Friday, May 17, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Twilight’

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Twilight does what it wants to do more successfully than most movies. Complex and beautiful, it draws from Stephanie Meyer’s book but more importantly, the film drew from another source: Mary Shelley. Bella’s longing and confusion permeate much of the film and Hardwicke focuses on her yearning and desire in a way most films ignore, mock, trivialize, or punish.

In other words, it’s a good movie. It’s good in a way that it’s stunning that more people who say they love movies didn’t see how effortlessly Catherine Hardwicke threaded the cinematic needle. Most of the movie’s scorn comes from the series of books by Stephanie Meyer, who committed the grand crime of writing YA novels aimed at girls before they were in vogue.

Twilight is a movie about teenage love, brooding adolescence, sexual yearning, and vampires. The last two are essentially the same as stories about vampires have long been metaphors for sexual yearning or a sexual awakening. Though since Twilight is aimed at the younger set, it is a decidedly more PG version of the old tale.

Melissa Rosenberg, who adapted the book for the screen, also hints at werewolves. Werewolves play a more prominent part in the other movies but here they are merely referenced. But Rosenberg does a smart thing in adapting Meyer’s book, she plays it seemingly straight while also letting us know how silly it all is.

Rosenberg is never mean or cruel about the source material so much as knowing. Much like Meyer, she takes the pairing of Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) and makes them a sort of Romeo & Juliet, another famous pair of star crossed teenage lovers. 

Much like Shakespeare’s infamous play, Rosenberg acknowledges Bella and Edward are essentially two idiots in love, but much like the bard—and Meyers—that doesn’t mean she mocks them or thinks less of them. Hardwicke is no stranger to stories about adolescence and she is perfectly suited here.

In her hands, Twilight is a move steeped in the age-old tradition of Hollywood melodramas. It is impossible not to watch the moment with Edward and Bella circling a tree while they talk about Edward’s vampirism and not think of James Dean wrapping himself in a tree and offering an apple to Natalie Wood in A Rebel Without a Cause

I remember a lot of people, including myself, who mocked Edward’s reveal of what happens when vampires are exposed to sunlight, they sparkle. I agree it’s silly to see someone moan and groan about how they’re a horrible disgusting monster and then to prove it they show you how they glitter like a diamond in the sunlight. But as a metaphor for how most teenagers feel and how often the thing we hate about ourselves is really the thing that makes us unique? For a movie based on a YA novel for tween girls….that’s not bad.

Heck, not to mention here’s something else you may not know and it’s going to knock your socks off: Vampires aren’t real. Not in the slightest. This also means that there’s no “mythology” behind them because it’s all made up. There are no rules.

I have read countless articles, watched countless videos, about fans decrying how a writer had the audacity not to follow the lore or legend of the world. At the risk of angering my readers I have to confess I don’t give a toss about “lore” and “myth.” They have their purpose and their place but I find fans use them as shackles to oppose something the author made up to explain or justify something.

Vampires sparkle? Awesome. At least you’re doing something new. 

Not to mention that Hardwicke and Rosenberg use the scene to weave in a sliver of the Frankenstein monster mythos, which, again, for a movie aimed at tween girls, isn’t just fitting, it’s a little overwhelming. Carter Burwell’s score underlying the whole thing lends it a sort of grandiose operatic tone that not only fits-but fits perfectly.

Movies are rarely not just one thing or the other. They are a bunch of things at the same time. Sometimes a movie can be funny while also being dead serious and succeed at both. Movies such as The Girl on the Train, which is a trashy melodrama but is also a riveting little mystery.

Stewart and Pattison would go on to become two of the best actors of their generations. Under Hardwicke’s direction, they find interesting beats and ways of emoting. She allows room for the two to have genuine chemistry while also playing up the whole “I can’t be near you or I’ll go crazy,” literally, angle.

I mean come on. At one point Bella enters a classroom, sees Edward for the first time, and the oscillating fan blows her scent in his direction causing him to go wild with hunger. Hardwicke plays the scene out like love at first sight in a way we’ve seen countless times before but just a little more over the top. 

It’s all over the top. Which is the point. Twilight never claimed to be the theater of the subtle.

In one scene Bella and her friends are on the local reservation surfing. A few of the local Natives stop by, including a childhood friend named Jacob (Taylor Lautner). When talking about Edward and his clan one of Jacob’s friends says out loud, in front of multiple people—who react—“The Cullens don’t come around here.”

