The color of love was a fetching blood red in both theaters and on VOD this weekend.
It’s possible that two more divergent explorations of the agony and the ecstasy of love could be found. Possible. But the synchronistic release of the micro-budgeted, darkly masculine fantasy of love “Bellflower” vs. the blockbusting female fantasy “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” warrants a mention and a brief examination. The former represents an independent passion project 8 years in the making for writer/director/star Evan Glodell, while the latter represents the penultimate instillation in a YA phenomena.
Most readers will already be familiar with the general story structure of “Breaking Dawn,” but for referential purposes: Bella and Edward get married. Jacob gets sad. Bella gets pregnant. Jacob gets mad. The werewolves turn against the Cullen vampires.The fetus threatens to drain Bella of her life from the inside out. Edward begs for death alongside his beloved. Bella learns to love the taste of blood, blooood, blooooooood! Jacob is forced to gag. All of this culminates in a frighteningly intimate c-section with teeth and Jacob “imprinting on” (aka falling in enslaving love with) an infant.
“Bellflower” follows childhood friends Woodrow and Aiden who (as adults) remain committed to their post-apocalyptic daydreams of glory in which they and their “Mother Medusa” gang will be the lone survivors prepared to handle the harsh realities of a world on fire (side note: Charles Manson had a similar fantasy). They build elaborate muscle cars and homemade flamethrowers together in preparation for the end, until Woodrow falls maddeningly in love with sexy tom boy Milly, at which point a frenetic nightmare of betrayal and violence ensues.
Broken down in those terms it’s going to be a challenge to decide which of these films is indeed more of a mind twister.
It is easy enough to note the ways in which the two films are distinct from one another. “Breaking Dawn” opened theatrically this weekend to the tune of $139.5 million (according to studio estimates), whereas “Bellflower” has completed its limited theatrical run and is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. As mentioned, one was created with limited funds and primarily via the pure force of will of the team behind it, while the other is (in relative terms) an enormous studio endeavor. Critics have had a lukewarm to adverse response to “Breaking Dawn” and tend to favor “Bellflower” as a darling out of Sundance (it stands at 73% on the review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes to “Breaking Dawns”‘s 27%).
Yet we find that each film looks at adult psycho-sexual realities, be they marriage, infidelity, or childbirth, through the eyes of an adolescent. What distinguishes them is that “Bellflower” may in fact be a critique of said male adolescent fantasy, while “Breaking Dawn,” for all intents and purposes, is a celebration of the feminine side of that coin. “Twilight” was created for young adults, whereas “Bellflower” is meant for a “more mature audience,” yet the prepubescent visions presented in the films speak to the teenager within all of us.
When we say masculine and feminine we are speaking in general terms. It is not to say that all women love “Twilight” (simply that the vast majority of that franchise demographic is female, roughly 80% this weekend according to Entertainment Weekly); nor is to say that the male of the species are ever boys who secretly harbor lifelong fantasies of engaging in all manner of mayhem and bloodletting. We simply wish to notice the archetypal representations of feminine and masculine ignis fatuus present in each of these films.
It should be noted that “Bellflower” is more likely to speak to both men and women in that it takes a step back from its subject matter and asks the audience to engage in an exploration of the male fears and fantasies.
A Boy’s Dream:
“Bellflower” lovingly references, and plays worshipful homage to, “The Road Warrior” (also known as “Mad Max 2”) as if it is (at least in part) the same 13-year-old boy who initially became enamored of the harsh and desolate Australian plains depicted in the film is standing behind the camera of this one. In fact he is. So the film itself is indeed an expression of a boy’s dream.
The object of Woodrow’s desire is the picture of a young male’s imagination. Milly is gorgeous, desired by all of the other men (allowing the one who wins her to know that he may indeed beat his chest hardest), impetuous, supportive of his childish habits, a “guy’s girl,” and incredibly forgiving of any perceived sexual inadequacies.
She makes absolutely no demands that he grows up or out of his less adult habits, encourages his testosterone driven displays of bravado and in fact engages in such displays herself. She is a portrait of perfection: a dude in the form of a stunning, sexually free woman with an incredible body. The 12-year-old’s fairytale is replete with an eternally loyal best friend with whom to run around and blow things up.
A man’s fears come into play when Milly is unfaithful, calling Woodrow’s prowess and masculinity into question. At that point the film erupts into a furious fever dream in which Woodrow indulges his imagination and desire for painful retribution and re-balancing. The final exchange between Aiden and Woodrow exemplifies the purpose of the exercise, to give voice to a longing on the part of the male to be as tough as “The Road Warrior”’s Lord Humongous, so tough that it is impossible to be hurt. Aiden paints an inviting picture of the two friends traveling cross country looking “so fucking cool,” being insulated from the harsher realities of adult, emotional life in their car full of weapons. Because you see, Humongous “doesn’t get heartbroken or cheated on,” no “Lord Humongous dominates his women – and they love him for it.”
