Offhand, it would be hard to think of a pop phenomenon as rapturously beloved as the Twilight saga that is also as vociferously hated. My God, the hate! If swoony-gauzy teen-bloodsucker romanticism with a golden-eyed indie-rock James Dean as love object isn’t your cup of passion, then fine – so be it. But why the frothing torrents of resentment? I was seriously shocked, for instance, reading some of the comments on Lisa’s recent post, to see that this much stone-pelting hostility could be directed at an actress as lovely and expressive as Kristen Stewart. What is her crime? Having a personality moody and brainy and distinctive enough that it carries over, maybe a bit too much, from one role to the next? (That was true, as well, of the young Jane Fonda, whom Stewart often recalls.) It makes me wonder what, deep down, is getting the haters so flea-bitten scratchy under the collar.
Frankly, I think it’s this: The ascendance of the Twilight saga represents an essential paradigm shift in youth-gender control of the pop marketplace. For the better part of two decades, teenage boys, and overgrown teenage boys, have essentially held sway over Hollywood, dictating, to a gargantuan degree, the varieties of movies that get made. Explosive truck-smashing action and grisly machete-wielding horror, inflated superhero fantasy and knockabout road-trip comedy: It has been, at heart, a boys’ pig-out, a playpen of testosterone at the megaplex. Sure, we have “chick flicks,” but that (demeaning) term implies that they’re an exception, a side course in the great popcorn smorgasboard.
No more. With New Moon, the Twilight series is now officially as sweeping a juggernaut on the big screen as it ever was between book covers. And that gives the core audience it represents – teenage girls – a new power and prevalence. Inevitably, such evolutions in clout are accompanied by a resentful counter-reaction. For if power is gained, then somewhere else (hello, young men!) it must be lost.
Yet such is the populist magic of Hollywood that these movies can’t simply be written off as some overblown high-school vampire version of a Miley Cyrus concert. Or, more to the point, they can be (hello, haters!), but that completely misses what’s going on in them.
I went into New Moon having not read the book, and so I didn’t really experience the movie as an adaptation, or watch it as any sort of Twilight die-hard. Leaving aside a few leaping boy-to-wolf transformations (which could, at this point, have come out of any routine horror film), what I saw, in essence, was a moody romantic melodrama from the 1950s, a movie that told its story, more than anything else, with faces. For two hours, they loomed up there – Stewart, with her pale crystalline severity, her ability to communicate desire and distress at the same moment; Robert Pattinson, with his sweet-but-not-too-safe, hurtin’-eyed, chalky-skinned delinquent chivalry; and Taylor Lautner, with those naturally wolfy features, as the group’s Troy Donahue, a friendly, quick-grinned stud-muffin who’s just buff enough to divert the heroine without threatening to capsize her devotion to her true love.
The key to New Moon’s appeal, of course, is that a lack of consummation is built into the movie’s very premise, and so the sexiness, as it was in the ’50s, has to emerge almost entirely from the atmosphere, and from the interplay of those faces. And that, more than anything, is what makes this a picture dominated, in spirit, by a new kind of girl power. Mock me all you want (and from the haters, I expect nothing less), but the reason I believe that the big-screen success of the Twilight saga bodes well for the future of Hollywood movies is that the teenage girls who are lining up to see New Moon are asserting, in an almost innocent way, their allegiance to a much older form of pop moviemaking: the narcotic potency of mood, story, and romantic suggestion over the constant visual wham-pow! of action, effects, and packaged sensation. It’s not that New Moon has none of that stuff. It’s that the movie uses fantasy to liberate, rather than to steamroll, its emotions. That’s what makes it a new-style, feminine-driven brand of popcorn, one that’s more than welcome at a moment when the other kind – the boys’ kind – has grown more than a bit stale.