Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 22, 2008 2:16 pm 
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Varieties of vampire experience

Say you're feeling like a misfit in school; how about finding a vampire to be your boyfriend or girlfriend? Vampires, after all, are misfits too--big time--but their alienation is offset by special powers you lack, such as superhuman strength and the ability to live for centuries. A friend like that sets you apart from the crowd. The rich possibilities of teenage vampire romance are illustrated by two new movies, Twilight and Let the Right One In. Different as they are, they satisfy similar adolescent fantasies. Maybe for different adolescents.

Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, is a story primarily for teenage girls. It's based on the first of Stephanie Meyer's bestsellers about the relationship that develops at a Washington State high school between a new girl in the junior class named Bella (Kristen Stewart) and a devastatingly handsome, or as the high girls unnecessarily spell it out to Bella, "totally gorgeous" undead teenager Edward Cullen. He's a student; so are several of his siblings. Of course the other students don't know the Cullens are vampires; it is left to Bella make the discovery after she and Edward fall for each other. Young female readers of the books have been suggesting their various "perfect" candidates to play the role of this heartthrob (see YouTube)--Hayden Christensen, Gaspard Uliiel and Josh Hartnett were favorites--but the choice for the movie has fallen on Robert Pattinson. Meyer has published three sequels, so if the movie opener does well this could be a franchise on the order of Harry Potter.

Twilight glamorizes and softens vampire-hood and makes it upper middle class. Edward's foster father's the Washington State town's main doctor. The family drives cool late-model cars and lives in a splendid airy pad up in the misty hills. None of the old lugubrious Addams Family heavy-curtained look. The Cullens are hip, PC vampires. When Edward tells Bella about himself, he explains they're "like vegetarians," abstaining (though with difficulty) from human blood and living instead off deer from the woods. They like the Pacific Northwest because of all the rain--the perpetual "twilight"--but it's not because sunshine will make them burst into flames, only that it makes them glow with a diamond-like digitalized surface on their skin that will reveal them to be "different." Edward shows Bella when they're up in the woods. Their relationship is chaste--perhaps to avoid the danger of Edward's inadvertently pouncing on Bella and biting her neck. They don't even kiss on the mouth till the end. Edward's concerned because he doesn't want to get involved with Bella--it could cause them both a world of harm (like premarital intercourse?).

The prim, nobly suffering Edward is like a superhero, a pale, romantically high-cheek-boned version of a blockbuster cliché. He can jump across a parking lot to stop a skidding SUV from injuring Bella. In one of the movie's most whimsical sequences, he takes Bella flying up in the trees near his family's house to admire the river and the mist. Trouble comes when it turns out a rival vampire family of the old-fashioned homicidal kind has invaded the region.

Bella has all kinds of conflicts--and Kristen Stewart is reasonably good at making them seem real. She's left her remarried mother in Arizona and gone back to live with dad, Forks, WA's lonely, rather boring town sheriff. Her regular human classmates are jealous or disapproving of her liaison with Edward. But Bell'as more and more gone on him. And in a cliff-hanger at the film's end, she begs him to "turn" her, and he refuses--at the high school prom!

This is glossy, somehow conventional and kitschy stuff, with clunky characterization and some blatant makeup. Why the Cullens need to play baseball (at superhuman speed) in a thunderstorm is never explained. And the fudging on classic rules of vampire-hood seems unjustified. Pattinson's wooden acting--no better than Christensen or Hartnett's would have been--is only compensated by many tight closeups of his immaculate and chiseled face. Nonetheless Twilight is still lively and fun, and not at all bad, really; Hardwicke has a good touch with young people. This is what the squealing girls wanted: a glamorization and gentrification of vampires into a boyfriend who's noble and "different" and cool and scary. The "Twilight' stories are an interesting pop phenomenon that it's no use fighting.

Swedish indie director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In is at the opposite pole. It's dark and down-and-dirty and surprisingly realistic--and at the same time more authentically strange. The supernatural effects are simple and understated. One vampire, a newly-turned who doesn't at all like who she's become, commits suicide by having her husband open the shade and let the sun in: she explodes into flames and is burnt away. Alfredson doesn't mess with or tone down the harsh rules of vampire life.

Let the Right One In is Swedish, after all--from a country that's all twilight. This is a complex, ironic tale of a small blond 12-year-old boy names Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) living in the outskirts of Stockholm who gets cruelly picked on by classmates and fantasizes revenge. We first see him standing in his room fondling a small dagger. Soon he's befriended by a mysterious new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), a lanky-haired girl who hangs around outdoors in the cold without needing a coat. She likes Oskar. He asks her to be his girlfriend. Over time, he realizes she's a vampire, but he doesn't care. There's nothing glamorous about Eli's life. When Oskar sees her flat, he says, "You're like poor, right?" Her dad is a loser and knows it. His efforts to kill people and get their blood are practical and utilitarian, but also fumbled failures. She may be able to help Oskar--and she does, both physically, at a crucial moment, and psychologically, by encouraging him to fight back. But she herself is doomed. No sequels planned.

Oskar's problems are real problems. This film doesn't glamorize; it humanizes. Not only the bully boys but nearly all the adults are aliens as far as he is concerned. Unlike an American high school flick with actors near their twenties, he's just a kid. And Eli, who isn't pretty, looks old, but haggard in the way you might be if you've been 12 for several centuries. She may have been aged by her miserable life. When Oskar gives her some candy she tries to eat it, to be nice, and then throws up. Oskar's real father, whom he goes to visit on the train, seems cool and fun, till he turns out to be an alcoholic. The sinking feeling that quiet revelation gives you comes from how well Swedes know this disease. And the adult friends--what a grungy,lost bunch! Sometimes the scenes in Let the Right One In evoke the world of the Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki. This is a world no kid would really want to be a part of, yet there Oskar is in the midst of it.

Both these films exploit the teenager's sense of being a suffering misfit. But Twilight glamorizes and softens being a vampire, while Alfredson's film takes us down a darker road toward more authentic daytime nightmares.

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