It’s hard to write about Twilight without writing about the hysteria. But I’ll leave the Googling to you, dear readers, and keep to what I actually saw: girls lined up, a couple hundred deep, at around 9:15 last Thursday night — for the midnight show on Friday. Lots of Twilight T-shirts, a few reading "Team Edward." Another read "Fang Banger," and adorned the top of a girl whose neck bore a couple of ersatz bite wounds. Nothing too over-the-top, but still — why?
Presumably, because they had read and adored the book upon which the film is based, along with its three sequels. And why did they adore the books? Because they were on Team Edward.
But before we get to Edward, let’s pause a moment over the object of his affection: Bella Swan, played by Kristen Stewart. Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke told New York Magazine, "We first had Kristen, because I fell madly in love with her in Into the Wild. I thought she was amazing and so expressive of that longing and that desire." Amen, Ms. Hardwicke. Stewart’s turn as a trailer-park beauty who falls hard for rambling pilgrim Chris McCandless was so affecting as to be unnerving. She looked at him with such pure hunger: hunger for love, for affection, for welcome attention, for what he was and what he could offer her. He was this beautiful thing come into her life, and she responded by offering herself in the best, most complete way she knew: lying down and taking her clothes off. When McCandless declined (after a moment of understandable hesitation), she wasn’t so much hurt and humiliated as she was baffled and sad: Isn’t this what men want?
Well, yes, it is — unless your man is a pilgrim who understands that the human connection brought on by sex will compromise his freedom. Or, as in the case of Twilight, unless your man is a vampire. In that case, he doesn’t want to have sex with you; he wants to suck your blood until you die. But the character of the desire is the same: overwhelming in its ferocity, all-consuming. He wants it more than anything in the world, because, don’t you know, you’re special. You’re the one that he loves. And the real wonder of it is this: That’s the same reason he doesn’t take what he wants.
Why be on Team Edward? Because of the way that he loves you — er, I mean, the way he loves Bella. For Edward, Bella is special: He can read every mind he encounters, but he can’t read hers. Her secret does not lie open to him, because she has not revealed herself. (Hello, mystical sexual metaphors!) He’s got superpowers, so he not only makes her feel protected, he really protects her — from a runaway van, from dirty-minded guys, and best of all — with nothing more to aid him than the strength of his love — from his own desire.
According to the literature, modern sex is complicated. Sometimes it’s just rubbing together and feeling good; sometimes it’s deeply meaningful; sometimes it’s all sorts of things. In such a world, having your hero moan, "I want you so badly; I still don’t know if I can control myself" is downright strange. Dude, what’s your damage? But when you make your lover a vampire, when you make the desire for sex into a desire to kill — well now. Suddenly, unchecked lust is dangerous again, and the old rules apply once more. When Edward comes to meet Bella’s Dad (the town’s chief of police), the man is actually cleaning a shotgun. Hilarious — but here are these hundreds of girls, lining up to see a guy who loves a girl so much that he won’t have his way with her. These are the girls who laughed when Mom asked Bella, "Are you being safe?" Well, no — I’m dating a vampire. But then again, yes — I’m being so safe that I’m avoiding the near occasion of . . . bite.
Of course, love isn’t safe, especially when you love someone supernatural. But part of the fun of Twilight is the way the story takes that supernatural aspect and sinks it into the everyday. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that once you’re in love, everything everyday takes on a supernatural aspect. Climbing a tree, playing baseball, listening to music — it’s all so much more than ordinary. Love itself becomes supernatural — which it kind of is, if you believe the Gospels. The sort of thing that allows a person to transcend nature and, say, lay down her life for another.
Which brings us back to Bella. Early on, Edward identifies himself as "the world’s most dangerous predator." That makes Bella the prey; she even goes so far as to refer to herself as a stupid lamb — stupid for loving a lion. Despite this, the film doesn’t cotton to the notion that, in the sexual arena, the man is the aggressor, the woman the helpless victim, with no appetite of her own. When Edward goes in for the first kiss, he tells Bella not to move. Translation: Be the passive recipient of my passion. It doesn’t work, and later, Bella’s own desire provides the film’s true climax.
It’s not all sex and self-denial. Some of the rest of it is good, some less so. The bad guys felt a little like afterthoughts, and the big final battle was jumbled-bordering-on-incoherent. Bella’s thawing relationship with her father was well-played — she comes to live with him at the film’s opening, while her mother travels with her new husband, a ballplayer. But the dynamic with Mom, while clearly significant, is underdeveloped to the point of being distracting when it does appear.
The high school stuff was better. It felt real and childish — a long way from the glossy bitch-wit of Mean Girls or Heathers: awkward conversations, made more awkward by interruptions from oblivious classmates, busy being the stars of their own shows. The fumbling with nascent sexuality. ("I like this one," says a girl about her dress, "it makes my boobs look good." But then a guy compliments them, and she’s embarrassed.) The awful irrelevance of learning about cell mitosis in the face of true love. Most of all, the way that the teenage mind can say, "It doesn’t matter; I trust you," when your beloved tells you that he’s killed people.