Vampires: Sucking More Than Blood For Over Ten Years

27 Nov

All right. Typically I try not to call attention to media frenzies for a couple of reasons. First, they’re usually not worth my time to report, because all I’ll do is tear it to pieces and that kind of vitriol, I’m told, gets old – fast. Second, I don’t want to give even more attention to an issue I don’t feel warrants it to begin with. And third, nobody is going to accuse this blog of jumping on anybody’s bandwagon for the sake of page views while I’m in charge.

However, sometimes a social phenomenon comes along that is so pervasive, so all-encompassing in media across the board, that it’s very difficult for me to walk away from it, especially when I have several days’ worth of irritation built up in my head, and if it doesn’t come out on the page, I’m going to have to do something crazy like join a gym. And nobody wants that.

Like many youths of the early 90s, I spent my high school years infatuated with the vampire myth. I read all of Anne Rice’s original Vampire Chronicles, I played the Whitewolf tabletop RPG “The Masquerade” (and I’m aware that admitting to that has just ensured I’ll never get laid again), I wore out my VHS copies of “Blade” and John Carpenters’ “Vampires”, and I even wrote a two-hundred page trainwreck of a post-apocalyptic vampire-themed novel. Seriously. It was called “Midnight to Midnight” (after the Psychedelic Furs song) and it was a patent disaster that I sincerely hope will never again see the light of day.

I’m pretty sure I can nail down exactly what attracted me to the mythos as a teenager, and if you think about it, you probably can too. What are the constituent elements of vampire “life”? Isolation, hunger, pain and seduction, all wrapped up in fancy accents and black clothing and the cover of night. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to put two and two together and realize vampires in their contemporary incarnation were more-or-less the Holy Grail of mopey teenagers everywhere. Identifiable characters who suffer from the same textbook “nobody understands me” sentiments as every teen in the history of modern civilization, with the added bonus of eternal youth, really nifty superpowers and the ability to charm people into having sex with them. Simply put, being a vampire in high school would have kicked ass, if you don’t count the funny hours.

But herein lies the first problem. Part of the dramatic tension brought about when a script calls for a vampire character is the fundamental schism between them and the rest of humanity. For example: Joss Whedon’s hugely popular character Angel (played by the spectacularly mediocre David Boreanaz) was possessed of exactly that schism. According to the series gloss, Angel was a hundred-year-old vampire who was cursed with the return of his soul, and with it, the associated guilt-trip of Catholic proportions thanks to his murderous past. He does his best to repent for his crimes and, in the process, winds up falling in love with the cheerleader-cum-vampire-slayer charged with ridding the world of his kind. Oh, and if he makes it with her, he loses his soul all over again and goes back to being a bloodsucking monster.

There you have it – your textbook dramatic foil, in the spirit of Phantom of the Opera (I love you but we can never be together) and, predictably, of every high school romance I ever entertained.

I’ll grant you, an envisioning like “Buffy” or “Angel” is pretty far removed from Stoker’s Dracula or Rice’s Lestat; certainly removed from the more violent portrayal of John Carpenter’s film; and definitely nothiing to do with the original myths (believe it or not, just about every culture in the world has a comparable “living dead that sucks blood” myth, though the most popular come from Eastern Europe – strigoi mort is the specific Romanian nomenclature). But there at least still exists an element of the tragedy and the Gothic accoutrements that made the vampire at once attractive and repellant to the likes of Stoker’s Jonathan Harker and Rice’s Louis.

It’s a strange dichotomy in popular media today, then, that on one hand turns its back on the more lighthearted imagining of characters and reinvents them in a macabre spirit (see Tim Burton’s “Batman” franchise as compared to the more recent, far darker Christopher Nolan films) and on the other hand develops a version of a very dark trope and makes it – dare I say – almost family-friendly.

We saw the beginning of this in the mid- to late-90s with films like “Blade”; for all it portrayed vampires as fundamentally evil and animalistic, it also featured Stephen Dorff in skintight leather pants hosting rave parties. This was the dawning (so to speak) of the new era of vampirism in which vampire characters were no longer used as dramatic devices (as with “Interview”) or as antagonists (see “Near Dark” and its ilk) and began the slow change into the urban fashionistas typified by the likes of Whedon’s Angel.

And, finally, at the end of this century’s first decade, we get to “Twilight”.

Let me preface this with the following: I am not here to add my two cents’ worth regarding why “Twilight” sucks. Unless a bunch of 14 year old girls have recently started reading this blog, I think we’re all adults here and we can recognize that it’s not exactly literature. It’s “Degassi Junior High” with vampires (and now, inexplicably, werewolves?), and I’m not knocking Stephanie Meyer for leaping on the mid-teen “Harry Potter” bandwagon, because you don’t have to be starving to be a legitimate writer (though I’m not enamoured of her writing style). She made money hand-over-fist on these books, and especially the movies – good for her. JK Rowling wrote most of the first Potter book while sitting in some coffee shop somewhere because she couldn’t afford heat at her apartment, and now she’s got more money than God. I’m too much of a cynic to give these people a hard time for making money at what they do. Is it art? Not really, and I like to think I wouldn’t be into writing something so banal in exchange for a dump truck full of money, but then again, nobody’s ever driven a dump truck full of money up to my house, so who knows?

