Monday, December 19, 2011

Like a Trash Can Fire in a Prison Cell: Twilight Continued

Finished Twilight? Good. Now, get on with your life.

If you insist on continuing to read, I suggest you put on your theory glasses. Because Twilightas series is a much darker and funnier story. Not for the writing, or the plot, but because of the ideas of a woman named Andrea Dworkin, who made it all clear to me.

Dworkin is not a popular name in feminist circles these days. Truthfully, she wasn't a terribly popular name even during the wave for which she's often cited as an icon. Which is the first thing to notice about Dworkin these days: she's hugely popular with people trying to discredit things. Right-wing authors cite her to discredit feminism, third-wave-or-better feminists cite her to discredit second-wavers/white women/the 80s. I, personally, have once cited her to discredit the writing on True Blood. Dworkin is versatile that way.

But the defining moment in my travels with Dworkin came in the post-script to Woman-Hating, in which she railed against the tyranny of punctuation, and claimed that punctuation was the difference between an essay read in a book, and a conversation had between people. I so rarely get to use my media studies cred to pull rank, but this was one such opportunity: paper and ink is the difference between an essay read in a book and a conversation. And if it's not good enough for you, I've got bad news for you, because Andrea Dworkin is fucking dead and not conversing with anybody.

But, like mt feelings on Twilight, this should not be read as a condemnation of Dworkin. I'm a fan. I just feel she needs to be approached as something of a mad hierophant. Living writers can do a fine job writing about what patriarchy is, how it works, and even how it feels. Dworkin writes the way patriarchy smells, the way it tastes. Because our present is only an ongoing escape from our past, and our past is darker, sicker, and scarier than most of us can imagine. We can never be so far from it that its horror won't leak through when we aren't watching.

Lunatics, like Fools, are useful to have around now and then.

In Woman-Hating, Dworkin looks at fairy tales and pornography, two rather disparate ends of the media spectrum, and essentially comes to the same conclusion about them. For the patriarchy's purposes, man exists, and is good, in a pleasantly Augustinian sort of way. Woman is the opposite of that. So, since it is good for man to be active, it is good for a woman to be passive; since it is good for a man to be bold, it is good for a woman to be timid; since it is good for a man to be awake, it is good for a woman to be unconscious. And, of course, since it's good for a man to be alive, it's good for a woman to be dead.

There are, of course, active women, who seek to gain and wield power, and go about their value-defining way. The evil queens, the evil stepmothers, witches and paganae galore. Their counterparts, to be heralded as right and true and noble, are the sleeping ones, the poisoned ones, and the dead. Men exist to fuck, kill, and eat; women exist to be raped, killed, and eaten.

Which brings us to Bella Swann.

Aside from being a whiny little shit, as is to be expected from an early-21st-century American teen, Bella seems to have quite a bit going for her when we meet her. We are told that she is, diegetically, quite smart. She is well-read, although it doesn't seem to affect her conversations very much, and we never see much of her writing. Her parents appear to be semi-literate morons, and her success is even more impressive in that light.

At school, she is presented with an established clique of people dying to be her friend. She plays it down, preferring to complain to us about her physical awkwardness. In fact, the only thing that interrupts her internal monologue of complaint is that there's a boy who doesn't seem to like her. She obsesses about this for weeks.

And we've covered that one, and it's past, and past is prologue. So let's jump ahead to the payoff: he dumps her, and she goes into a depression of horrifying mopiness, too bleak even for an emo montage. Out on the town, in an attempt to look normal again, she encounters a shady group of men she believes to be the ones who assaulted her the previous year, and, operating on instinct, walks toward them. It isn't clear why, at first; she's not trying to reclaim her violated sense of autonomy, she's not daring them to offer a repeat performance in front of witnesses. What stops her--and what inspires her to continue--is discovering that, as she intentionally walks forward into the vital prospect of pain, humiliation, and possibly death, Edward's voice pops into her head.

Clearer than in her memories.

Because the feeling of imminent destruction, especially self-destruction, reminds her of her ex-boyfriend more than all the My Morning Jacket songs in the world. She follows up this performance by buying a motorbike, which are diegetically considered to be dangerous even for people with nominal control of their arms and legs, a group that excludes Bella. Finally, Bella inaugurates New Moon's third act by throwing herself off a goddamn cliff. Alice, our friendly neighborhood psychic with pretty hair, thinks it's a suicide attempt, and is in all likelihood half-right.

New Moon opens with a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, so it's appropriate that the interaction between Bella and Edward consists of a kind of competitive suicidal ideation. Following Meyer's tradition of having about one chapter of better-than-mediocre material, there's an iteresting mediation about settling for Paris, and what that means for love, death, and superficial readings of canonical literature. Jacob, whose abs are certainly not described with the breathtaking narrative force Taylor Lautner would later give them, is basically just a trailer for Eclipse, in terms of Bella's world, but it's nice to acknowledge that it wouldn't have been impossible for him to have been a meaningful player in the present.

We move on. Edward and the Cullens are, predictably, horrified that Bella has been hanging out with werewolves. The Quileuttes are predictably horrified that Bella has been hanging out with vampires. It's too dangerous, they remind her in unison.

