Love in all its horror

Discussed: The difference between Jewish and Christian romantic comedies / why the cinematic myth of ideal love is as strong as ever / the drama of everyday things in "Twilight" / how Bella's character is more sexually progressive than Buffy / how Alain Badiou describes love / Bill Condon's experience as a horror director / addressing feminist concerns about "Twilight"

Nora Ephron once made a distinction between two traditions of romantic comedies: The Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition. In the former, external forces keep the lovers from getting together. In the latter, the only obstacle keeping them apart is the would-be lovers’ neuroses. In this sense, When Harry Met Sally (for which Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay) is the paradigmatic Jewish romance: In the film, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are not able to declare their love for each other until twelve years after they first meet, well into the second half of the film, and the only thing keeping them apart for so long is their differing ideas about life and the anxiety of reconciling these ideas with reality. If When Harry Met Sally seemed somewhat revolutionary when it was released in 1989, then at this pop-cultural moment it appears that the Jewish romance has become the dominant form. In Sex and the City, for example, there is nothing really that prevents Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie from being with Chris Noth’s Mr. Big except for her constant wrestling with her sense of self, who she wants to be and what values she wishes to live by.¹ The Twilight Saga therefore appears as an anachronism in our cultural moment. The two teenagers cement their love at the very beginning of the first film (there are five films in the series) through a simple shot-reverse shot exchange of glances, that most crude of cinematic devices used for indicating love, and for the following three films,² this love is never put in question. Every serious threat to the couple—the disapproving father, the jealous alpha male, the strict authorities—is external.

¹ Other examples: In Clueless (1995), Alicia Silverstone can only properly fall in love with Paul Rudd after giving herself a “makeover” of the soul. In Girls (2012), Lena Dunham can’t properly accept the love of Adam Driver because of deeply-ingrained feelings of self-loathing. The list goes on.

² At the time of writing, I have not been able to see the last film in the series.

There is an implied ethical dimension to the Christian/Jewish opposition – the move from the Christian formula of Romeo and Juliet to the Jewish formula of Annie Hall is meant to be the move from the unrealistic, idealised portrayal of the romantic couple to the more realistic form that shows people with all their complex psychology and all the self-sabotaging behaviour that prevents healthy, functional romantic relations. But what if, in fact, the opposite is true? What if the myth of the perfect romantic couple finds its true idealisation in the Jewish form of the romance? Take Bridesmaids, the breakaway hit of last year – its protagonist, Annie, begins an affair with the affable policeman Nathan, but this all falls apart when Annie angrily rejects Nathan for encouraging Annie to follow her dream of running a bakery business. In the tradition of the Jewish romance, the problem here is Annie’s neurosis: She rejects Nathan in order to avoid the trauma of remembering losing her first business. Annie, of course, overcomes her neurosis and ends up happily in love, but pay attention to the depiction of Nathan: He is witty, caring, self-effacing and good-looking in a harmless teddybear manner. His only flaw is that he is too caring! He is essentially the perfect sensitive new age guy; a fantasy figure to help Annie get her life back on track.³ The emphasis on internal obstacles becomes a way to keep the myth of ideal love alive. The fantasy sustained by the Jewish romance is that once you resolve all your inner neuroses and anxieties, you will be free to enter into a normal, perfect romantic coupling with the man of your dreams.

³ This is a gender-reversed version of what has come to be known as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term coined by Nathan Rabin after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. See Nathan Rabin, “The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” The A.V. Club, 25 January 2007.

⁴ I’m referring, of course, to titles such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960) and The End of Summer (1961).

What is the romantic vision of The Twilight Saga? Its central genius lies in its marriage of the horror and romance genres: Kristen Stewart’s Bella is a typical teenager in love but the object of her affection is a vampire, Edward, whose kin are locked in an eternal battle with werewolves. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the interest lies in the interplay of the realistic and the fantastic. The first Twilight film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is a study in the ordinary teenage rituals of life in Forks as much as it is a supernatural teen melodrama. Scenes of grisly encounters with vampires sit side by side with dead time scenes of girls trying on dresses before their prom night or funny, mundane discussions between teenagers in the high school cafeteria. While the earthy, social-realist aesthetic of Catherine Hardwicke’s entry has slowly disappeared in the subsequent entries in favour of the more recognisable, montage-heavy slickness typical of Hollywood’s fantasy epics, the emphasis on the cycle of ordinary human experience remains: Over the course of the series Bella falls in love, Bella gets married and Bella has a child. Forget the nonsense in the films about the ancient battle between vampires and werewolves or the sinister vampire authority known as the Voltari – what is essential in The Twilight Saga is the drama of the everyday. The films even have Ozu-esque titles that link the dramas of the narrative to the passing of the seasons: New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn.⁴ The question is: What is the function of the horror element in relation to this element of ordinariness? In Buffy, the horror functions fairly conventionally: the ghoul is a metaphor for something that threatens to upset the ordinary course of things (the overbearing mother who lives vicariously through her daughter, the teacher who seduces students, Internet predators, school bullying). It is Buffy’s function to “slay” these threats to ordinary life and return Sunnydale to a state of equilibrium. In Twilight, the horror functions differently. Though Edward warns Bella that his vampire-passion might cause him to destroy her, she nevertheless pursues him. When she becomes pregnant to a half-vampire baby that threatens to crush her body from within, she stubbornly refuses an abortion despite the protests of her family. The horror is not an external threat to Bella’s existence; it is an inherent part of her romantic utopia.⁵

