Like vampires, culture wars never die, but like werewolves, they sometimes change shape. The controversy surrounding Twilight tends to revolve around the question of whether it's an allegory about abstinence and, if so, whether that's good or bad. But watching New Moon, the new Twilight saga installment, I was reminded of an older culture war. Here were a couple of really, really hot guys snarling at each other. The lovely Bella Swan wasn't the only thing they were fighting over. (Article continued below…)
There's something pretty retrograde about the stereotypes in Moon, which is set up as a choice between Jacob and Edward. Does Bella want a cultured, disciplined, cold-to-the-touch, vaguely European vampire who worries about the state of Bella's soul? Or does she want a tattooed, bare-chested, genuine, aggressive, hot-to-the-touch, Native American werewolf? Edward listens to Debussy, quotes Romeo and Juliet, and drives a Volvo; Jacob fixes motorbikes and wrestles with his friends. Edward wears crewnecks and vests; Jacob nothing but cutoff jeans. Edward is at the mercy of the laws of an elaborate Italian organization of skinny vampires in Louis XIV period costume; Jacob is more or less bound to a roaming, buff, shirtless gang. Edward might kill her with a snap of his jaws in a moment of desire; Jacob might kill her with a slash of his claws in a moment of anger. (Some choice.)
We've been here before. In 1939, Philip Rahv wrote a landmark essay, "Paleface and Redskin," in which he described American literature as divided between two poles. For Rahv, the paleface wants "religious norms, tending toward a refined estrangement from reality. The redskin, on the other hand, accepts his environment, at times to the degree of fusion with it, even when rebelling against one or another of its manifestations." By example, Rahv gives us Henry James versus Walt Whitman. Now, the dominant smackdown in American arts and letters seems to be between a beautiful vampire and a beautiful werewolf in a series targeted at preteen girls.
So! Let the games begin. New Moon begins several months after Twilight leaves off. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) have finally settled into something like a normal relationship. But after a bleeding paper cut causes Edward's brother to attack her, Edward disappears, leaving behind no trace but Bella's unimaginable and unmanageable grief. Only two things bring any feeling back into her numb mind: her friendship with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who, boasting a hot new physique, makes his own romantic intentions clear; and acts of recklessness, which seem to summon holographic images of a disapproving Edward. But the apparitions of Edward always dissolve, and it turns out that the presence of vampires—or rage—turns Jacob into a giant wolf. After this, the film turns into a kind of pseudo-action movie, featuring speeding cars through narrow Italian streets, wrestling wolves, wrestling vampires, wrestling wolves and vampires, and the appearance of the Volturi, the sinister governing body of vampires, who are stopped from sucking Bella's blood only by the promise that the Cullens will do it themselves, eventually.
The Edward/Jacob dichotomy might have made some sense, describing as it does (if in a campy way) the dilemma that divides so many hearts. But it's a false choice. Bella's heart was "always" with Edward, she tells Jacob, and it's obviously so. Despite the fact that Jacob is better looking and kinder than Edward, not to mention actually there with her, there is no romantic tension between Jacob and Bella. She encourages his affections not out of attraction, but because she is scared of being alone. She finds Jacob comforting, not confusing. He distracts her from desire.
Unlike Twilight, there's not much romantic tension between her and Edward either, who's off-screen most of the time anyway. This might not have been a bad thing. New Moon could have been as brave a movie as the first, which had something simple and sharp at its core. If only director Chris Weitz had managed to tease out the real drama—Bella's fear of aging—instead of a tired one. Growing up might mean growing apart. The scariest thing in New Moon isn't any monster; it's Bella's birthday.