Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New Moon (Summit Entertainment, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

New Moon turned out to be an utterly astonishing movie, not so much because it’s that great a film aesthetically — it’s rich and moving but I’ve had better times at the movies, including some current movies (can you say Avatar? — but because it systematically broke all the supposed rules for how to make a movie aimed at the youth audience and it still became a mega-hit and made tons of money for its makers, including the plucky independent studio Summit Entertainment that backed it when no one else would and made a huge profit. The orthodoxy is that young audiences today have been so conditioned by the rapid-fire images of music videos and the quickness with which you can move from story to story on the Internet that they not only don’t want but actually get bored by a plot that has too much narrative coherence, and that the way to hold their interest is to make the film’s internal rhythms very fast and jerky, do a lot of quick jump-cuts from one scene to another, and adopt a “cool” attitude towards your characters, not only avoiding but deliberately frustrating any attempt by anyone in the audience to care too deeply about the characters, their emotions and their dilemmas.

New Moon is shot (by director Chris Weitz, who also did the film of Bill Pullman’s The Golden Compass but complained that that movie was completely recut by the studio, Warner Bros.’ New Line division, after he finished it, whereas Summit trusted his judgment and vision and released New Moon substantially the way he had made it; Weitz replaced Catherine Hardwicke, who did the first Twilight film but had a schedule conflict that kept her from doing this one) much like a 1940’s movie, at a slow, rich and almost stately pace, with long tracking and dolly shots (at times in modern movies one gets the impression that the camera dolly is as obsolete and quaint as the theatre organ!) that draw us into the action instead of keeping us at a dizzying, attention-taxing remove from it; and the script (by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight cycle) keeps the characters’ emotional dilemmas front and center, leaving us achingly wrenched by them and genuinely caring how things come out and wanting to see at least the nice characters get their hearts’ desires.

It’s also a very carefully “planted” story, full of hints — like the high-school English class heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is taking, in which they’re studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which foreshadows the similarities (apparently Meyer’s doing in the original novel, since she’s commented herself that she was using Romeo and Juliet as a model) between the ultimate fates of Bella and her boyfriends, vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and [spoiler alert!] werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), and the events of Shakespeare’s plot. At 130 minutes (eight minutes longer than the first Twilight) New Moon is a bit too long for its own good — though people who’ve read the books have nonetheless complained about details left out of the films (just as fans of The Lord of the Rings did) — but I’m not going to do much complaining about a film that lets us take our time to get to know the characters and feel for them, and also gives us a chance to contemplate the beauty of the natural scenery in which these events are taking place (one surprise about both Twilight films — despite their titles — is that their directors and cinematographers, Elliot Davis in the first film and Javier Aguirresarobe here, have managed to make the films believable both as vampire stories and as Gothic tales even though most of the action takes place in daylight and/or outdoors) and the ironic contrast between it and the ugliness of some of the events depicted.

Not that New Moon is a scare-fest — it and its prequel are probably the least scary vampire films ever made (the Underworld movies, which also combined vampires and werewolves and based their plots around a multi-generational rivalry between them, managed to work within the genre conventions of modern-day horror and still transcend them; the Twilight films are working in a completely different territory, more supernaturally frustrated romances than horror or genre pieces) — and some of the plotting is pretty preposterous. Worried that the townspeople of Forks, Washington have figured out that they’re vampires, the extended Cullen family leaves town and Edward dumps Bella after having told her before that he would never let her down; in the interim, she takes up with Jacob, whom she (and we) remembers as the cute long-haired kid from the Native American reservation school she (and we) briefly met in episode one— only he suddenly lets out his muscles (the real Taylor Lautner worked out extensively to bulk up for the part because he was worried they’d recast the role with someone else if he didn’t become muscular enough to embody the later incarnation of his character), cuts his hair short and gets wolf tattoos on his arm and chest, and it turns out this is a symbol that his genetic conditioning has won out and he’s joined four of the other local Indians as part of a werewolf pack, albeit ones who are sworn only to hunt down vampires, not humans. (This plot gimmick sounds so much like the premise of the Underworld movies — even though the parts of those set in the modern world were urban, not rural — one wonders if Stephenie Meyer was, shall we say, influenced by them.)

