This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine New Moon, with notes on Twin Peaks and surrealism.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009, dir. Chris Weitz), with notes on Twin Peaks (1990-91, dir. David Lynch)
Edward (Robert Pattinson) has been talking to Bella (Kristen Stewart) during a high school class. This frame is a flashback to the previous film (Twilight, 2008) when Bella was attacked by James (Cam Gigandet), the human-hunting vampire. He bites Bella’s wrist, but she is rescued by Edward, who sucks out the venom. During the flashback from which this frame is taken, Edward tells Bella that “I didn’t know if I’d get you in time.” The frame itself is an anarchy of dissolves, with overlapping layers of time and space; its high-pitched editing is in stark contrast to the slow, dark, long-take style of New Moon.
New Moon is like Twin Peaks except with its subtext ripped out and splashed across the screen. Instead of James, from Twin Peaks, working on his motorcycle, we have Jake (Taylor Lautner) as a sort of Washington State doppelganger, except with long hair and darker, native skin (and plus, he can transform himself into a wolf, whereas James could only transform himself into a singer). During the scene from which this frame was taken, Bella watches Jake and voices-over these thoughts: “I wish I could tell you about Jake. He makes me feel better. I mean, he makes me feel alive. The hole in my chest. Well when I’m with Jake, it’s like it’s almost healed. For a while.”
Between them, the wilderness gapes in its magnificent uncharted-ness. So much of New Moon is shot outdoors, in a sort of weird zone between the oversaturated green, rain-drenched towering pines and the blank oranges and browns of open fields and meadows.
This one is suitable for framing and hanging in a gallery of surrealist art. I have an idea that my mind keeps rejecting, and it is this: frames like this one are surreal, and yet are unrecognized as such because we have become accustomed to seeing them as special effects. Our thinking is path-dependent: we expect to see special effects in movies like New Moon and so we see them. But what if, instead, we choose to see them as art? Specifically, surrealist art. This is much easier to do when you stop a film like this in one of its CGI special effect sequences and look at the still as if it were a discrete unit rather than part of the narrative flow of the film.
In his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), André Breton noted “the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men. … Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.” And is not this frame marvelous, a momentary flash into a nightmare, in the wilderness and fairy-tale like, the raw absurdity of sheer terror about to pounce? To watch a scene like this, one frame at a time, is an extraordinarily different experience from watching at 24 frames per second.
The weakness in me wants to give you some context for the scene, in case you have not seen the film. So here: A member of the wolf pack — Paul (Alex Meraz) — attacks Bella, transforming from human to wolf in mid-air. Within seconds, Jake will also transform into a wolf to protect Bella, and there’s a nice wolf fight scene that lasts for around 30 seconds. Pure Hollywood male testosterone, sure: an over-administered culture where the sanctions against acting biologically primitive and raw are so severe. A third-grader pecks a kiss on the cheek of another third-grader and, BAM, the iron fist comes down. It has been said that there is little place for unsupervised adolescent being-ness today: all that is channeled carefully into endlessly over-scheduled, over-supervised “events” that do a woeful job of mopping up what’s left of the dwindling adolescent experience. Either that, or We’re All Adolescents Now.
But what if Bella were Laura Palmer, and Paul the wolf were Bob? Except no one could protect or save Laura Palmer: she was dead on arrival. Bob was a wolf in a man’s (father’s) body; his evil was inscrutable and struck without purpose like lightning. The difference is that the evil in the Twilight series comes from familiar stories (vampire stories, werewolf stories) that are so familiar that they have lost their power to terrify. Instead of terror, we expect variations or updates on a theme. We are the children of postmodernism. We are always already-prepared for the shock of the new, because we don’t believe in the new.