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Monday, November 16,2009

'The Twilight Saga: New Moon': Love at second bite

By John Anderson

Filmmaker Chris Weitz said that he knew the Twilight phenomenon had gone off the rails when the female immigration officer at the Canadian border already knew who he was. And when paparazzi pictures of him and his family eating hot dogs showed up on the Internet. And when he faced the audience at July's Comic-Con convention in San Diego.

"I don't know if you've ever been confronted by 7,000 screaming girls," he said. "But it's a loud sound." And Weitz is just the director — which would seem an impolite thing to say, if Friday's release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon wasn't poised to eclipse everything in its path.

The second in the series based on Stephenie Meyer's YA vampire novels, New Moon will further the cause of making otherworldly superstars out of whom Weitz called his "big three": Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, all of whom have already become objects of fans' adoration and media scrutiny.

Their continued involvement in Twilight adds a dark note of celebrity overkill to a story already steeped in adolescent passion and impossible romance: The virginal Bella Swan (Stewart) is in love with the vampire Edward Cullen (Pattinson). And while he resists her willingness to go over to the dark side, he also risks losing her to Jacob Black (Lautner), a member of an American Indian tribe with a few undead skeletons of its own rattling around in the closet.

As we rejoin our program ... the Cullen clan is throwing a party for Bella's 18th birthday, but when she accidentally cuts her hand, the ensuing flurry of blood lust among the immortal guests convinces the Cullens to leave their Pacific Northwest town for Bella's own good. What ensues is precisely the kind of frustrated teenage love story explored by writers from Shakespeare down to those who carve their initials in trees. Meyer is always going for ultimate pathos, but her stories also prove that successful melodrama is usually not about what it pretends to be about: The Twilight series may be set among vampires, but its subtext is pure wish-fulfillment and fantasy.

"It puts everyday romantic dilemmas into a supernatural context," said Weitz. "And things play out in the ways one might imagine they would play out in everyday life, but don't."

Weitz replaced Twilight Director Catherine Hardwicke. "It's like Harry Potter," he said, "They'll have a new director on each film" — although that wasn't the plan originally.

He said another aspect of the tales that drags female audiences of all ages into "New Moon's" orbit is its almost chaste attitude toward . . . well, you know.

"The way it addresses teen sexuality is very considered and safe," said Weitz, whose American Pie was anything but. "The heroine is a virgin and it's addressed that she's a virgin and that is something respected by her boyfriend; he's very careful and protective of her. That's a bit of a throwback, in a way. Actually, the fact that you mention the virginity of the character at all is a bit shocking."

Vampire stories are always eroticized — as Weitz points out, the exchange of bodily fluids is a fairly intimate thing, even if you may not want to examine it all too clinically.

"You want to take people on an emotional ride, not necessarily an intellectual one," said Melissa Rosenberg, who thus far has scripted three Twilight films (the third Twilight Saga: Eclipse, directed by David Slade, completed shooting two weeks ago). "If you're just writing about passion, you're doing, I don't know what — soft core? There has to be a journey. So it's really a coming-of-age story — it's about Bella becoming a stronger person. And by the end she has a life as she's created it for herself. The heartbreak is the whole idea of 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'"

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