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Breaking Dawn (Part 1): What do critics know anyway?

November 23, 2011

Warning: some spoilers.

I’m sure I stand almost alone (along with millions of Twi-hards) on this, but Breaking Dawn (Part 1) was a damn fun outing at the cinema this week, despite what the critics may say. In fact, the film was a marked improvement on the enjoyable yet comparably lacklustre previous three installments in the Twilight series.

It annoys me how vociferous people (men, cool people, grown-up people etc) are in the sneering anti-Twilight brigade. One has only to surf the average gossip site and read the comments posted underneath any image of Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson to see how they, and their fans, are regarded as the pinnacle of Uncool. Their every outfit, dramatic tic or personal detail (they stink, he doesn’t brush his teeth, she’s a no-talent lesbian etc etc) are listed and criticised, repeatedly. I venture a guess that all of this anonymous Hating is primarily because Twilight is a series for young women: a traditionally derided fanbase. No-one goes on about the misogynistic Michael Bay, his graceless and unattractive star and his unwatchable Transformers series because it brings in big Boy bucks. Big Girl bucks may be big bucks, but it’s never taken seriously. The older women, and there are many, who love this series are, equally, derided as perverted. (So it’s ok for pervy old men to lech after willowy teenage models but liking Taylor Lautner without his shirt is weird?) I know, the double standard thing has been supposedly done to death, but really, if it has, then why don’t things ever change? Isn’t physicality and sexuality (at their peak in the young and the perfect) meant to appeal in a slightly dehumanised, lump-of-meat way? And is this kind of sexuality so awful? The worship of beauty is the basis of every form of mass entertainment. These stars are the pin-ups of today in an increasingly tame and unerotic film industry where fewer and fewer films are made to appeal to older, mature audiences, let alone their diverse tastes! How can one blame mature women (and men) for drooling after young sexy ‘vampire’ actors when they are expressly marketed and framed that way (and so little else that is droolworthy)?

Gripes aside, the film definitely belongs to Kristen Stewart. Yes, the abstinence/sex after marriage/keep the unwanted baby thing Is probably motivated by author Meyer’s well-documented Mormon faith, but that’s no different to all the other conservative American shows and films is it? And I think in the case of vampires, endless teasing/abstinence works. It’s sexy that way. A little more blood lust would have gone down well in the series in my opinion – there is precious little vampire lore in evidence – but that’s a criticism of the novels as well (and all the others in the teenage/highschool/vampire mode of the last 20 years like L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries series, at least partially sexed up by the inclusion of Ian Somerhalder on TV).

Damn good thing the dad wasn't the wolf/guy on the right.

Book 4, Breaking Dawn, is all about the sex scene (in the film muted and abstracted, apparently – and sadly! – recut). For me, and my family, the main theme of the film was the pregnancy: portrayed as a real horror story. Until the perfect baby emerges (chewed out of its mother’s stomach by its father Edward!) one is horrified by an emaciated Bella (very well done effects here) and her bloated, blackened stomach. The trope of baby as demon, sucking the life-force from its host/mother, clawing its way through her insides and finally out has been well-documented in film from Alien to Rosemary’s Baby. Its the converse to the myth of the perfect pregnancy, a fear of impregnantion or infestation  that underlies most birth neuroses – or perhaps what one reviewer terms a ‘terrifying march against female sexuality‘ (“As far as I can tell this moral of this film is that getting pregnant is like being inhabited by a bottomless pit of a parasite that will eat you alive, and if you happen to survive the birth of this hungry little fucker, you must die just a little bit in order to be reborn into Mother, prepared for the sacrifices ahead…”) I agree with this summation in part, but the horror of these scenes is nonetheless very welcome, if confusing in the overall context. Without the horror, Bella’s journey to being Mrs Cullen would have been pretty darn dull, and even pointless.

Given what he had to deal with in terms of a deeply wacky source novel, director Bill Condon has done an admirable and emotionally convincing job. And Robert Pattinson is in all senses dreamy. As he has throughout the series he is strictly, and effectively, a romantic feed (like Greta Garbo’s male leads), drifting prettily around in the background, a perfect foil to the intense Bella. This one of the reasons the series is so popular: its all about the girl, not the boy. He’s there, yes, in an objectivised boy-as-unknowably-Other sense, because to teenage girls (and romantic older women) boys and men Are Other, and tend to remain so even after marriage. As romantic figures they are a surface that deflects the feelings and fantasies thrown at them.

This is why Twilight has worked for me, especially as a film series. Kristen Stewart, supposed flaws aside, is a fitting avatar for everywoman’s teenage/womanly romantic fantasies. She is Us. But distant, cooler and quirkier (so she’s still Heroic and a Star). The series, like it or not, appeals to us, or at least our baser, fantastic instincts. It’s not a realistic or a complex view of relationships, but who the hell wants that? The critics certainly. But as I always say, what the hell do they know anyway. They’re Critics, not the adoring Public.They are destined to judge as inadequate what the base audience wants. Because the cinema is the Dream Palace.

My only criticism of this film is the same as with the others in the genre, and the series of course. I have always been drawn to the classic vampire mythology, the lore; the vampire as demon. One doesn’t really want vampires with sperm and toddlers, vampires in sunshine, vampires who fit in at high school or play on the team. The vampire is supposed to be the Outsider, the dark prince feasting on our deviance and our fears. I long for the blood, the horror, the uber-Gothic psycho-sexual panorama of it all. This is missing in teenage vampireland, in all of the small towns across America inhabited by these school-going vampires seducing virginal yet alienated good-girls. One wishes Bella would rip out some throats. Just a few, for fun. For us traditionalists out there.

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