Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wendigo Meets THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1 (2011)

Regular readers should know the drill by now, but for the uninitiated, my friend Wendigo is a fan of the Twilight books and rejects the contention that Stephenie Meyer's use of vampires is "wrong" in any significant way. The folklore of the vampire has evolved over time and keeps evolving, and if it evolves to the point that they become often-benign fantasy creatures -- elves in our world, I say -- so be it. That being said, Wendigo's attitude toward the Twilight movies is more tempered. He feels that the series started strong, slipped in the second installment -- the story required more emotional range than Kristen Stewart had at the time, -- and recovered in the third part. He waited for the fourth film with trepidation, knowing that Summit Entertainment had cynically decided to divide the final book into two films, Harry Potter style. We saw Deathly Hollows Part 2 a few days before Breaking Dawn Part 1 and thus were well aware of the pitfalls of splitting a long novel -- the Potter series sadly staggered to its conclusion, we felt. While Wendigo thought that the novel Breaking Dawn did have a convenient dividing point, he wasn't certain that writer Melissa Rosenberg and new director Bill Condon would pick the right spot. He feared that, like Deathly Hollows Part 1, the first Breaking Dawn would feel unpleasantly incomplete.
Part 1 actually takes us about two-thirds through the novel, but Wendigo says that's where it should break if you have to break it. The final third and second film will bring a lot of new characters into the spotlight, some of whom are introduced fleetingly in Part 1 -- most notably a group of Cullen-inspired Alaskan vampires who show up for the long-awaited nuptials of Edward (you know who) and Bella Swan (ditto). In simplest terms, the first film leads up to the climactic moment of the book if not the entire series, the violent birth of Bella's hybrid baby, while the second film addresses the consequences, hinted at in a mid-credits visit to the Volturii, those nasty foreign vampires who've been spoiling for a fight with the kindly Cullen clan.  Part 1 itself divides neatly into halves, the first building up to the wedding and Brazilian honeymoon, the second playing out Bella's unexpected and increasingly nightmarish pregnancy.



Even Wendigo feels that the wedding preparation, the ceremony and the celebration dragged a bit. So if you're not all in for Twilight, the first 45 minutes or so of the picture may be unendurable. Everything is nicely shot by Condon, a proven talent, but the content, especially to the uninitiated, is on the level not even of a Lifetime but a Hallmark TV movie -- less menace than benign numbness. Wendigo stresses that the tone in the novel is less treacly; the wedding in print is a more bittersweet event, more starkly a farewell to the life and the people Bella has known, than the movie's celebratory tone suggests. For moviegoers, the wedding is a payoff, a victory lap, the audience's reward for three film's worth of patience. Few shadows are cast, the most prominent by the sulking Jacob (you know who, too), and Condon leavens the happy tone with Ed's flashback confession to his Depression-era career as a vigilante vampire and Bella's horrorshow dream of her family slaughtered by her bloodstained intended.
 
Above: Depression Edward eyes some action while Bride of Frankenstein plays in an homage by the director of Gods and Monsters to himself. Below...Are you entertained? Is this what you came to see?

Wendigo's big complaint about the first half is less with the wedding than with the silly reception speeches. It's meant to be funny, but he found it generic and tedious -- though I felt that Pattinson was at his most relaxed to date during Ed's slightly tipsy speech. Wendigo felt that time would have been better spent recreating the exotic mystery of the new couple's journey to their Brazilian honeymoon island. Condon pays too much attention to the swanky furnishings of the Cullen vacation house -- including their all-too fragile bed -- to evoke the location the way Meyer does. The landscapes back in Forks may be familiar by now, but that doesn't relieve Condon of an artistic obligation to make it look impressive. Part 1 was the most claustrophobic of the Twilight films so far as far as Wendigo was concerned. That said, Condon pulled off some nice visuals, even if he's more comfortable with interior than with outdoor space, and the action sequences with the superspeedy vampires and the CGI wolves were mostly well done. Condon may be the most prestigious director to take on Twilight, but in Wendigo's opinion Catherine Hardwicke still sets the standard for handling the material right.

Above, the voice of Taylor Lautner stands out from the pack.
Below, the live Lautner bows before the Cullen baby, his "imprinted" mistress.