This may be an over-read, but I found it interesting that the souped up, armored, external expression of the masculine primal yell (the boy’s automobile) is aptly named Medusa. I have a particular sympathy toward the cursed, snake-headed she-demon myth. Of course, we all know of Peruses’s defeat of the Gorgon (thank you Harry Hamlin and Ray Harryhausen), but many forget how she came to be exiled on that Island to begin with.
Medusa was once the most desired woman in Athens, but as a virgin priestess of Athena, was also completely unattainable. In what scholars describe as a “fit of lust” and frustration, Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. Athena saw the act as an unforgivable desecration, and rather than take out her ire on the male perpetrator, she chose to curse Medusa to lose her beauty and live a life of utter isolation wherein her gaze (which had once inspired the most basic, life-affirming response) would result in death to the viewer. Her head held the power to defeat enemies on the battlefield, and as such Medusa became a target. Warriors fought to slay her, and thus steal her power. And so, the car that (with all its weaponry and additions) represents a safe masculine encasement for the boys also calls to mind the stolen power of a woman.
A Girl’s Fairytale:
We’ve had several years to explore, debate, and in some cases dismiss, the feminine wish fulfillment themes present in “Twilight.” There have been multiple articles written on Bella as a destructive set back to female empowerment (something which may be the subject of a future article). Whatever your particular take, there can be no doubt that there are layers to the “Twilight” phenomena. From the initial shock of the extent and fervor of the fandom surrounding the first film, to the resultant backlash from the more geek-centric fanboys and girls, no one can deny that it strikes a deep cultural chord. Many look at the series as emotional porn for women, porn in that it has a titillating, addictive nature and in that if it is taken to excess, the viewer/reader may eventually prefer the escapist fantasy that it provides to more complex, intractable genuine human relationships.
I am of the belief that Maslow had it right when he proposed that what most of us desire above all else is self-actualization. Some would contend that what drives women (outside of the aforementioned universal human needs) are the distinctly feminine twin cravings to feel safe and desired. Of course “Twilight” speaks to the awkward girl’s fantasy that despite all evidence that she is ordinary she is, in fact, an object of overwhelming appeal (someone worth killing and dying for) and a woman of extraordinary powers.
In terms of the longing for safety “Twilight” handily addresses any concern a young woman may have about a relationship. Let us look at the nature of our heroes, Edward and Jacob. They are each “impossibly” fast, inhumanly strong, able to face and defeat all comers in a physical contest without any desire to do so as an act of showmanship. The chosen lover, Edward, is also wealthy beyond measure, ensuring material physical comfort (though of course, Bella doesn’t care about that, we are not superficial in our fantasies you see, just very, very lucky). He is cultured, gentlemanly and permanently young. It certainly doesn’t hurt the fantasy that he is achingly gorgeous. More than that, he has the ability to change us (for Bella is the stand-in) so that we too will remain youthful and the most physically perfect versions of ourselves possible. That genetic shift will effectively address any fear the viewer might have about becoming older, faded, and replaceable.
“Happily ever after” is no longer enough to satisfy the adolescent female fantasy of love. We are too savvy, too cynical, we have too often heard the phrase “as faithful as their options.” This brings us to the subject of fidelity. Stephanie Meyer has created two characters that are genetically imprisoned. They are biologically compelled to remain faithful and put the concerns of “their woman” above those of their own. Jacob’s “imprinting” “reorients his world” so that all “chords” that connect him to other things are cut and redirected toward the object of his desire. He is unable to do anything but be everything and anything she needs. As a vampire, Edward has been frozen physically, but also emotionally; the book describes change as something that is next to impossible for a vampire. It takes a cataclysmic event to create one (like, say, falling in love) and once complete the change is permanent.
The structure of the love story reads like an iron clad emotional contract with absolutely no out clause. The heroine is guaranteed everlasting youth, beauty, devotion and a child to carry on her likeness in an externally realized manifestation. There is no sacrifice, no compromise and no real emotional risk. At the most fundamental level “Twilight” speaks to the very human fear of our own insignificance and inevitable mortality.
In aesthetic terms I find the films vastly divergent. “Breaking Dawn” is an uninspired, sleepy undertaking that utilizes every cinematic short cut possible in order to turn in a paint-by-numbers offering that aims only to satisfy the most basic demands of the fan base. “Bellflower” is a visually engaging dreamscape that effectively utilizes the look of bleach-bypass or color reversal film (though it was shot digitally) to create a sense of unreality that allows us to engage with the fantasy presented at the level of the unconscious. It challenges its own youthful whimsy (if by whimsy we mean the craving for brutal violence) and some of the more widely accepted perceptions of machismo (in both its male and female characters).
In thematic terms, I find the films to be fascinating mirrors of the male and female adolescent psyches, the desire to completely insulate oneself from pain, and the push/pull, attraction/repulsion that we must all ultimately feel toward and away from both violence and connection.