Monday, 11 January 2010

Twilight: New Moon and the joys of Face Punch


There are many potentially interesting things to be said about New Moon and the staggeringly successful vampire-romance saga Twilight more generally. For instance: have we ever seen a romance movie (let alone a romance movie series) more unwaveringly committed to showing a woman who wants so badly to simply jump someone’s bones? Say what you will about the anti-feminist message seemingly inbuilt into Bella’s relentless hero-worship of her lover Edward (and I would argue that last year’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife was far more guilty in this regard: she waits lovingly at home while he tours across the months and years? This is the old settling/wandering, passive/active, division of gender roles written offensively large)... The combination of Twilight’s central premise (Edward’s inability to let himself become too passionate with Bella for fear of killing her) and Kristen Stewart’s absurdly lustful performance style (seldom has an actress bitten her bottom lip more licentiously, nor more frequently) have meant that these films offer images of unremitting (though frustrated) female sexual desire the likes of which are very uncommon in contemporary Hollywood cinema. We can, and should, obviously debate the films’ sexual politics beyond this structuring principle, but this fact alone makes the saga at the very least interesting, and surely goes a long way towards explaining its popularity with a female audience so starved for cinematic depictions of what happens ‘when the woman looks’.

This isn’t what I want to talk about here, however, because – aside from areas of interest like this – what New Moon also happens to contain is something that I simply cannot let pass without comment: perhaps one of the most bizarre, hilarious, and spectacularly ill-judged incarnations of the convention of the film-within-a-film ever committed to celluloid.

Asking what kinds of films exist within the world of a film is often an intriguing way into matters of how a movie views itself and how it is asking to be viewed by us. For example: when, in a horror film, events start happening that clearly resemble other horror films (say, teenagers being killed one by one, or bodies showing up with mysterious bite marks on their necks), one question will immediately be raised: are the characters in this film’s world familiar with horror movies? If they aren’t, then this clearly separates them and their world unambiguously from ours, which in turn encourages us to view them in a different way than we would characters who express incredulity at finding themselves in situations they’ve previously only encountered in fiction. Of course, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules governing this, and a film can exploit cinematic awareness in more or less self-conscious ways. The werewolf movie Ginger Snaps, for instance, briskly acknowledges then dispenses with its character’s film knowledge: Brigitte discovers the popular lore regarding werewolves doesn’t apply to her sister’s lycanthropy, leading her to “forget the Hollywood rules,” and move on to finding different solutions. A film like Scream, on the other hand, repeatedly uses its characters’ knowledge of slasher films in order to first announce, and then either enact or buck, the clichés of its genre – all the time asking us to recognize that this is precisely what it is doing.

New Moon does something very different and very, very strange with the idea of the film-within-a-film. About a third of the way into the movie we reach a scene in the school cafeteria that sees Bella rejoin her group of friends after the period of self-imposed isolation that followed her latest abandonment by her true love, Edward. Happy to see her again, Bella’s friend Mike (who has always very clearly had a crush on her) asks if she would like to go to the cinema with him. “We could check out, um, Love Spelled Backwards is Love,” he offers, “You know, it’s a dumb title, but… It’s a romantic comedy – it’s supposed to be good…” “No – no romance,” says Bella, who wants nothing less than to be reminded about her own romantic heartbreak. “How about Face… Punch?” she asks, “you heard of that?” “Well, that’s an action movie,” responds Mike. “Yeah, it’s perfect – guns, adrenaline: it’s my thing…”

So, let us rewind and pause for a minute. Face Punch. Just let the gloriousness of this made-up title roll around in your head… Face Punch.

