If Elvis and Christopher Walken had a son, he would look like Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the dreamy-eyed vampire in Chris Weitz's film The Twilight Saga: New Moon. The much-anticipated film is a sequel to the hugely popular Twilight, based on the best-selling series of books by Stephenie Meyer, who has found a teeny-bopper formula for repackaging the classic Wagnerian theme of love-death. If the screeches from the audience during the screening I attended are any indication, then this film will, like its predecessor, satisfy the romantic longings of its target audience: twelve-year-old girls. For that group, the endless focus on star-crossed lovers hurts so good; for the rest us, it just hurts.
As you may know, at the center of the plot is Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a high-school student who has moved from Phoenix, where she lived with her mother, to a small town in the Pacific Northwest, to live with her father, a cop who devotes some of his time to tracking the mysterious source of brutal slayings. Bella, a withdrawn, brooding teen, draws the attention of the aloof Edward, who has previously shown no interest in any girl. Eventually, he reveals that he is a vampire, but not in a bad way. With his vampire family, he feeds only on animal blood, which he compares to tofu: It provides nourishment but never really satisfies. Danger thus lurks in every meeting between Bella and Edward. He might be tempted to feed on her, as might other members of his family; even if those temptations can be suppressed, there is the risk of Bella's being caught up in the battle between the Cullen family and a group of much less principled vampires.
Twilight is the ultimate female teen romantic fantasy, about the awkward female outsider who finds a complex, deep, dark male outsider, the one all the other girls wish they had. In this case, standard teen romance becomes a kind of teen gnosticism, since here the brooding James Dean happens to have preternatural powers and is clued in to the secrets of the universe.
The filmmakers are clever enough to know that the real draw here is the seeming impossibility of the love between the two characters. In New Moon, Bella and Edward just happen to be studying Romeo and Juliet in class. The story is all about longing unrealized, never about what Shelley called "love's sad satiety." It is also about being addicted to the danger itself. As Edward says in one of many instances of clichéd dialogue: "You're like my own personal brand of heroin."
The dreadful dialogue is matched by poor filmmaking technique. The Pacific Northwest setting, with its gloomy weather and its heavily wooded landscapes, suits the plot perfectly. But the rest of the filmmaking is utterly uncreative. The film tediously repeats slow-motion shots, zoom shots, and encircling shots. There is also that cheesy glitter vampires sport when they are seen in the sun. Large werewolves appear on the scene via the crudest CGI in recent memory, and Edward communicates with Bella in a hologram reminiscent of Princess Leia's appearance to Obi-Wan. Then there are the profound silences, as Bella and Edward, with eyes averted, bear the excruciating pain of a love that cannot be.
In New Moon, Edward decides to end the relationship permanently after a paper cut on Bella's finger during her birthday party at the Cullen home has nearly tragic consequences. Unable to rid the world of the threat of paper, the Cullen family leaves town. Without Edward, Bella becomes despondent and self-destructive. Seeking risky pursuits — both because, whenever she is in danger, Edward makes one of his holographic appearances to admonish her, and because the girl simply loves danger — she begins motorbike riding with her Native American childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Whereas Edward was cold to the touch, Jacob is unusually hot. Edward is pale; Jacob, dark-skinned. But both are gorgeous and both harbor secrets. Repeating Edward's pick-up line, Jacob tells Bella, "Go away. . . . I'm not good." The girl has a thing for attracting handsome monsters, and she loves every minute of the pain.
In Edward's absence, Bella actively cultivates pain because it is a "reminder." One of her friends worries that she is suicidal, but she is not so much in love with easeful death as she is in love with the thrill of the constant risk of death — especially of a dramatic death. As she puts it in her opening voiceover in the first film, "I never really thought about death. . . . Dying for someone else would not be a bad way to go."
One of the attractions of romanticism is that it counters the reductionist tendencies of the modern world. Romanticism reacts against the elimination of mystery from human life and the reduction of human sexuality to a mere appetite and of love to a contractual arrangement. As Roger Scruton argues (Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde), romanticism is a remedy for what ails the modern world — a "morbidly unheroic world," dominated by "cost-benefit calculation," which tempts us to regard our own existence as a "cosmic mistake." The remedy is to "live as if a heroic love were possible, and as if we could renounce life for the sake of it." Bella is in the grip of precisely such a vision. But we have serious reason to wonder how admirable her vision (or Scruton's, for that matter) is. Her love-death passion is an escape from the banality of ordinary life: boring high-school classes with dull kids and a humdrum family life. The best thing about her father, Bella says, is that "he doesn't hover."
There is an attempt in New Moon to invest Bella's dilemmas with some sort of moral, perhaps even metaphysical, significance, but the discussion of the soul she would lose in joining the undead is specious and vacuous. The film made me nostalgic for the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV series that extracted much greater humor from high-school existence and treated the loss of one's soul with moral gravity and dramatic sensitivity. By contrast, Bella worries that if she doesn't join the undead, she will grow old and become unattractive to the eternally dashing Edward. One shudders at the prospect of an eternity spent pondering self-indulgent romance masquerading as heroic self-sacrifice. Halfway through New Moon some viewers will likely have had enough. Those of us in this non-target audience have an urgent piece of advice for Edward: Just bite her already.