Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vampires = Teens

In 1987, at 23, I had no trouble recognizing the genius in the film The Lost Boys. That vampires could easily go unnoticed as a group of Goth teens who partied all night on a California boardwalk and slept all day seemed so obvious, I couldn't believe no one had put it on screen before. Punk was just then morphing into Goth, bringing the world of teen rebellion and the world of vampires even closer. And bad boys are irresistible.

I'm not a reader of vampire fiction. I'm not interested in the mythology or their powers. I'm not interested in immortality and the living dead. I'm not that interested in the period pieces. But teen angst and desire that can't be fulfilled without killing the other-- that's something worth exploring. So I would have been happy to see Twilight when it first came out, but didn't have an opportunity until recently, when the DVD showed up in our house. Tonight I watched the sequel, New Moon, so now I'm all ready for when the final film of the trilogy arrives later this summer.

Twilight has it all-- the heightened scenery and filters that turn the Pacific Northwest into a medieval forest, and the school full of cliques where the good kids are likeable but dorky and the cool kids are quite obvious. It's not just because of their distinctive, individual style and the way they remain aloof from the rest of the high school scene. It's not just because they have self-confidence and are gorgeous. Well, yeah, it's pretty much just those things. Add to this enough money for a cool car or two and the modernist showcase house straight out of Dwell magazine where they live in opulence with their beautiful, immortal, cool parents, and how can a mere mortal resist?

Teenage "new girl" Bella Swan gives herself over immediately to the power of attraction between herself an Edward. The call of her blood is strong, and he resists for awhile, learns to control at least the blood-lust, but can't resist the other, stronger urge-- the one to love her and make her his soul-mate. Although of course, there's a catch-- he has no soul, despite those soulful looks, despite his capacity to pledge everlasting love of her.

Once Bella learns the truth about him, and they stop fighting the attraction, the movie becomes an exquisite exercise in chastity. They writhe with desire, and we feel with them the adolescent pain of holding back. When I was younger, I used to wonder what it was like to have a hard-on, to be actually physically engorged with sexual desire. What was going on when for hours me and my first love would "make out," but not go all the way? This film makes you feel it-- if nothing else, it is a perfect dramatization of young male desire. It looks painfully sweet and sweetly painful. And it just goes on and on without relief...

The relief comes, actually, in the form of a villainous vampire who hunts Bella. The action gives us somewhere to put our anxiety for awhile, and gives Edward something to do other than to desire and resist. He can show his love by killing the rogue vampire, the rapist, the one who does not control his desire or his blood-lust but simply pursues, male energy out of bounds.

The sequel, New Moon, takes Edward out of the picture right away, which makes sense, since that desire/resistance thing seems to have settled into teenage high school dating-- SO uninteresting and also nowhere to go. Bella has to mourn, be depressed, and find her way out of that depression by falling in love again. She falls in love with her childhood friend Jake, who has become considerably buffed up since the last film (I believe she says "You're so buff" more than twice. The only other line she repeats more often, each time she gets a birthday present, is: "Actually, it's perfect.")

She spends more time with Jake in an effort to conjure up Edward, who appears like smoke each time she is "reckless" and puts herself in danger. Jake can rebuild her a motorcycle from parts, and when riding it she hopes to get glimpses of Edward. But like so many who work long hours alone together-- Jake and Bella fall in love. Which would be "perfect, actually," except for one thing. Jake has a rare gene passed through his tribe that makes him a werewolf. Bella, it seems, can sure pick 'em. Her sweet, gentle, sensitive guy with the long hair and sense of humor turns out to embody another bad adolescent male attribute to the extreme: rage. If the vampire is a trope for male teen lust, the werewolf is a trope for teen male rage. Both are dangerous, possibly deadly, to women, as we see in the scars down the cheek of one werewolf's fiancee. How can Jake be with Bella, when despite his best efforts, one moment of rage can result in a violent act that could destroy her.

The plot of New Moon is no great shakes. It is more or less a bridge between the first film and the finale. The plot points that reunite Bella and Edward in the film were really ridiculous-- I actually wished it had been a dream when, for a moment, it seemed maybe it was. But no, she did run through the fountain in Rome and push him back into the dark. Yes, he was going to sacrifice himself just because he thought she might be dead (without even checking!) and, well, he couldn't live in a world without her in it.

The message of the teen vampire movie is not hard to read. Adolescence, especially for males, is a dangerous time, a liminal time when hormones and emotions run high, when you have to learn control and ways to channel those nearly overpowering feelings. The energy coursing through your blood, almost without you bidding it, could hurt the ones you love. The way to grow into successful manhood is to curb your appetities, think about what's good for the other more than what you want in the moment. Pledge loyalty and take your time. Let things cool to a reasonable level, holding onto those greater values, all the chivalrous ones (loyal protector, observer who sees the true beauty of the other, everlasting love).

And the message for girls is obvious, too. Enjoy the smouldering, painful desire of those days, but if at all possible-- walk away. Come back and see him when you're, you know, 25 or so, once he's passed through this transition and learned to be a man.

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