And the hell of it is, they're right. Even in this friendly diegetic world, vampires and werewolves are both incredibly dangerous. When Bella cuts herself at her birthday party, Jasper loses control and tries to eat her. Sam, Jacob's pack leader, is married to a woman who is missing half of her face, because he lost his temper with her once. One of Jacob's bros accidentally transforms in her presence, and only Jacob following suit seems to keep her safe.

I think all of us, at some time or another, have done things we aren't proud of in the heat of the moment. All of us have found ourselves staying a little too late at that party, having a bit too many rum-and-cokes, and saying things we don't really mean, like "I love you," or "I never want to see you again," or "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." But I don't know anyone who has ever torn anyone's face off in a fit of pique. Everyone I know who's torn someone's face off has done so with careful, sober deliberation.

Even with all the self-control that only twue wuv can bring, Bella stays physically intact--literature majors, please hold your comments until the end of the post--only be ensuring that the barely controlled supernatural forces around her are consistently in even numbers.

Bella just isn't interested unless she's got a reasonable chance of dying. And it seems she has standards as to what constitutes a good death. She's not going for some weak-ass chick-suicide like an overdose, and she's not going to butch up and borrow her father's handgun, either. No, the kind of death Bella wants, the kind of death she draws hearts around in her diary, is one in which she is beaten and broken, her soft, soft will spent against an unstoppable, relentless force of power and will and hardness. One that's both brutally fast and agonizingly slow. Bent limbs akimbo, her innermost fluids flowing out into the open air, under the watchful eyes of an impenetrable, invulnerable predator.

Conclusion to follow, in which, over a thousand pages into the series, something wet finally happens. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I think I need a cigarette.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Weak Last Gasp of the Evening's Dying Light: the fucking Twilight Post Begins

As I have probably written here before, I like bad things. So it should probably surprise nobody that I've read the entire Twilight series, and enjoyed it very much. The most difficult part, in fact, was the terror that somebody would see me reading it. To that end, I prepared a short speech explaining that, after having spent the past month immersed in Andrea Dworkin, Ayn Rand, and Graham Greene, I was entitled to read whatever silly thing I wanted, to celebrate the fact that I hadn't yet blinded myself from the sheer horror of it all.

I shall acknowledge and move past what all Twipologists claim: they're light, they're fun, they're guilty pleasures. "Guilty pleasure" is a particularly useful phrase, because at times our beloved narrators manage to evoke authentic feelings of guilt and shame. Usually these are phantom travellers carried by nostalgia. I shall 'splain.

Think, for a moment, about your adolescence. Think about the very dumbest thing you ever did. The thing you are most embarrassed about, that you can laugh at when it comes up in conversation, but that you know better than to spend a lot of time thinking about. Remember how sensible you thought you were being? Remember how noble, how strong, how brave you were? Remember how utterly apocalyptic every (saner) alternative seemed to be? Think about that frame of mind, your brain pan filling up with water, an odd yellow-filter placed over your third-person memories. Think about what a stupid, self-indulgent little shit you were.

The people in Twilight live in that place all the time.

(I assume that anyone reading this is an alien researching human civilization. If that is, in fact, the, did you ever go to the wrong place. Seriously. Go ask your thesis advisor if there's still time to pick a new topic. If you are a human who doesn't have this kind of memory of their adolescence, I wish you congratulations, and ask to subscribe to your newsletter. Finally, if you are currently an adolescent...shit, just try not to commit and violent crimes or die, ok? Good fucking luck.)

I didn't go to high school, so the dominant narratives presented to me by American popular culture are enacted by actors in their late 20s pretending to be teenagers having an experience I missed. Nonetheless, these high school narratives reliably provide some of that guilty nostalgia. Twilight is a concentrated form. If Buffy is weed and My So-Called Life is alcohol, Twilight is black tar heroin.

So, the shittier it is, the more embarrassed you are to be reading it as a more-or-less literate adult, the more fun it becomes. I don't think this qualifies as reading it ironically. I had a blast reading these books. It's just that it's the kind of blast I had watching James MacAvoy pushing a gun barrel through a man's face in Wanted.

And most of the time, the writing is sufficient to take you where you need to go. Generally, it ranges from competent to slightly-less-than, with one notable exception: the authentically interesting chase scenario that comprises the first book's third act. The trouble is, well, it's a chase. And you know what medium does chases really, really well? Film. A 2-hour film of the last third of Twilight would be one of the more interesting and ambitious vampire stories we've seen in a while. But in prose, it blurs in with the rest of the story, saddled as it is by a narrator who can't see most of the action and spends the climax unconscious. And in the film--yes, I have seen the first three, and in my defense I cite the existence of Rifftrax--it's completely wasted.

That said, Twilight could have been a lovely sprite of a novel had it ended with Edward losing control and tearing apart his one true love in a shower of blood, bone, and sinew. There's some humor in that ending, and some justice, and a sick kind of romance. Because vampires can certainly be effective stand-ins for superheroes, but their defining characteristic is that they will fucking kill you.

So ends the first post, because I'm pretty sure I should make some dinner. Stay tuned, imaginary readers, because if you share my disappointment that Edward jerked his story off its moral rails, the sequels will make your eyes bleed.