⁵ The contrast between Buffy and Twilight also puts lie to the claim that Twilight is an anti-sex phenomenon. Buffy has sex with Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul, but because this event causes Angel to fully assume his vampire side and become the evil “Angelus,” the lesson learned is that Buffy and Angel should never have sex again. Twilight, on the other hand, is all about the erotics of waiting – the series builds slowly and inevitably to the point of Bella and Edward having sex and when it does happen it is dangerous, subversive and guilt-free. Buffy is structurally barred from enjoying sex while Bella will presumably fuck Edward for eternity.

⁶ Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love, London: Serpent’s Tail 2012.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with masochism. Rather, what we are talking about is the assumption of risk by the person who pursues their passion. In his book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou offers two images of love: The first is the “security state” image of love propagated in the mass media. Here, the pursuit of love is envisaged as a rational process in which the would-be lover insures herself against any intrusion that threatens her identity. Internet dating services are an example of such processes. The illusory promise is that one can sort through hundreds of profiles evaluating important statistical data (measurements, hobbies, music taste, etc.) and that through this process one can participate in dating and find love without having to deal with the problem of difference. This is an essentially narcissistic and impossible fantasy in which the function of the lover’s partner is to perfectly complement all the elements that constitute an individual’s identity. The other image of love, which Badiou passionately defends, is one that relinquishes the demands of identity:

Now, when the logic of identity wins the day, love is under threat. The way it is attracted to difference, its social dimension, and its wild, eventually violent side are under threat . . . The identity cult of repetition must be challenged by love of what is different, is unique, is unrepeatable, unstable and foreign.⁶

Love in practice and as it is to be defended is always marked by a minimum level of risk, the danger of losing one’s self. To the extent that the penultimate film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn – Part 1, is alive to this dark underside to love, it must be defended as a bold piece of popular art.

BDP1 benefits from the fact that its director is Bill Condon who is no stranger to the horror genre. He started his directing career with the supernatural Southern Gothic Sister, Sister (1987); contributed the second entry in the Candyman series, Farewell to the Flesh (1995); and presented with Gods and Monsters (1998) an account of the last days of James Whale, director of such classic Universal Horror films as Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Although Condon is commonly discussed as a figure that belongs to the world of “prestige films” such as Dreamgirls (2006), what really qualifies him to direct a Twilight film is his ongoing interest in those cinematic genres that present the body in extremis.⁷ This goes even for more respectable fare such as Kinsey (2004), a biography of a pioneer of scientific research into the expanses of human sexuality.

⁷ Film scholars such as Carol Clover and Linda Williams refer to “body genres”, genres that effect the human body such as horror, porn, comedies and melodramas.

The story of BDP1 is incredibly rich with possibilities for body horror in the vein of a David Cronenberg film: Bella marries the vampire Edward and they consummate their marriage on an island in Brazil. Although it is assumed that vampires cannot procreate, Bella falls pregnant and the entity that rapidly grows inside her has severe effects on her own body. What is remarkable, especially given Twilight’s status as a mainstream blockbuster franchise, is how committed Condon is to realising the potential for horror in this scenario. After Bella and Edward’s first night of amorous abandon, she awakens with bruises over her body. The film lingers as she inspects the bruises that she didn’t know existed until Edward pointed them out. Edward is wracked with guilt but Bella is not having a bar of his interpretation of what happened the previous night: “You knew this was going to be tricky, right? I think we did amazing. I mean, it was amazing for me.” When Bella falls pregnant, Edward’s family argue over what exactly is inside Bella—a foetus, a baby or something else—and when Edward does some research on the Internet, the gallery of ghoulish imagery provides no comfort. Whatever it is, it is hurting Bella – the doctor informs her that the entity is crushing her bones from the inside and sapping all the nutrients from her body. When she reveals her swollen belly, it is bruised all over from the strain of the rapid pregnancy and in one particularly disturbing scene as Bella undresses to enter the bath, her gaunt, drained, emaciated body is displayed for the camera.

