When I purchased my ticket for the Thursday night midnight show of Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, I had no idea what I was in for; not because I hadn’t seen any of the previous Twilight films – I have, in fact, seen them all – but because I had never seen a Twilight film in a theater before, much less on opening night. The Twilight subculture befuddles me, as I’m sure it does any non-initiate of the series. Having seen all the films, I still feel like I’m viewing them from afar, like it’s some strange anthropological project of a phenomenon whose worth and value I will never fully understand.
Twilight seems to encapsulate the drastic changes that have taken place in big-budget event filmmaking in the last thirty years. Rather than a film made with the intent of mass appeal (like franchises ranging from Indiana Jones to Jason Bourne), the Twilight films play almost exclusively to a specific – but dedicated – demographic. Of course, one could make this argument about many film franchises. Everything from Star Trek to The Dark Knight certainly have rabid fanbases at their core, but the audiences for these films seem to be “filled in” with a significant amount of casual fans. For example, I once viewed the Harry Potter films similarly to the way I now approach Twilight – not in terms of filmmaking quality, mind you, but in terms of being a cult phenomenon surrounding a fictional narrative that I was not a part of – but my curiosity eventually turned into true fandom and genuine appreciation of the adaptations.
But the dominant stereotype for the Twilight fan is that there is, and can be, no casual approach. These adaptations seem to be made exclusively for an already existing loyal fanbase. There are no converts to Twilight, only onlookers who peer closely and try to understand, but can’t. To borrow a TV term, Twilight’s success represents the event/franchise-picture-gone-narrowcast. Rather than bank off as much mass appeal as possible, these films succeed precisely because of their delimited appeal to a specific and reliable niche audience.
I’m used to the uber-fans. Having seen midnight shows of entries within several franchises including The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Abrams’s Star Trek, and Nolan’s Batman films, I was ready to see at least a few costumes in line. If I was going to see a midnight showing of a Twilight movie, I wanted the full experience. I wanted to hear people screaming at the first sight of Robert Pattinson so that the strange lull after his introduction in New Moon made sense in a context outside of home video. I wanted to share a theater with audience members covered head to toe in Hot Topic, with their respective werewolf or vampire-beholden teams already delineated and in active social rivalry. What I got with Breaking Dawn – Part I was something I didn’t quite expect.
I was disappointed, at first, to see nobody dressed in any specific, fan-obsessed way for Twilight. But upon watching the film, it quickly became clear that Twilight is not an exterior experience of fandom in the way that dressing as Gandalf for The Return of the King is. Just as Twilight is unique in its massive appeal to an incredibly specific audience, it also inspires a filmgoing experience that is particularly embodied. The fans in my screening didn’t interact with the film through sartorial roleplay, but through a range of expressions, gestures, and noises. Seeing a Twilight movie in a theater is a strangely heightened, affective experience, and one that I can say with certainty that I’ve never had in a theater before.
It started with the trailers. The two-minute spot for the Danielle Radcliffe-starring Woman in Black came up, and the audience reacted demonstrably to the simple creepiness of the tone, gasping with each cut between expository inanimate objects, regardless of the fact that there were no explicit scares being depicted. This was followed by gasps and laughter with the recognition of Radcliffe, and this reaction carried with it a strange sense of consternation and betrayal in opposition to his choice to star in something so horrifying. I turned to my friends, who also saw themselves as fellow anthropologists buried deep within a foreign culture, and we met each other with a knowing nod of approval, betraying our agreement that this was probably the best audience to see such a film with.
The audience’s reaction to the film itself (or, 5/6 of the film, but I’ll get to that other stuff in a minute) was a strange, oscillating mixture of shared devotion to and irreverence toward the material. The audience was certainly aware of Taylor Lautner’s tortured delivery of basic dialogue, and the near self-parody of the fact that he took his shirt off less than a minute into the film. But at the same time, Bella and Edward’s wedding was met with “awws” and genuine laughter alongside the film’s attempts at humor. When Kristen Stewart’s Bella reveals her baby’s girl name to be “Renesmee,” or when Pattinson’s Edward suddenly speaks fluent Portugese (which he must’ve learned during The Civil War), the audience was far enough removed from the film to appreciate Breaking Dawn as high camp. However, the audience became re-captivated (and yes, the same people had both reactions) every time a “genuine” moment incurred between Bella and Edward. In their free and unpredictable oscillation between sincerity and irony, this audience displayed the most complex and strangest pseudo-camp experience I’ve ever seen.
But Breaking Dawn is not just a normal Twilight film. This is a Twilight film with mutant vampire birth, blood slurpees, and strange baby love (what the hell is “imprinting,” anyway – is it like a horcrux?). I really appreciated how the movie, despite the sudden revelation of the most foreboding pregnancy since Mia Farrow had short hair, built up the batshit crazy C-section scene with the disturbing slow-reveals of a bruised baby belly, an increasingly emaciated Stewart, and vampire soft drinks. During Bella’s first sip of the Styrofoam-contained concoction, my audience’s disgust slowly escalated perfectly alongside the rising dark blood visible through a clear straw, like the straw itself was both measuring and dictating audience engagement. Gasps, screams, hyperbolic exclamations (“This is the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen!”), laughter emanating from discomfort, and an all around sense of exhaustive emotional engagement filled the space between the screen and the dedicated midnight audience occupying the chairs in front of it. Everyone was free to express exactly how they felt at any given moment.
And then there were those incredible final minutes.
I don’t specifically recall the audience’s reaction at this point, for I, for the first time, joined them in their exclamatory visceral reaction to what was going on onscreen. It was as if the reel had suddenly changed to the final twenty minutes of a late-1970s David Cronenberg film. For a few uncanny moments, my cynical, condescending pseudo-anthropologist friends and myself sat dumbfounded and disturbed, in literal disbelief of what we were seeing. As the Twilight audience had inculcated us, there needed to be no cognitive space between our feelings and our voice, and we became free to join in cries of “Jesus Christ!” or “Please God, make it stop” and to utter unanswerable questions like “Why did he just eat her abdomen?” or “Why is nobody cleaning up that disgusting baby?”
Film scholar Linda Williams refers to film genres like horror, melodrama, and pornography “body genres” because their worth lies in their ability to elicit a specific physiological response: respectfully screaming, crying and…well, you know. Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 seems not only to be of a body genre that inspires a particularly hyper-performative type of ritual theatrical experience, but stands as a combination of nearly every body genre: the series is motivated to appeal to a particular type of adolescent sexuality, but it also attempts to make its audience cry, (arguably unintentionally) laugh, and ultimately initiates an incredible range of emotional interaction with its audience, culminating (at least in this entry) in total abject horror.
I left my first theatrical screening of Twilight feeling drained, emotionally confused, politically annoyed, viscerally disturbed, and somehow cheerfully grateful to have had the experience. I think “Renesmee” is the only non-word that can adequately describe such a contradictory occurrence.
In short, I fucking loved it.