Then Jacob, too, dumps Bella and protests that he too is part of a supernatural cult to which his loyalties transcend any feelings he could have for a normal human being. (At this point I joked that one of Bella’s girlfriends from school would have a new boyfriend for her: “He’s seven feet tall, his skin is greenish-grey, he’s got a big scar down his forehead, two metal plugs on either side of his neck and he speaks only in grunts and groans — but after the vampire and the werewolf, hey, Bella, he’s just your type!”) In their last confrontation, Jacob intercepts a phone call Edward has put in to Bella — he does more than intercept it, he crushes the cell phone with his bare hand — and Bella gets a vision of Edward (she gets several of them, all while she’s doing adrenalin-boosting things like motorcycle riding or cliff diving) flying off to Italy to the Volturi, a cadre of vampires who seem like a sort of bloodsuckers’ Vatican, the ultimate governing authority for the cult, to ask them to kill him because, being a vampire, he can only be killed in certain ways and cannot actually commit suicide. Instantly making the parallel to the ending of Romeo and Juliet — Juliet fakes her death at the instigation of Friar Laurence as part of the friar’s plot to get her and Romeo out of the clutches of their families and together where they belong; Romeo discovers Juliet’s “dead” body and kills himself for real; and Juliet also commits suicide after she comes to and sees Romeo dead — Bella and Cullen’s foster-sister fly to Italy to visit the Voltari and stop Edward from getting them to kill him (which he plans to do during a festival celebrating the medieval church’s successful exorcism of vampires from that village), driving to the site in a (stolen) yellow Ferrari and confronting Edward in the nick of time.

Much of New Moon treads on the thin edge of silliness, but it’s a testament to the basic effect of the story — particularly Meyer’s art in combining the angst-ridden teen romance genre with the doomed vampire tale (sired by Curt Siodmak — whose script for the 1943 film Son of Dracula is the earliest example I can think of off-hand of a vampire tale that contains the plot device of a normal mortal actively seeking vampire-hood and accepting the down side of having constantly to murder people for their blood for the upside of immortality — and developed further by Anne Rice and Underworld creators Len Wiseman and Kevin Grevioux) in which a normal human is tempted to the Dark Side of vampire-dom — here, because she’s in love with a vampire and the only way she can stay the same age as he is to become a vampire herself and thereby freeze her physical age at its current point. (This isn’t too far removed from the ending of the 1944 German film Baron Munchhausen, though that movie resolves the plot dilemma in the opposite direction: the hero gives up his immortality and accepts aging and death so he can be similarly situated with his girlfriend and at least have the length of a normal human lifespan to be happy with her.)

Bella gets the Cullen family (who have returned en masse to Forks) to vote on whether she should be allowed to become a vampire; Edward and one other family member vote against it but the ayes have it; then she’s confronted with a warning from Jacob that if the Cullens put the bite on her — even if she agrees to it — that will violate the treaty between vampires and werewolves and the Cullens will be fair game for him and his wolf pack — and then Edward says he’ll convert Bella but on only one condition. She asks what it is, and he says, “Marry me” — and then the film fades to black and the credits come up, the kind of open-ended finish one might expect from a story that’s part of an extended cycle but also a quite impressive breaking of the usual rule that a story like this has to be resolved in an all-stops-out fight-to-the-finish confrontation instead of an ending that concentrates on the characters and their emotions rather than on physical conflict.

There are all sorts of felicitious touches throughout New Moon, including a visual quote from the scene in Dracula in which Dwight Frye accidentally cuts his finger and Bela Lugosi, who up until then has been keeping himself more or less under control, totally freaks out with hunger and lust at the sight of a human’s blood — and even the music breaks all the rules of what’s supposed to be the soundtrack for a 21st century youth movie. Instead of loud, obnoxious, self-consciously “Gothic” metal or relentless pop, the music in New Moon is sophisticated contemporary stuff of the type once known as “indie” or “alternative” — the best-known bands are Death Cab for Cutie, the Black Metal Motorcycle Club and Thom Yorke (the Radiohead front man, heard here as a solo artist); most of the other musicians heard here are pretty obscure and a lot of the music is surprisingly quiet, driven by acoustic rather than electric instruments, and obliquely commenting on the characters’ moral and emotional dilemmas: it’s obvious that the songs and performers for this film were picked because they helped create the filmmakers’ desired mood, not just to put “names” on a CD cover to sell copies of a soundtrack album!

That’s just one manifestation of what I like best about New Moon: that it’s the movie the filmmakers wanted to make, intense, emotional material presented without commercial compromise, without any audience concessions that might have watered down the vision — and their movie was nonetheless a runaway commercial hit, proof (matched in 2009’s movies only by Avatar) that artistry and audience appeal are not always at odds and sometimes one can reinforce the other.