Monday, December 29, 2008
Interpretations: Blood Studies
by Anjuli Raza Kolb
For me, moving into adulthood was and continues to be a series of amplifying revulsions as I find out more and more about what goes on in grown-ups’ secret lives. If this sounds peevish and stufepyingly lacking in empathy, it is. But I think it’s the reason that I am especially moved by stories that shuttle us to the outermost limits of what is morally and viscerally incorporable—can I love this person who likes Radiohead (no)? Can I love this person who is deceiving his affianced (yes)? Can I love this person who eats in this fashion, tongue preceding lips and teeth? Whose eyes change color? Who scales ice-cold hospital walls in an unseasonably light nightie with bare feet? Who, in sleepless hungry nights, kills middle-aged men to guzzle their blood and in the ensuing froth might be incapable of not also drinking me dry? Yes please.
Horror stories, and vampire tales in particular, are almost always read according to a series of circulating paranoias that range from the intensely personal to the anxious social. Disquiet about chastity, virginity, invasion of the domestic space, and contagion occupy the more intimate chambers of such paranoias. Xenophobia is one of the most obvious of the latter, more social agitations. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the paradigm for such interpretations, obsessively detailing cultural and psychological difference through letters, physicians’ diaries, shipping bills, and journals. In what is perhaps the imprisoned solicitor Jonathan Harker’s most uncanny discovery in Castle Dracula, he learns that the Count is applying himself rigorously to the study of English culture and idiom, revealing not only the monster’s focus and drive, but also the promise of an unidentifiable and dangerous assimilation about to take place—an intimate and secret invasion that activates all the more personal, antigenic panics on the other end of the spectrum.
What’s interesting to me about vampire stories is how they cut two paths around a particularly feminine adolescent narcissism with which I am uncomfortably familiar. On the front side, they model a generosity of spirit and a maternal instinct that allows especially sensitive, brainy, outsidery beauties to fantasize about what amounts to gestating and/or breast-feeding (neck-feeding? blood-nursing? lactation station at the blood bank?) anemic boys at the expense of their own strength. Like Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, and more recently Stephanie Meyer’s Isabella Swan from the Twilight series, these often-female subjects, defined by their independence and smarts, find themselves moved by the idea of becoming providers, life-lines. The failers-to-thrive they thusly nurse or dream of nursing—and herein lies the seduction for at least a century’s worth of voracious female readers—are paradoxically capable of puncturing the taut skin of their defenses, at throat and hotly thither.
At the back, there’s the promise that whatever ontological distance exists between two people can, if necessity or passion should force our hand, be eliminated by the quick and dirty trick of sharing a blood supply. In other words, a more thanatophilic version of my favorite flea from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets who unites the speaker’s blood with his reluctant lover’s in its promiscuous gut to render them “more than married.” This sanguine exchange is, I think, equally heady to both vampire and victim because for each it can expeditiously turn the other into a version of the self, or at least a separate being infected with the self. Victims become vampires, and vampires make the blood of their prey circulate through their own veins becoming fully inhabited, at least until the next meal—a solution to solitude not entirely different from the tried and true umbilical connection between mother and foetus.
This season has two opposite approaches to bloodsuckers that both feed on their troubled attraction to and repulsion from the strict rules of the genre: Catherine Hardwicke’s record-breaking Twilight and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Both of these movies—one art house camp, one maybe accidentally so—are witty and loving manipulations of the conventions not only of vampire flicks, but also of teen exclusion dramas that end in triumphant normalizing scenes in the gym or at the dance. The relationship they forge to their predecessors is both familiar and estranged, concordant and provocative, not unlike a good and brutal teenage love affair that is always an utterly original repetition.
Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, as visually poetic a film as I’ve seen in a long time, is set on the outskirts of Stockholm and centers on the emotional life of Oskar, an insubstantial and slightly effeminate twelve-year-old bully-target who lives with his single mother. On the other side of Oskar’s bedroom wall is the little vampire Eli and her beleaguered father or guardian, or perhaps former lover, a hunter/bleeder indentured to his “daughter’s” unusual appetites. Eli is starving, a chalk green little girl with stringy black hair running around the snowy courtyard in ratty nightclothes and anachronistic sweaters.
