Friday, November 27, 2009

Supernatural Anti-Sex Education

by Chuck Williamson

A crude amalgamation of supernatural soap opera, neo-gothic rape fantasy, and fundamentalist abstinence parable, the Twilight franchise has continually been the source of mixed cultural signals. New Moon, the second installment of this inexplicable pop-cultural phenomenon, is no exception, tempering its chaste adolescent romanticism—full of love triangles, teen angst, and pseudo-poetic exposition—with sadomasochistic kink, coded threats of sexual violence, and authoritarian alpha male posturing. But don’t get too hot and bothered. Directed by certified franchise killer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass), New Moon recasts its supernatural boyfriend bugaboos as fundamentalist gospel, dishing out the secularized death/sex abstinence tropes in LiveJournal-lite soundbites. “Every second that I’m with you is about restraint,” predatorial dreamboat Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) exposits, “And you’re too fragile.” For Bella (Kristen Stewart), the central dilemma is simple: keep your damn pants on or you’ll be the main course of a vampire buffet (a sexy buffet). A tangled knot of sub/dom discourses intermixed with reactionary anti-sex rhetoric, New Moon acknowledges female erotic pleasures only to disavow them, propping up its phantasmagoric romance on a broken edifice.

But none of this is particularly new. Designed to trigger a specific spectatorial response, the audible gasping, squealing, and cooing of an obsessive fanbase, New Moon hashes out the same promise of female pleasure offered in the films of Rudolph Valentino. Marketed by studios as the silent screen’s “great Latin lover,” Valentino occupied the dual position of erotic spectacle and sexual aggressor. The Sheik (1921), for instance, spiced up its orientalist fantasy by casting Valentino as the object of erotic exhibition, a preternaturally handsome serial rapist who casts bedeviling looks at the shrieking female fanbase. And like the sparkle-vamps and teen-wolves of New Moon, Valentino narrowed the gap between discipline and pleasure, stomping toward his resistant female prey for a little nonconsensual, fade-to-black hanky-panky (that, as the next scene suggests, she really enjoyed). This sadomasochistic quality is made even more transparent in The Eagle (1925), where Valentino, decked out in BDSM fetish gear, gestures at his female detainee with a riding whip—before his code against flogging women forces him to verbally humiliate her instead (predictably, she kinda digs it). But this authoritarian attitude eventually subsides when true love stops Valentino right in his tracks, sending him into a euphoric paralysis that only the look of his lover (and that fanatical female audience) might break.

As in the films of Valentino, New Moon dispenses its predictable, paper-thin plot in dull, expository chunks, focusing more of its energies on erotic spectacle. Romantic interludes, punctuated by snatches of purple prose and forced exposition, are staged as a slipshod mix gothic chamber drama and Tiger Beat photo spread, replaying the same one note ad nauseam as the camera doles out the two-tons-of-hunk money shots. Ooooh, mantastic! Nearly every “big moment” between Bella and Edward is preceded and/or followed by forward-tracking shots and slo-mo effects designed to accentuate our fang-faced beau’s super-sexy-cool mystique. Pattinson’s performance intermixes Byronic moping with teen idol modeling, and the camera eagerly frames his body in a staged series of theatrical tableaus that could double as a centerfold (check out the scene where he takes off his shirt—raaawr!). When the focus shifts from Edward to Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the framing becomes less affected and more visceral; the camera lingers on his semi-nude body and details its every inch in fetishistic detail (the scene where he lopes about shirtless through the rain sends all the prepubescent hearts aflutter). While these sequences momentarily interrupt narrative progression (particularly since the noise of screaming tweens drowns out most of the dialogue), a bit of sadomasochistic lip service always snaps us back in shape. Like Valentino, the New Moon boys have to negotiate between their compromised (possibly effeminized) statuses as erotic objects and narrative roles as authoritarian bullies. Behind the veiled threats of sexual abuse and domestic violence (of which we see physical evidence) lurk a desire to dominate their twitchy, blank slate love interest who, by the time she becomes the world’s most inert adrenaline junkie, seems to get off on victimhood.

But even Valentino, for all his authrotiarian-meets-androgyne posturing, never wasted his time with promise rings and monologues about self-control. The paranormal heartthrobs of New Moon might steal a page or two from the Valentino handbook, but their neutered, anti-pleasure waffling makes them far less interesting as cinematic sex symbols. Like many of Valentino’s films, New Moon is a bloated, lifeless bore that succeeds only as female fantasy. But don’t let the film’s forced references to Romeo & Juliet fool you—its low-stakes love story is about as convincing as a stop-motion animation made out of crayons, poster board, and teen mag cut-outs. Pattinson and Stewart stumble into frame like dead-eyed somnambulists, regurgitating their prosaic, pseudo-poetic dialogue in bullet-points—and even though this limp spectacle does nothing for outsiders, the Twi-hards go wild. Carrying on the torch passed on from the Cult of Valentino, Teams Edward and Jacob seem to care less about the film’s quality than the promise of fantasy role-play, where forbidden pleasures can be indulged through the act of film spectatorship.

But New Moon eleventh-hour disavowal of female pleasure complicates this spectatorial engagement. As the film’s pro-abstinence subtext culminates in a full-on marriage proposal (and the crowd goes wild!), Bella sinks further and further into the backdrop and becomes little more than a prop used by Edward to prove his virtue and integrity. So much for sexual gratification — to quote Beyonce, “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Say what you will about Valentino, but at least he followed through with his promise of torrid and illicit pleasure. New Moon, on the other hand, goes from female-focused smut to after-school special.

But what the hell do I know? This movie was not made for me.



Anonymous said...

This is a sexy buffet of criticism.

Chuck W said...

Thanks Jacob!

Pro-abstinence pamphlets will be distributed after everyone reads the review. Play safe, guys.

Buck Theorem said...

Hell, that wasn't just a sexy buffet of criticism... it was a full-on erotic meal!

Cool writing and insights.

Chuck W said...

Thanks Buck. Much appreciated.

I hope I didn't get things too sexy in here.

Xolotl(TMU)/theogore(youtube) said...

Was talking to my wife this weekend bout your flicks on the ol' TMO, and said that not many machinimists did cool things with the medium. They just regurgitated the same ol blockbuster bullshit. Did a search today and found your blogs. I really dig "Supernatural Anti-Sex Education". It was just the antidote to my argument with my brother over this puerile pretend porn. He LOVES Valentino and was probably focusing on the wet abs, and cock-teasing. ThanX for the laughs, Chuck! (You should make another flick and put it on TMU!)