February 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Saga

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It’s one minute past midnight and we are gathered, hushed, in our thousands across the country, trembling in anticipation like a coven of die-hard cultists. Or perhaps that should be Twi-hard, because the altar at which we are here to worship is one of dozens of Australian cinemas about to screen Twilight: New Moon, and we are being given a stern, pre-emptive talking-to by the manager about our rights and obligations. Other cinemas, he tells the expectant audience, have installed security guards and night-vision cameras for this event. If he sees anyone even holding a mobile phone, let alone attempting to record footage of the movie with it, that person will be escorted outside. Police may be involved. Do we understand?

“Yes” we all chorus, as sheepishly as schoolgirls at assembly, which is appropriate because the Twilight phenomenon is aimed squarely at that demographic: adolescent girls who reached puberty devouring Harry Potter, who are now between 15 and 20 and restless for a love of sublime, impossible, hormonally charged intensity.

I’m the designated driver for a group of four girls hand-plucked for this franchise. I have never read one of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books, but I’ve just taken a cram course in the story thanks to an earlier screening of the first Twilight movie. So I can tell you we’re basically talking teenage girl torn between two guys: one is a vampire and the other is a werewolf. Google “Twilight New Moon” and you’ll find there are over 50 million websites discussing this dilemma, and fans are divided cleanly into two schools of competing adoration – there is Team Edward and there is Team Jacob.

“Who’s in love with the big buff wolf?” teased a recent magazine cover of 17-year-old star Taylor Lautner, who plays Jacob Black, the kind, handsome, impossibly muscled Native American love-interest who unfortunately transforms into a werewolf when he gets upset. Taylor scores 6 million websites all on his own.

Across the ring is Robert Pattinson as Edward: pale, skinny and tortured in his anguished love for Bella, our heroine. Sure, he’s a vampire, but only technically – he’s a kind of vegetarian vampire, since he and his weirdly intense family have no fangs and only drink animals’ blood. In the first film Edward delivered lines like: “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore … your scent is like a drug to me.” Unnervingly made-up in whiteface, with heavily blackened eyebrows and red lips, Pattinson looks like a young Marlon Brando in character as a geisha. We’ve seen him play a grand piano silhouetted in a room oddly full of mist. He’s appeared suddenly, hungrily, in Bella’s bedroom, even sharing a couple of chaste kisses after some agonisingly prolonged soul-searching. His skin sparkles like diamante when he steps into the sunshine. But Edward (“I’ve never wanted a human’s blood so much in my life”) can’t trust himself to consummate his suppressed lust – it flings him, startlingly, clear across the room – and an envious ripple has passed through the cinema audience at the sight of the couple spending the night talking in bed by candlelight instead.  “You can take the furry one,” a Team Edward placard said at New Moon’s LA opening, “I’ll take the one who glitters.”

I look across at this audience as the story creaks along and am struck by the predominance of long, romantically coiffed hair that’s present. I’m not surprised that 95% of the audience is female, but I’m a little shocked that many of them seem to be thirty- and forty-somethings clutching special New Moon souvenir boxes of popcorn and as long-haired and misty-eyed as their teen counterparts.

When Jacob strips off his T-shirt, the audience gives a collective spontaneous groan of desire, closely followed by gales of smothered, apologetic laughter. Edward, when he does the same later in the film, looks positively malnourished by comparison – perhaps he craves Bella’s blood because of an iron deficiency. Gleaming spaniel-eyes or not, he suddenly seems no match for his earthy, pumped usurper. They’re two men at opposite ends of the spectrum of hunk-dom and yet ordinary, sulky Bella – this mopey, eye-rolling girl – has scored the undying devotion of both of them; two handsome boys who – let’s face it, that’s what we’re here for – say what your real boyfriend never will: “I still don’t know if I can control myself … You don’t know how long I’ve waited for you.”

Who do you know in real life, after all, who’d struggle to hold their inner power and lust in check, forgoing sex for the sake of pure love? It’s clear this salient fact is not lost on the adolescent girls, who watch mesmerised as they work their way stolidly through their buttered popcorn. You can almost see them oscillating, torn between camps. The ending of the film presents a choice so tantalising and agonising for its heroine that the audience groans again, clutching its collective tresses in frustration, primed like a pump for the sequel, Eclipse, due out in July, when it will no doubt generate another 50 million websites.

On the drive home the girls are subdued, sated. They reflect not on the storyline, which is so byzantine in places they need to confer on what actually happened, but about which of the two guys they would choose if they were Bella. Nothing in the film is as eerie as this perfectly orchestrated reaction – here, in the car – among its perfectly wooed and seduced 16-year-old audience. They have swooned on cue. Now they are in an agony of dilemma, seriously weighing up their preferences for a werewolf over a vampire.

 I sense that Edward’s noble soul-suffering is starting to grate. “I mean, I liked him so much at first,” says one girl, staring mournfully out into the darkness, “but now I feel like saying, ‘Hey, man up! Stop being such a suck!’” The unintentional vampire joke is acknowledged, then she gives a remorseful sigh, as if she really now must text Robert Pattinson and let him know he’s dropped.

A thoughtful, replete 3 am silence descends. What’s a girl to do with all that barely contained power it’s in her hands to unleash? All that hunger, desire and rage in the dangerous bodies of young men? What price will she pay for that love? If you want that trembling intensity, it seems, you need to choose between the wolf and the vampire. One’s going to tear you apart and the other one’s going to suck the life out of you.

The closer we get to home, the more dreamlike (and vaporous?) the movie’s spell seems to become. Tomorrow’s the end-of-year Year 11 school barbecue and the boys who’ll be there won’t quite offer the glittering tormented passion of Edward and Jacob, but still. There’s a real moon overhead, not a new moon but a waxing crescent, setting in a thin sliver of lunar promise. It’s not as spectacular as that Hollywood stock footage we’ve just been watching, sure, but if you’re 16 and in love, it’s still something you could conceivably howl at.

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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