She is overtly different—intense, secretive, solitary—but so is Oskar in his way, and it’s this that binds them to each other. Their friendship is in many ways ordinary. They are close, she disappears, he keeps secrets. She angers and frightens him, he insults her and makes her nervous. They do their awkward distant dance of thinking each other’s thoughts and betraying each other by turns. In one of the film’s most tender moments, Oskar buys Eli some candies. She accepts a tiny wafer wearily to please him, even though she can only eat human blood. Moments later we see her wasting body heaving and vomiting at the bottom of a perfectly still and expansive shot of the back of the candy store. Oskar watches, then hugs her furiously. She asks if he’d still like her if she wasn’t a girl. As a premonition of a future scene of quotidian domestic drama—a girl made sick by an unexpected intimacy, perhaps a pregnancy—it’s about as moving as her many murderous feasts are repellent.
Oskar is not without his own violent vengeful traits, and for him loving Eli is complicated but not impossible. In a film of emotionally distant long shots, Alfredson occasionally fills frames with the pair’s otherworldly faces and steaming breath, as if to suggest the disorienting and uncommon fullness they feel with each other. But eating, marriage, and death rites have long been anthropologist’s most basic ways of describing cultural difference. Eli is unincorporable in all these senses. Oskar slices his hand with his favorite knife—“we’re going to mix!” he says joyously—and she laps his blood off a concrete floor. He accidentally spies her Henry Darger-esque blank genitalia and delivers a satisfyingly cartoonish gasp in response. Like all vampires, she is immortal and doesn’t age. Eli is also starving and poor. As an exhausted and underfed child without a socially acceptable avenue for relief, she’s pushed into dark informal economies of theft and consumption she obviously abhors. Thinking back to Dracula and its legacy, this impoverishment also makes Eli a potentially interesting foil for Sweden’s present population of struggling and monstrously different new arrivals from afar, who new liberal immigration and labor policies have made even more ubiquitous not only in the cities but beyond.
The second paranoiac strains of vampire stories—racial terror and miscegenation-panic—stalk closely behind the xenophobic, but are concerned more with virginity, the erotics of encounter, the swapping of and exposure to bodily fluids, the allure of the stranger or the outsider. Let the Right One In is obsessively concerned with incommensurability—though not in an overtly sexual way, since its lovers are just twelve—but its ending ultimately advances an argument for a generous reaching-across as Oskar smuggles Eli away from her final crime scene in a tiny box aboard a train. Twilight, while it takes the easy out by making its vampire family, the Cullens, “vegetarian” (they only drink the blood of animals), fully wallows in the dangerous sexual politics of mixing, first between boys and girls, and second between girls and vampires. Stephanie Meyer, the author of the novels on which the film was based, has said in an interview that the Book of Mormon is the most significant book in her life, a fact which can’t but have some bearing on the film’s relentless projection of sex as a guarantee for death or—worse!—immortality, which I guess is bad because it’s against God’s plan?
Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, takes some distance from Meyer’s moralizing, but preserves a good deal of the vampire paradox of desire and estrangement, which probably has something to do with the movie’s insane success at the box office, even despite its female fan base, which is not traditionally too reliable. Bella Swan (ha x infinity!) and Edward Cullen find each other in school; she’s the new girl from Arizona, he’s part of a pale-skinned, quiet rebel clan. Everyone thinks he’s fucking hot, in a lupine kind of way. Oh and he’s rich, too. Bella is such a tasty smelling lab-partner that Edward retches and reels. He tries to transfer out of her biology class. After a few lusty looks across the parking lot, he starts turning up to rescue her from assorted perils (a near-rape!) with superhuman strength, pouts, and a fast Volvo. He’s always in the right place at the right time, stalking her, as she points out a heartbeat before she lets herself fall for him.
The story is perfectly vacuous and yet utterly convincing; in part because the film’s cinematography and location in the fog-veiled Pacific Northwest are as lush and as imperfect as Let the Right One In’s are spare and meticulous. Twilight is often sloppy, obvious, it gives itself away, at least on the plot level—it is a parable for the uncontrolled, ill-advised granting of access that teenage girls are always being warned about, which is also why, as a film, it’s a pretty good feminist story. Bella keeps a tenuous hold on control (at least in terms of being eaten), but Hardwicke doesn’t. She drops trou and lets you roam around in the movie, have your way with it.
