anathema to the deathly serious franchise that I can't help but feel bad for him (look forward to an upcoming "Stupid Pretty" column exploring this further). I admire his often discussed choice to play Edward as a manic-depressive, constantly burdened by the existential complications presented by his predicament, rather than as the perfect Adonis Stephanie Meyer and the screeching hordes craft Edward into, instead creating an awkward, tormented, and confused male lead who somehow makes us forget that he stalks his girlfriend.

Nothing is helped by Kristen Stewart's "acting" (most of the acting is pretty B-list, which adds to the kitschy quality of it all, but makes the series completely unpalatable to anyone unwilling to accept my joke premise), which makes her look continually confused, bored, pained, and/or constipated. Since the films started getting churned out in 2008, I have never understood the hype around this girl, all the praise she's gotten for being one of the "greatest actresses of her generation." She's barely capable of finishing a sentence the minute a situation becomes emotional. And I can't even chalk it all up to the camp, considering she comes across as the same person at press events and in other roles. Same lip biting, same painful awkwardness, same bored monotone minutely inflected to fit any purpose.

But it makes sense, really, because in the movies, and even more so in the books, Bella is nothing but a placeholder for the growing army of girls who not-so-secretly wish for an Edward to come and love them more than anything on the planet. Bella lacks a personality outside of self-deprecation; she doesn't consider herself worth loving and therefore doesn't believe that anyone, in particular a super-hunky immortal, could love her. And yet despite all of her insecurities concerning her perceived inadequacies, which, lets face it, almost every girl has felt at some point, she is loved by someone willing to place her firmly at the center of his life, someone who wants to protect her and provide for her, and who has abs that look like they've been carved out of marble. It is this lack of personality and self-respect that make Bella so willing to overlook the fact that Edward's behavior is obsessive and controlling, if you're looking at it realistically. But really, who wants to look at it realistically.

I have to take all of the Twilight related material as a joke, because if I don't, it is actually kind of terrifying. All joking about how pretty Edward is aside, it's downright dangerous to encourage girls, particularly teenagers, to look at Edward and Bella's relationship as a model. He develops a habit, even before they're dating, of sneaking into her room to watch her sleep. She gives up all of her friends so she can spend every waking moment with him, and is apparently completely incapable of sticking up for or protecting herself, outside of her odd mental force field that repels special vampire powers. He does things like steal her sparkplugs so she can't leave her house, and she becomes willing to give up her very humanity, to forsake her family, her beliefs, and her species, to spend forever with him. Even in New Moon, when Edward temporarily disappears, Bella simply replaces him with Jacob in a similarly sexless, still dangerously codependent relationship that again causes her to spin out of control when it disappears. She consistently puts herself into grave physical danger because the adrenaline rush produces a hallucinatory Edward that tells her exactly what to do and how to behave (so basically, her dream really is to have him completely dictate her actions). And both Bella and Edward's tendency to turn to suicide when faced with hardships in their relationship creates a dangerous dynamic of all or nothing that emotionally immature teenagers could be unable to understand as an extreme rather than as a norm. Yes, I get the idea of self-sacrifice when it comes to the ones you love, but this whole series makes that point too real an option. The not-so-subtle alignment of drinking human blood and sexual appetites toes the line of abstinence-only propaganda that irresponsibly positions sex as akin to illicit drug use (Edward calls Bella his "own personal brand of heroin").

All of the jocundity with which I approach the Twilight Saga goes out the window the SECOND Edward and Bella get back from their honeymoon in Breaking Dawn. As much as I'd love some hypothetical children, I don't know how comfortable I am with letting said theoretical progeny break my spine and eat its way out of my womb. I cannot abide freakish baby hybrids, or werewolves falling in love with said freakish baby hybrids, or dumb as hell army mobilizations that end in absolutely nothing happening. In fact, most of Breaking Dawn suffers from what I've recently started calling "the GaGa phenomenon," meaning that the fun of the spectacle disappears in the face of a forced message that eliminates the pleasure and just leaves the guilt.

But did I mention that Robert Pattinson is really pretty?

The Little Things

-The books are lovely exercises in proofreading. Was the copy editor covering this at Little, Brown & Co. so eager to get these tomes out before the fervor died down that he/she was willing to overlook grammar? Or was the predominantly teenage audience enough to toss such considerations aside? Great practice for me, though

-What is Peter Facinelli going for with that accent? I just don't get it. But it makes me laugh nonetheless

-One thing about the series that isn't a joke: the films' soundtracks. We're talking some major hardhitters here. Florence & the Machine, Muse, Iron & Wine, Death Cab for Cutie, Lykke Li, the Killers, Bon Iver, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Thom Yorke, Metric, Sia, the Black Keys, Beck, Band of Horses, and, aptly enough, Vampire Weekend. Definitely not a roster to scoff at. Not to mention a few early performances by Pattinson himself, which sort of make me wish he'd take off for a few years after the series wraps up and focus on music while the seething hordes slowly forget who he is

-Anna Kendrick as Bella's on-again, off-again human friend, Jessica, is superb. Kendrick presents the character as the perfect combination of vapid teenage airhead and actually caring, functioning human being, providing a much-needed counterbalance to Bella's typically severity

-And if we're talking about the supporting cast, I absolutely adore Billy Burke as Bella's father, Charlie. His interactions with best friend Billy Black (Gil Birmingham) and his too few moments of fathering with Bella make it clear that the adults in Forks are way more entertaining and light hearted than the much too somber teenagers

-From all of the interviews, photo shoots, and press events I've seen since this whirlwind started in 2008, I've determined that I want the Cullen boys (Edward, Emmett, and Jasper, played by Pattinson, Kellan Lutz, and Jackson Rathbone, respectively) to be my best friends (perhaps with benefits). They're so adorable.

-Twilight the movie definitely gives the biggest laugh, mostly because of Catherine Hardwicke's highly stylized direction. The later films tried to take on a more realistic tone and view (emphasis on "tried"), so the kitsch gets taken down a notch. I can barely even watch most of the end of New Moon, what with the crappy fighting, odd special effects, and overly dramatic vampire tribunal that turn vampires into real, terrifying things rather than just quirky lovers and best friends (all of the consequences that Edward's been talking about suddenly come alive, and who wants that?). Or maybe I'm just jaded by the fact that Rob Pattinson isn't present for most of New Moon and Eclipse gives significantly more screen time to other characters

-Kristen Stewart's wig in Eclipse is god-awful. Like really. So is Jackson Rathbone's ever changing hair. They never seem to get it right. Poor guy

-O Taylor Lautner, you seem so earnest. But you also seem like a Disney fame whore, so I can't love you, no matter how great your abs are.



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