In the next scene, we find Bella and Jacob walking down the beach and Bella asks what his friend meant by, “The Cullens don’t come around here.” “You heard that, huh?”

After Edward and Bella, there is a scene where they walk together towards the school. and Bella complains, “Everyone is looking at us.” Edward looks around. “That guy’s not—oh wait—now he is.”

I will say that for a movie, not about baseball, Twilight seems to be almost bursting with baseball-ish talk and plot devices. I say “ish” because people talk a lot about baseball but it’s more than, “First Mariner’s game of the season! Whoo!” or “He’s working on his swing.” The characters talk about baseball in a roundabout way that no actual fan would stop at. 

At the same time baseball is so ubiquitous throughout the world of Twilight I couldn’t help have a goofy grin on my face as it just kept popping up for no real reason. I’ve only read a little of the book by Meyers but I would be curious to know if baseball plays as big a part in the books as well as the movie. Either way, it’s a charming quirk I can’t help but admire.

Everything, from the top down, makes it plain that Hardwicke and her team not only know what they are doing but are also having a blast. No other scene encompasses this more than the infamous Cullen baseball game. Played during an oncoming thunderstorm with “Supermassive Blackhole” by Muse jamming over the Russ Meyer inspired editing it is a scene that is, quite simply, pure cinema.

Nancy Richardson edited Twilight and the infamous baseball scene. Some would argue that cinematographer Elliot Davis at times makes the movie feel like a series of music videos. While at times the movie can certainly feel like a music video, especially towards the end, I think they do a tremendous job of carrying the mood of the moment over to the next scene. 

Richardson in particular takes the time to indulge in almost pure visual storytelling, such as when Bella is having thoughts about being romantic with Edward. The movie is cut in such a way as to feel like a Douglas Sirk film as imagined by Joel Schumacher—and I don’t mean that as an insult. It makes the movie seem alive in a way that a lot of movies aimed at boys simply do not.

Granted, no baseball game has ever, before or since, been edited like this. Baseball, which I would argue is a uniquely cinematic game, here feels like something more at home in a Baz Lurhman film. But it fits because the game is a portent of things to come in the next act. 

A series of murders have been happening around Forks, Washington. The local doctor, Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli), suspects wild animals. But in reality, it’s a roving trio of vampires who introduce themselves by catching a foul ball. The wind blows and now one of them is a tracker, which must now kill Bella. Why? Because it’s the third act and we need an action scene for our climax.

If I have a gripe about Twilight, and this is speaking as someone who the movie is clearly not aimed at, the final act fills a bit much. I was fine with Bella and Edward and their teenage drama. Bella talking to her father, also the sheriff, Charlie (Billy Burke) about Edward while he cleaned his rifle is one of my favorite scenes of the movie. The way Hardwicke and Davis frame the gun in the foreground while Bella stands by the barrel realizing too late that now probably isn’t the best time to talk about boys is another prime example of Douglas Sirk-ian influences.

But the whole “tracker who won’t stop until Bella is dead because for him the hunt is the thing and no one has ever seen a tracker like him” felt a little ho-hum. But Hardwicke, as with everything else, handles it deftly. The showdown in Bella’s old ballet studio seemed like a mix of Meatloaf and Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai and I am more than okay with that. 

The most surprising thing about Twilight is how at times visually lush the colors are while maintaining a sense of gothic melancholy. Davis washes the color out of most of the scenes as a way of hinting at gothic undertones. This is not to say there is no color, in fact at times, there are brilliant bursts of colors, to express Bella’s and Edward’s emotions. 

Twilight is over the top, melodramatic, and at times deeply silly. But Hardwicke knows this and leans into it. She embraces everything while also showcasing a deep talent for story-telling and visual theatrics. 

She takes everything seriously while never taking any of it all that seriously. It makes one wonder if Edward or Bella were a superhero rather than a vampire if maybe Twilight would be more well regarded. Or if Hardwicke as a director would be in more demand?

Hardwicke’s Twilight is a tale of gothic romance set in a modern world; blushing with empathy for its characters, and for those of us who remember a time when every emotion felt immediate and overwhelming. Another director would have tried to inject a dose of cynicism into the film, making it feel forced, phony, and a little cruel. That she tells a story of doomed star-crossed lovers without harsh judgment for Bella and Edward is an artistic feat all its own. 

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Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment

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