If Let the Right One In plays with the vampire rules, it does so with ultra-refinement. Vampires must be invited in, or else they begin to seep blood out of their eyes and ears and have to put on a clean dress. Sparkling snowy dusts herald their arrival. Eli is a girl, which seems surprising, but everyone from Stoker to Interview With The Vampire plays with the sexual politics of vampirism too. One of the women who’s been bit by Eli—a leftover—spontaneously combusts in a hospital bed where she’s being treated for what we can only assume is vampirism, given that it’s exposure to the sun that causes her to go up in comic flames. The scene is hilarious, but also cold, ironic, self-referential.
The reason I think Twilight is great is because, in spite of the novel’s annoyingly pious motivation for exploring youthful desire as necessarily non-consummatable and its NONONO stance on interspecies mixing, Hardwicke as a director manages to mix metaphors in a completely unanxious and un-anxiety provoking way. So, as in Let the Right One In, the vampire stuff gets messed around. Hardwicke riffs archly on vampires' non-ageing: Bella notes an art installation of graduation mortarboards in her vampire boyfriend’s house. “We matriculate a lot,” heartthrob vampire says, concisely articulating the total horrorshow/wet dream of being in high school forever. More to the point, though, Hardwicke manipulates teen-movie rules deftly. The final scene finds Bella and Edward at prom—traditionally a Saturnalia of reckoning, revenge, and comeuppance in teen movies. Bella, of course, didn’t even want to attend, but Edward convinces her to go in spite of Officer Swan’s really really menacing discouragements (“Do you have your pepper spray?” hahahaha!) Having survived vampire faceoffs, multi-state chases, and biology field-trips, the too-cool-for-high-school-love-
They dance, in fact, alone in a gazebo, outside of the Casino-themed prom hall, to negotiate a contract of irrevocable possession. Their language throughout the perfectly ordinarily-shot slow dance casts only the most gossamer veil on the hackneyed talk of losing one’s virginity on prom night: Bella asks Edward why, when he had the chance (she was transforming and he had to suck vampire venom out of an open wound in her wrist), he didn’t just let her become a vampire so they could stay together for all eternity? Won’t he just bite her now, commit the crime and imprint the promise it entails? He stalls her at least until the sequel, and she seems hungrily satisfied with his abeyant response. This last exchange, then, embodies the third—the erotic personal level—of vamparanoia I began with: the slow abdominal unseaming that arrives as it becomes clear that the person who loves you is capable of and probably wants to suck every last drop of proper self out of you. That there is a hellish violence being held at bay because you’re so effing special, and also weird enough to be able to speak its language.
Alfredson’s film culminates on this note, too. Eli, who has been gone awhile, rescues Oskar from a near-drowning (he is working out, bulking up in the gym) in a storm of campy gore: from underwater, we see little feet skim the surface of the pool, followed by bullies’ severed limbs, a head, and rusty clouds of blood. Earlier in the film, Eli leaves Oskar a note that reads: “I must be gone and live or stay and die.” Oskar runs away with her anyway, knowing full well that if she’s starving, as she often is, he’d be her only source of food. It is the blatantly erotic, preposterously romantic wish that runs through all these works, and the one Bella delivers with tragic, trite stupidity when she realizes she’s in danger: “I’d rather die than stay away from you.” Ha! Srsly, but. The dialogue in the movie is atrocious.
Still, to want to be a source of sustenance in this self-annihilating way is one of the strangest and earliest experiences we have of the quick-cutting back and forth between being cared for by our parents and falling in love in an exogenous way: something all four of these characters experience. To be held in that suspension for a fictional moment reminds us of the shock and freedom that comes when what we thought was unincorporable becomes suddenly necessary. When my fiancé walked out on me a couple of years ago, he referred me to that other brutal Scandinavian, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in Either/or that when two people fall in love and suspect they are made for each other, the thing is to have the courage to break it off, for by continuing they only have everything to lose and nothing to gain. This kind of sentiment is of course inoperable and infantile. But some skinnier, more roiling part of me maintains a more than academic interest in why it is that me and those innumerable voracious readers of vampiralia want to dwell, as a form of leisure! in that kind of impossible feeling.
What makes both Twilight and Let the Right One In pitch perfect is their undying, unjudging conviction that those desires we nursed in the parking lot by the cafeteria and on moony late night trudges around Walden pond—to love forever and yet be kept apart, to rip to shreds and ingest the pieces of the one we love—are still, with equal parts embarrassment and longing, some of the strongest we get to experience.
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