Now turning to the rest of her friends at the table, Bella invites them along to what she obviously wants to become less a date than a movie night. “How about it – do you guys want to go see… Face Punch?" The only other boy at the table, Eric, responds positively: “Oh, Face Punch – yeah!” he exclaims enthusiastically, “We were supposed to go see that, you remember?” he asks Mike, “The trailer’s all like ‘pow, pow,’… punch faces…”

In the next scene, Mike stands awkwardly outside the cinema next to Jacob, the most recent dark and mysterious man to make romantic demands of Bella; sexual rivalry is unmistakably in the air. “So… Face Punch,” Jacob says, somewhat derisively, “You like action movies?” “Not really,” replies Mike. “I heard it sucks – bad,” offers Jacob.

Let’s mull over this title again, which the characters insist on continually repeating: this film is called Face Punch.

In the cinema, the characters are now watching the movie. We hear the following dialogue intoned in voices that can only be described as sub-sub-sub-Sylvester Stallone:

Voice 1: Put your gun down!

Voice 2: Put YOUR gun down, or I’m gonna blow your frickin head off!

Voice 3: BOTH of you put BOTH of your guns down or I’m gonna blow BOTH of your frickin’ heads off!

Voice 1: Alright, forget it – let’s DO THIS!

(Sounds of gunshots and explosions fill the cinema.)

Face Punch. This is a truly, truly strange use of the convention of the film-within-a-film. Clearly, this imagined film (and Love Spelled Backwards is Love) is intended as a satirical side-swipe at the crassness of contemporary Hollywood. But what on God’s green earth, you might ask, is such satire doing – and doing so suddenly – in a film like New Moon? In what kind of a film world might films with titles like these exist?

In Film as Film, V. F. Perkins rightly says that a film’s credibility relies upon “the inner consistency of the created world”:

In a context where people are known to burst into song on the tops of trolley-buses, with the full support of invisible orchestras, or sprint down hillsides actively pursued by bouncing boulders, or drag wild leopards up the steps of Connecticut jails (and I would be the last to suggest they cease exhibiting such fine accomplishments), the concept of credibility needs careful definition. As an illusion-spinning medium, film is not bound by the familiar, or the probable, but only by the conceivable. All that matters is to preserve the illusion.

He develops his point with reference to Hitchcock's The Birds:

It is important that we avoid confusing credibility with authenticity... We can make no difficulty about the fact that the feathered kingdom is seen to declare war on humanity. That is given. But it is also given that the attackers are ordinary, familiar birds. Nothing in our experience or in the film's premises permits them to develop intermittent outlines of luminous blue as they swoop, or to propel themselves in a manner that defies the observable laws of winged flight.

In short, as Perkins says, “the created world must obey its own logic”. The title Face Punch punctures the inner consistency of New Moon so fantastically oddly because it flies inelegantly, but gloriously, in the face of its world’s logic in a similar manner to Hitchcock's birds. In the context of the film’s created world, the existence of werewolves is entirely acceptable. The existence of a film called Face Punch is not.

This is because, other than its mythical creatures, there is little to separate New Moon’s universe from ours: in fact, the very normalcy of everyday life is constantly stressed in order to highlight how exceptional and exciting Bella’s initiation into the supernatural realm is (and, it is worth saying, the actors’ performances also feel more consciously ‘naturalistic’ here than in the original Twilight). As such, this world frankly just does not seem at all as if it is one in which a person could write, many other people could make, and many more still could go to see, a film with the title Face Punch. This title is so ridiculous as to absolutely demand a ridiculous reality.

For it to be credible, the world of New Moon would probably need to resemble something like the hilariously dumbed-down future U.S. imagined by Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy, in which big Oscar contenders have names like Ass, and the number one television show is called Ow! My Balls! Both Idiocracy’s world (an exaggeratedly stupid future) and its genre (absurdist satire) admit these kinds of jokes with ease; those of New Moon – a relatively naturalistic present day placed in the context of a moody teen romance/horror crossover – plainly, obviously, emphatically, do not.

