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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

Love That Never Dies

Twilight of the vampires

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It can't touch Harry Potter for scope of popularity but in some pockets of pop culture, the Twilight series has reached Beatlemania in intensity. The "young adult" novels about a handsome teenage vampire boy and the mortal girl who loves him have sold 17 million copies. Just like the Hogwarts brigade but on a smaller scale, the announcement of a movie adaptation stirred speculation, consternation and controversy among fan bloggers.

Although I can't speak to whether the book was better, I will speculate that some of the scenes in Twilight the movie were better left on the page and in the imagination of readers than visualized through not-so-special special effects. As a horror thriller it leaves many things to be desired, including lapses in the consistency of the fantasy vision. The vampires in author Stephenie Meyer's books aren't restricted to coffins by day but become noticeably inhuman in bright sunlight, hence their preference for cloud covered climes like the story's setting in Forks, Washington. But by movie's end they journey unnoticed to sunny Phoenix in broad daylight. The superhuman strength possessed by these creatures is sometimes displayed poorly. Although there is humor in Twilight, some of the laughter at the screening I attended was unintended.

But despite flaws in drama and staging, Twilight has several interesting things to show and tell. The protagonist, Bella, is a high school junior in the increasingly familiar role of migratory child, fitting uncomfortably within the uncertain boundaries of a broken family. For reasons left unclear (mom's new husband?), Bella decides to trade Phoenix for her birthplace, tiny Forks, where dad patrols the narrow byways as police chief. It's an eccentric Twin Peaks town with menace lurking in the woods.

Bella resembles her garrulous mom less than the taciturn dad she barely knows. Played with dressed-down realism by Kristen Stewart, she wallows in being alone yet longs for companionship. Twilight's high school society is shown with understanding, down to the giggly awkwardness and whispering gossip of kids shedding their children's bodies while swimming toward the shore of adulthood.

And then there is Edward Cullen, who stands out in school like a spiked wristband at a jackets-only club. A member of a mysterious family of foster kids presided over by the enigmatic town doctor, Edward is outrageously handsome, brooding and smoldering. The relatively unknown British actor Robert Pattinson channels James Dean and young Montgomery Clift for the inner pain Edward can neither articulate nor ameliorate. Something is tearing him apart!

Much of Twilight concerns the love that sparks between Bella and Edward, a relationship fraught with attraction and repulsion, the uncertainty of adolescence multiplied a thousand times by the gap between the living and the undead. The Cullen clan has chose to discipline its vampire hunger, preying on animal rather than human blood. But should they sink their teeth into someone, the frenzy becomes an uncontrollable orgasm.

Twilight can be read as a fable of abstinence, an almost troubadour devotion that dare not manifest itself sexually. Bella and Edward obviously want each other but the result of carnal knowledge would be more complicated than an unwanted pregnancy or even the usual run of sexually transmitted disease. Bella would become like Edward, trading her young life for a shadowy existence that could linger into eternity. Their story is a reflector for adolescent dreams and anxiety.

It also represents the shifting image of vampires in popular culture. From Bram Stoker through Bela Lugosi they maintained their primal aura of evil and fear, but somewhere along the way they became capable of sympathy. Like the undead couple played by David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, the Cullen family are learned and cultivated in the art and wisdom of the ages. They are like Anne Rice's undead, fashionable and heroic. But as in Blade, Underworld and other recent films, there are good vampires and bad. For some of the creatures humankind is a natural resource to be exploited. Others remember and value their ties to humanity. It's Bella's good fortune to have fallen in with the latter, especially when the menace lurking in the woods near Forks makes its face known.
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