Bella and Edward's honeymoon is cut short when the new Mrs. C. finds herself visibly pregnant after only two weks of marriage. This catches all the Cullens flatfooted -- in patriarch Carlisle's centuries of medical practice he's never heard of a vampire impregnating a human -- while it infuriates the Forks wolfpack, who regard the impending offspring as an abomination. It's not so good for Bella, either, since the baby is like a parasite, draining her vitality from within. This leads to differences of opinion -- Jacob defies his pack to protect Bella (for a film focusing on the main pair's wedding, Wendigo felt that Taylor Lautner stole it with a forceful performance), and more importantly, the Cullens are split over whether the baby should be aborted -- if possible -- or carried to term. Ultimately it's Bella's decision, and despite being well-aware of the mortal risk to her, she insists on keeping the baby and -- still more horribly -- naming it "Ejay" if it's a boy and "Renesme" if a girl. Don't ask. A political message might be inferred here, but the movie doesn't really try to make a political issue of it. Both sides of the debate have good arguments, but it probably makes sense in the overall context of Twilight for Bella to carry the baby to term.



Since we started watching the movies Wendigo and I have pondered what metaphoric meaning vampirism might have for Stephenie Meyer. By now we're fairly convinced that it stands simply for coming of age, for the rites of passage that culminate, for females, in childbirth. It seems archetypically right that Bella should finally be turned upon giving birth, on an understanding that vampirism represents the mystery of adulthood, its pains and responsibilities, from the anxious yet ardent perspective of Meyer's target readership of teenage girls. Wendigo would add that the target audience really could extend to anyone capable of empathy with those adolescent feelings. It's a pretty good overarching metaphor -- but we haven't quite figured out where the shapeshifting Indians fit into the symbolic plan.


Cullens must fight for a very good reason,
Punching out wolves like Liam Neeson. Y'heard?

Breaking Dawn Part 1 disappoints Wendigo slightly for being less explicit and graphic, in order to keep the PG-13 rating, than the book. That means we don't get to see Bella nude and we don't see the baby's birth in all its splatterpunk splendor -- Edward discreetly bites through Bella's belly and placenta offscreen, obscured by mommy's belly. It's the main moment when the book lives up to the expectation horror fans bring, rightly or not, to anything dealing with vampires. While I felt the pregnancy and birth were the strongest drama of the movie series so far, Wendigo stresses that the film's birth scene falls far, far short of the horror that might finally have reconciled gorehounds and genre buffs to these much-hated films. Readers actually feared for Bella's survival, but the film's toned-down presentation, and the obvious fact that a sequel's on the way, diminish any anxiety viewers might fear. The cliffhanger becomes not whether Bella will survive, but what kind of vampire she'll be as she wakes up red-eyed in the final shot of Part 1.


Wendigo isn't worried over whether there'll be enough material left in Breaking Dawn for one more feature film. He can't really explain without spoiling Part 2, but suffice it to say that "all sorts of stuff" happens. He's also satisfied with Part 1 as it is, though he admits to a bias in favor of the material that makes him potentially more forgiving than he was with the last two Harry Potter films. But he thinks he could say objectively that Breaking Dawn Part 1 is better than either half of Deathly Hallows. It's still well short of the standard set for him by the first film -- though his wish that Hardwicke had stayed on was dampened after seeing Red Riding Hood -- and he doesn't think it's quite as good as Eclipse was. But at least it didn't make him dread seeing the final film in the series. Despite his reservations and criticisms, he's looking forward to seeing Condon close things out.

1 comment:

Crhymethinc said...

The problem with making vampires "heroic" or sympathetic characters, is that they cannot be. Think of it - Edward is shown as being close to a hundred years old if not more? After a few hundred years of watching mortals age, wither and die, what does that do to the mental state of any intelligent being? So a vampire, at some point, must become numb and emotionless simply to maintain sanity.

After Interview with a Vampire, I refuse to watch or read any "modern" interpretation of vampires. Especially those penned by silly people who want to turn everything into some weird pseudo-romantic Hallmark garbage. From what I've been told of these books, there is no reason whatsoever for the protagonist to be vampires. They could just as easily be white trash or eurotrash or Paris Hilton.