What is perhaps going on here is an appeal to the film’s core audience of young readers/viewers, who (it seems to be assumed) might be flattered by joining in the mockery of a ‘dumb’ mainstream culture they can enjoy feeling superior to. They are, after all, watching a ‘sensitive’ film about doomed love that has already made an appeal to tragic status by quoting Romeo and Juliet (Bella is studying it in school); New Moon, the film seems to be implying, is no Face Punch. Yet this is also, lest we forget, a film featuring gigantic werewolves fighting one another, and moments like Bella complimenting Jacob on how warm his body is by telling him, “You’re like your own sun”. To aim stones at the loopiness of popular culture from within this glass house seems a very risky strategy.

If the film does still want to do this, though, it would need to be done with a modicum more subtlety than Face Punch affords – a gag as smack-you-in-the-face obvious as the very thing it’s parodying. For one thing: this isn’t even a throwaway moment – we’re forced to contend with the troubling concept of Face Punch for a good five minutes of screen time. Equally – and this is particularly difficult to accept – the scene at the cinema serves a number of important narrative functions: that it’s an action film continues Bella’s adrenaline addiction; that she goes with both guys shows her split between ‘normality’ (Mike) and the supernatural underworld (Jacob); that Mike is made queasy by the film reinforces his (and normality’s) unsuitability; that Jacob enjoys it and clashes with Mike develops his aggressive side, and so on. The fact that these narrative developments all rest on the shoulders of something as weird as Face Punch gives the joke far more significance than it could ever hope to withstand: we can’t just laugh and move on – we have to keep thinking about it, asking again and again, “Really? Really…?!”

It somehow makes the whole incident yet more odd that the characters themselves are shown to be aware of how absurd these names are: Mike acknowledges the terribleness of Love Spelled Backwards is Love (honestly, Mike: “dumb” doesn’t even begin to cover it – “unthinkable” would be closer to the mark), and Bella gives an absolutely precious faltering pause in between “Face” and “Punch” the first time she hears herself about to say the words out loud. While this should in theory probably make the titles feel more credible, it actually has virtually the opposite effect, making it instead seem almost as if the characters are either (a) making them up on the spot, (b) suddenly struck by the weirdness of living in a world that could allow such titles to exist, or (c) channeling the embarrassment of the actors who suddenly find themselves in the unenviable position of being contractually obliged to vocalize these names.

However – while we can talk about this little slip of genre/world/register as a failing all we like (and it most assuredly, most unambiguously, is a failing) – I can’t help but feel very happy that Face Punch managed, against all odds of good taste and common sense, to somehow make it into this movie. (That’s another thought: how many people had to give the OK to this little joke in order to ensure it was included in the final draft of the script, rehearsed, shot, and kept in the finished movie?! The mind boggles…) This isn’t just any old failing: this is the kind of magisterially beautiful blunder that can actually enrich our viewing experience with its idiosyncrasy, creating little shocks of indefinable feeling, encouraging the mind to wander in directions it otherwise wouldn’t have done. The value of such failures is that they can’t be explained away or resolved, but rather remain stubbornly, productively confusing. If the film-within-a-film had been called, say, Firefight, New Moon would certainly have felt rather more coherent, but it would also have missed this golden opportunity for such confounding, disorientating, delicious oddness. As a fan of cinema that has the power to surprise me and make me consider matters important to the medium, I can finally only be truly thankful for this quite monumental lapse in coherence – a lapse that, coincidentally, does indeed feel rather like a (particularly enjoyable) punch to the face.


  1. I hate to be the one to tell you this, Jimmy. But New Moon was all about Jacob's abs.

    Maybe his biceps a little bit too.

    A percentage will have gone for his chest. But mostly, it was about his abs. Everything else was cinematic fluff on the screen furniture.

    p.s. Have tweeted.

  2. See: this is what happens when there aren't enough films offering women objects to desire rather than representing them as objects to be desired - they start lusting over (admittedly insanely ripped) seventeen year-olds!

  3. hahaha great article!!!

    Pas Rap

  4. Hey, thanks, Pas! Much appreciated.