Friday, November 18, 2011

The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 1

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars) Fr Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

NOTE: My review of the subsequent The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 2 can be found here.

I came to see The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 1 (directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the 4th novel in The Twilight Saga (Breaking Dawn) by Stephanie Meyer) with a fair amount of trepidation.

Readers here will know that I had never been a fan of the Harry Potter series and to be honest, I thought the concept of The Twilight Saga ("re-imagining vampires") to be even worse.

However, I've long known that legions of young girls (and their mothers/aunts) have absolutely loved these books, so I've long been saying to myself that they have to be better than I thought.  So in anticipation of the coming of this movie, just as I did in preparation to the last installments of the Harry Potter series, I rented one of the earlier Twilight movies (Eclipse) to try to get a better understanding of why the series was so popular.  And in contrast to the Harry Potter series, I was honestly surprised and impressed with Stephanie Meyer's creation.

Why?  Because Stephanie Meyer created entire cultures behind her vampires and werewolves.  Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson) who the saga's teenage heroine Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart) falls in love with was not merely a "misunderstood bad boy" (a tired character/archetype that has been on the scene in American pop-culture since the 1950s with James Dean).  Edward belonged to a family that loved him, composed notably by (adoptive) father Dr. Carlisle Cullen (played by Peter Facinelli) and Dr. Carlisle's wife Esme (played by Elizabeth Reaser) as well as other adoptive brothers and sisters.  And behind this family was an entire culture of "vampires" with a history and an ordered (if, in the saga, generally unknown to humans) way of life.  That culture extended across the planet.  Cullen is an Irish name.  But Edward had relatives in Italy, Mexico, Brazil and Alaska (Russians?/Slavs?).

One gets the sense therefore Stephanie Meyer has not applied symbol of "vampire" not as "bad boy" but as "Radical Other," something that one of my parish's young adult evening receptionists was trying to explain to me in the lead-up to the release of this film.  Indeed, the even other "love interest" in the story, Jacob Black (played by Taylor Lautner) belongs to yet another ethnic community (a Native American tribe of shape-shifting werewolves).

To see the point being made, consider then Bella's background.  She is as white as can be.  Her divorced parents, a sort of hippyish mother, Renee' Dwyer (played by Sarah Clarke) who moved out to sunny Florida after her divorce, and father Charlie Swan (played by Billy Burke) who's a cop in the damp and rainy town and its environs where this story plays out, are also lily white (though mom likes to tan) and by their last names, Swan and Dwyer, are super WASPish as well.   

Why would this be important?  Well to a traditional White/WASPish American family named Swan, an Irishman named Cullen to say nothing of an East European or Hispanic could _perhaps_ seem as "Other" as a vampire.  Yes, it's (hopefully...) an obvious exaggeration.  However making Edward Cullen a vampire rather than a Catholic frankly could actually make the series a "safer" read.  A similar exaggeration is made with regards to the shape-shifting Native American "Black" family.  While Cop Charlie Swan has a long-standing relationship with the "Black" family living out in the woods, he has _no idea_ that they're a family of shape-shifting werewolves (again complete with a code and way of life).  He just sees them as upstanding citizens living _at the edge_ of the town that he's protecting who don't cause him much trouble.  And since they don't seem to cause much trouble, he basically likes them, even though he knows next to nothing about them (and doesn't seem to care to know much more about them either...).

Who does learn far more about both the Cullens and the Blacks is the daughter Bella who gets to know both families through her interactions with Edward and Jacob "in school." 

And the experience of the Swan family actually mirrors quite well white-American families (and its younger as well as older members) today, where America's young people live in a far more demographically diverse environment than their parents and grandparents.  A CNN report on the 2010 Census in the USA and demographics and age notes that over 80% of America's seniors (65 and above) are white, while this figure drops to 70% for the middle aged (aged 35-64), to only 60% for young adults (aged 18-34) and into the low 50%s for Americans aged 17 and below).  So America's young people are living in a far more diverse environment than their parents and especially grandparents had ever lived.  Initially, that could be scary.  But if even "vampires" and "werewolves" are portrayed as good people coming out of well-structured societies with rules and morals, perhaps it can become less so.

Indeed Bella's experience of entering into a "new" culture (one previously unknown to her parents) is certainly mirrored by countless other young people who meet and mix across cultural lines.  As a priest who's worked in several multi-ethnic parishes it's been my joy to be accepted across all kinds of ethnic boundaries and then to inevitably learn from the various people and families that I've met.  By taking a chance, Bella enters into the worlds of both Edward and Jacob in ways that her parents and even many of her friends certainly did not.  And she found that both of their families / cultures were good, well structured and built on solid moral principals.  Indeed, she found that both Edward and Jacob's families were more structured (and certainly more traditional) hers.  This is again the experience of most white Americans who've crossed the cultural divide.

So while, I, as one of Slavic (and definitely of non-WASPish heritage) don't necessarily like the suggestion of being considered a "vampire," (and would expect that Hispanics, Brazilians or even Irishmen, wouldn't particularly like that characterization as well), I certainly appreciate Meyer's attempt to portray multiculturalism symbolically in a way that's compelling and affirmative to young people's experience.   Because the "scary Others" ("vampires"/"werewolves") turn out to come from loving families and strong cultural heritages, worthy of pride, as well.

To the movie ... Yes, the obvious subtext to the whole Twilight series appears to me to be the challenge of multiculturalism.  However, Meyer does also play with the peculiarities of "vampires" and "werewolves."

In this installment of the series, Edward (a vampire) and Bella (a human) after long-last get married.  But how would it work?  Would she necessarily have to turn into a vampire?   Both try really hard that this would not happen.  Edward's a good guy.  He loves Bella the way she is (human).  So consummating their marriage did not mean that Edward just would just bite her and they'd live happily ever after "undead" forever.  Instead they consummate it the old fashioned (human) way.

NOTE TO PARENTS: The portrayal of Bella and Edward's wedding night is done very well (and even in a fan/comical way).  However, it may not be appropriate to children and younger teens.  Again to author Stephanie Meyer's credit, the two did wait till their wedding, something that this series has been exemplary portraying from the beginning.  Edward didn't "bite" Bella or otherwise turn her into a vampire.  But as a vampire (and vampiers are supposed to be passionate if nothing else ... :-) the poor guy just utterly destroyed their bed in the course of their wedding night love-making.  The lovemaking itself is not shown, but the "morning after" showing the bed and all around it destroyed is ;-).  This may cause parents to both chuckle as they see this and blush as they watch their children see it as well.  So again, parents be warned.  (The CNS/USCCB review notes this concern as well)

That love making results in Bella becoming pregnant to the surprise and great worry of all.  How would a pregnancy of a child conceived of a human and (blood-sucking) vampire work out?  Well that's what the rest of the movie is about ...

And once again, the movie/series surprises.  Respectful throughout the whole of the series of "The Radical Other" it continues to be so becoming unambiguously Pro-Life.

Who would have guessed that I would have come to like a series about "re-imagined vampires?"  But then one ought to be capable of learning something new every day ;-)

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