Twilight”, for what it is, actually doesn’t suck. Let me explain why before I lose all credibility with the elite intelligentsia that makes up my readership.

A while ago I took a gig writing lyrics for some commercial music. Before you ask, the project folded and the songs never got aired, but that isn’t the point. The instrumental music I was provided fell into the same category as bands like Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and Korn – not typically what I’m into, and not typically a genre for which I have a great deal of respect. They asked me to write suitable lyrics for that genre, however, and they were paying me to do it, so I went out of my way to write the most adolescently-angry stuff I’ve done since high school. With every line penned I became more and more mortified – I was literally throwing up in my mouth a little bit as I wrote verse after verse of alt-rap-rock pabulum. I continually questioned myself throughout the process – does this make me less of an artist? Am I selling out? Is this devaluing me as a writer? And the consensus I came to was quite simply – no.

What I was writing was genre-specific and designed to appeal to a particular demographic, a demographic who expects a lot of “Daddy didn’t love me” and “I cut myself at night”sentiments in their lyrical content. Sure, it’s juvenile and certainly I was a little overqualified to write it (I’m not being arrogant – anyone could go write lyrics like that given enough time; it’s not hard). But what made the lyrics “good” from a certain point of view was the fact that they did exactly what they were supposed to. Anyone can write shitty lyrics; I wrote lyrics that were good at being shitty – because they’re only shitty from my point of view. I’m sure little emo Johnny and Jane America would eat them up, and therefore, I did my job well.

It’s the same thing with “Twilight” – Stephanie Meyer is not trying to be the next Dostoyevsky here, she’s trying to sell her product. And she’s good at it, just as I was good at writing bad Fred Durst lyrics. I was just talking about this with one of my correspondents, and in the course of our discussion it became clear to me: it’s the difference between making art and making a product. As a product, “Twilight” is a massive success: on its opening night, the movie destroyed the record previously held by “The Dark Knight” with no sign of slowing down – and that’s on top of the millions and millions of books sales. I don’t know about you, but from a purely fiscal perspective, that’s my definition of “success”. Is it “art”? That’s debatable, but it’s also not what I’m here to debate.

I don’t have a problem with the fact that “Twilight” follows a pretty straight-forward formula. The teen love story is time-tested and reliable, as we’ve seen over and over again in past years. In fact, while researching this article, I discovered a fantastic breakdown of why “Twilight” works as well as it does on the page and on the screen.

For those of you who don’t want to read it, here’s the basic gloss: the main characters (Bella and Edward) are not actually characters. Bella is conspicuous in her total lack of distinguishing characteristics: a lack of physical description particularly allows Meyer’s demographic (teen girls) to envision themselves in her role without any troublesome details getting in the way of their fantasy. Similarly, Edward isn’t any more real: leaving aside the whole vampire thing for a minute (though it’s a perfect “bad-boy” trope), he’s more-or-less perfect. He makes Bella the focus of his whole world, quite a feat for a hundred year-old man dealing with a whiny, insecure, pubescent girl. In contrast to Bella, Meyer hammers the point home over and over again about how beautiful Edward is, how perfect his features, et cetera ad nauseum. While I’m sure it was a huge ego boost for Robert Pattison to be asked to play the “perfect man”, it seems the only fault in Edward’s entire personality is that pesky drinking-blood-to-survive thing, but of course he’s a “good” vampire – he only feeds on the blood of animals, predictably. The point is these characters are innately two-dimensional, which allows readers to insinuate themselves into not just the story, but the whole fantasy world in general.

Basically, the lack of character development legitimizes the profoundly terrible acting I saw in clips from the first two films, but it does little to forward the film industry in any meaningful way.

Once upon a time actors were respected artists in their fields. You can’t be a film buff without coming across names like Humphrey Bogart, Catherine Hepburn, Orson Welles, and the list goes on. These people were serious about their jobs. They brought life to text. They made us feel things, made us believe in characters and stories. And yeah, there are still some good actors out there, but generally speaking I’m seeing more and more of the same old same old from Hollywood. I’m not going to go back into a diatribe about the declining state of modern film, but I can’t help bringing it up when it comes to “Twilight”.

See, much as I don’t blame Stephanie Meyer for hopping on a bandwagon to make some money, I do blame the people driving that wagon and all the people hanging off the sides as it traverses the American landscape on its long journey to mediocrity.

The fundamental problem here is, for every “Eternal Sunshine” or “Requiem for a Dream” or “Being John Malkovich”, there’s a “Twilight” or some other boring piece of crap that exists not as art, but as a consumable product. If I were given a chance to make a film, I would want to make something that stretches the limits of what can be done in the genre – something with outstanding acting bringing life to words that say and mean something. Something, in short, that has nothing to do with teenage wizards or teenage vampires. In short – enough already.

I think it’s safe to say we’ve bled this topic dry. Time to move on with our lives.

One Response to “Vampires: Sucking More Than Blood For Over Ten Years”

  1. Jacob Black January 8, 2011 at 12:40 PM #

    Love reading anything like this as it gives me more knowledge for my jacob black site and going to be a regular visitor for sure!

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