A Cronenberg version of BDP1 would probably have tipped the scales more towards the horror of the situation, but while the horror is certainly there on the surface of the film, it is emotionally balanced out by the soundtrack – a parade of MOR indie rock/adult contemporary flavours of the month. While I don’t necessarily share any enthusiasm for the artists that feature on the soundtrack, the effect of the songs in the context of the film is quite striking. For example, when Bella first discovers she is pregnant during her honeymoon, feeling something moving inside her belly, and uncertainly inspects herself in the mirror alone, the impending sense of doom is accompanied by Imperial Mammoth’s “Requiem on Water,” a ballad sung in whispered duet to plaintive guitars. This is not an ironic juxtaposition as in Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Blonde cuts off the policeman’s ear to the upbeat sounds of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” A juxtaposition by definition assumes the existence of opposites. But in BDP1, the horror of the situation is not juxtaposed to the romance of Imperial Mammoth’s ballad. Rather, what Twilight does is constantly bring the mood of the love story into a liminal space between romance and horror. Love is everything but it is not ideal. Rather, love always exists within a zone of undecidability between pleasure and death.

This logic comes to a head in BDP1 in the film’s epic birth scene. It is a tortuous sequence shown almost exclusively through close-ups of Bella’s eyes and point-of-view shots from Bella’s perspective: Her belly convulses at the baby-thing’s writhing movements. They inject her with morphine but there’s no time for the morphine to spread. They slice her belly open. She screams. One of the vampires gets excited at the sight of blood but is quickly subdued. They need to get the baby-thing out, but the scalpel is useless against the vampire-strength amniotic sac, so Edward bites his way through the amniotic sac and pulls the baby-thing out. Blood everywhere. Suddenly the thudding score drops to some tender strings and a piano. It’s a beautiful girl . . . Isn’t this wonderfully overblown scene only a slight exaggeration of what happens in delivery rooms everyday? The birth of a baby is always a horrific trauma as much as it is an event of miraculous beauty. There is no need to decide. One is immanent to the other.

⁸ David Cox, “Twilight: the franchise that ate feminism,” The Guardian, 12 July 2010.

⁹ Leonard Sax, “Twilight Sinks Its Teeth Into Feminism,” The Washington Post, 2008.

¹⁰ Carmen D. Siering and Katherine Spillar, “New Moon, Same Old Sexist Story,” Ms. Magazine, Fall 2009.

¹¹ Richard Lawson, “Love, Lust, and Loss in Paradise,” The Atlantic Wire, 18 November 2011.

The Twilight franchise has garnered much criticism for its supposed anti-feminism: David Cox of the Guardian criticises the Bella character for her devotion to the man she loves rather than pursuing a career like a good modern girl;⁸ Leonard Sax of the Washington Post is concerned that Bella’s being pregnant prevents her from assuming more assertive, masculine roles;⁹ Carmen D. Siering and Katherine Spillar scold Bella in Ms. Magazine for not having sex with Jacob when Edward leaves her like a true sexually-emancipated woman;¹⁰ and Richard Lawson in The Atlantic Wire decries the “anti-choice themes” of a story in which Bella chooses not to abort her baby thereby risking her life for the life of her child.¹¹ But should we accept the peculiar articulation of feminism in whose name these critiques are made? Or should we not, rather, articulate a feminism that, contra David Cox, prizes the relations of love over the relations of capital; a feminism that, contra Leonard Sax, does not assert traditionally “masculine” behaviour as the benchmark of emancipation; a feminism that, contra Carmen D. Siering and Katherine Spillar, embraces emotional involvement in love and the consequences thereof rather than the dispassionate fulfilment of one’s lust; and that, contra Richard Lawson, can acknowledge the virtue of self-sacrifice.

¹² Judith Butler, “Doubting Love,” in Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, ed. James L. Harmon, New York: Simon & Schuster 2002.

In short we must try to articulate a feminism that accepts the challenge of love and the attendant risks it poses. Perhaps Twilight is an iteration of this feminism. Perhaps we should take a note from Judith Butler who beautifully writes, “One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.”¹² When the old-fashioned fairytales told us, “And they lived happily ever after”, this signalled the end of the story and the end of narrative conflict thus invoking the fantasy of a perfect world in which lovers exist in pure harmony. Twilight is the antidote to this fantasy. It shows us that “happily ever after” always contains its own immanent dramas and conflicts. These eternal dramas are the truth of love, and yet love remains worth pursuing. The image of Bella’s emaciated body may not provide comfort to those cultural commentators who demand positive representations of women as empowered figures. Here, they claim, is yet another female martyr, and perhaps they are right. But if Bella is a martyr for anything, it is ultimately for her own passions.

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