Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic

11.16.12 | | 6 comments

NOTE: This is a paper I presented at a conference to a largely non-Mormon audience a few years ago (April 2010 to be precise). Since the final Twilight movie hit theaters this morning at midnight, I thought it might be worthwhile to dust off this paper and present it for your review. Overall, I like the basic idea of the paper, although I think certain ideas and distinctions need to be further developed and drawn.

Vampire stories, argues William Patrick Day, are supposed to “viscerally [excite] us with primal, forbidden, terrifying images and scenes of flesh and blood, fangs and stakes, violence and death” (5). Yet, if this is true, why is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga so devoid of such “terrifying images and scenes”? Already, much has been written about the “erotics of abstinence” in the Twilight novels, or their lack of explicit sex—premarital or otherwise (Grossman). Less has been said, however, about how these vampire stories flout the conventions of the vampire genre by avoiding bloody, violent spectacles.

Indeed, one of the earliest reviews of Twilight—a brief write-up in Publishers Weekly—points out that the “novel’s only weakness” is a “rushed denouement” that mostly “takes place offstage” (207). In the climactic scene, Bella is in danger. James, a bad vampire who has become fixated on her blood, lures her to a dance studio where he plans to slake his thirst. The suspense builds as James, true to his nemesis role, monologues about his skills as a tracker, his desire for Bella’s blood, and his disdain for the Cullens, Bella’s good, “vegetarian” vampire friends. Using his super vampire strength, James throws Bella against a wall of mirrors, breaks her legs, and cuts a gash along her forehead. The situation looks bad for Bella:

His eyes, merely intent before, now burned with an uncontrollable need. The blood—spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor—was driving him mad with thirst. (450)

James strikes at her, bites her on the hand, and Bella—our first-person narrator—passes out.

And that’s all we get.

What comes next is a hallucinatory chapter that conveys Bella’s pain as she teeters between life and death. It interweaves Bella’s surreal ramblings with snatches of dialogue between members of the Cullen family, who have rescued her, it seems, in the nick of time. Oddly, James is no where to be found. It is only later, after Bella is safely propped up in a hospital bed, that Edward Cullen, her vampire boyfriend, informs her, vaguely, that “Emmett and Jasper”—Edward’s vampire brothers—“took care of him” (461). Bella—and the reader, of course—can only imagine what it means to “take care” of a vampire, since neither she nor the reader witness it first hand. To be sure, earlier in the novel, Edward had informed Bella that the only way to kill a vampire is “to tear him to shreds, and then burn the pieces” (398). So, thanks to Bella’s low threshold of pain, this clue is the only insight we get into James’ violent fate.

Why Meyer makes the choice to turn her narrative away from the violent spectacle of James’s death is unclear and atypical of the genre. Elana Gomel, after all, argues that the horror story “emphasizes visibility,” and its “violent subject is born in [a] tug-of-war between story and spectacle” (2). In her vampire novel, though, Meyer seems more interested in Bella’s distress and deliverance than in conforming to generic conventions; indeed, in Twilight’s climactic scene, what Edward ultimately delivers Bella from is not James’ teeth, but James’s vampire venom. In a sense, then, after he bites her, James no longer matters to Edward, Meyer, or the narrative: it’s the venom that becomes the enemy to beat, and a new focal point for the readers’ attention.

Still, as Publishers Weekly suggests, the non-spectacle of James’s well-deserved destruction is a definite weakness in the novel. The readers’ thirst for justice—to witness wrongs made right—to see the gruesome end of the monster that breaks our heroine’s leg—goes largely unsatisfied. Interestingly, in a Newsweek interview shortly before the publication of Breaking Dawn, the final novel in the Twilight Saga, Meyer complained about how “[people] want to know every single detail” about how to end a vampire’s life. “You know,” she states, confessing her struggle to write such scenes, “I majored in English, not biology” (“Secret Life”).

Meyer, of course, is no Cormac McCarthy, whose blood-soaked novels are full of surgically precise spectacles of violence. Still, her professed inexperience with biology seems like an inadequate explanation for the lack of descriptions of violence in her novels. So, the question remains: why does Meyer avoid “the spectacle of violence [that is so] central to the aesthetics of horror?” (Gomel 7).

One possibility is Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon faith, which has a long, largely unknown literary tradition with its own set of conventions and aesthetics. Indeed, I would like to suggest that the moments in the Twilight Saga that fail to perform the expectations of the vampire or horror genre—those moments, for instance, that advert the gaze from violent or even sexual spectacles—are performances of an aesthetic informed to some extent by Mormon views on the appropriate representations of good and evil. This paper, therefore, seeks to examine various threads of Mormon thought that have contributed to an aesthetic that, when applied to a genre “in pursuit of graphic bloodshed” that “showcases rather than represses the violated body,” performs that genre in a decidedly atypical way (Gomel 1, 28).

Mormon Aesthetics and Questions of Representation

Discussions about aesthetics among Mormons frequently begin at the same spot: the thirteenth Article of Faith, a passage of Mormon scripture that Stephenie Meyer would have been encouraged to memorize throughout her childhood and teenaged years. Penned by Joseph Smith in 1842, the thirteenth article reads as follows:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. (Articles of Faith 1:13)

This statement, to be sure, makes no ostensible reference to artistic representations. In fact, as Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman points out, “the words ‘virtuous’ and ‘praiseworthy’ could refer to the Red Cross as easily as to” art. Still, he notes, the Mormon artists’ “prejudice in favor of the arts leads [them] almost automatically to an aesthetic reading of the thirteenth article” (212). Merrill Bradshaw, a Mormon musician and aesthetic theorist, for example, cites the thirteenth Article of Faith as the sole statement on aesthetics in the Mormon canon of scripture (27).

Often, appropriations of the thirteenth Article of Faith as an aesthetic credo imply that art must express virtue and loveliness and be praiseworthy and of good report to be of any worth or value to society. This notion is echoed, in many ways, by Brigham Young in his remarks at the 1862 dedication of a theater in Salt Lake City. “Everything,” he notes, “that is joyful, beautiful, glorious, comforting, consoling, lovely, pleasing to the eye, good to the taste, pleasant to the smell, and happifying in every respect is for the Saints” (244). In the same speech, however, Young also acknowledges that Mormon artists and audiences should deal with ugliness and evil in art. The stage, after all, can function as an extension of the pulpit:

Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. (243)

In a sense, Young suggests that the stage presents its audience with crucial vicarious experiences; through artistic representation, Latter-day Saints can experience “evil and its consequences” without tarnishing their spirits. Artists, therefore, provide their audiences with moral lessons when they allow them, through artistic representation, to discern the difference between good and evil, and suggest ways to recognize and shun the “thorns and pitfalls” of the “path of sin.”

Not surprisingly, subsequent theorists of Mormon art have used Young’s words to justify content in Mormon art that some may view as anything but virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy. Few of these theorists acknowledge, however, that Brigham Young was hardly an advocate for realistic representations of evil acts. In fact, before closing his remarks at the dedication of the theater, Young discourages the performance of tragedy because of the ugliness and cruelty that tend to characterize the genre:

I do not wish murder and all its horrors and the villany leading to it portrayed before our women and children; I want no child to carry home with it the fear of the fagot, the sword, the pistol, or the dagger, and suffer in the night from frightful dreams. I want such plays performed as will make the spectators feel well [.] (245)

While hardly a central text in the Mormon doctrinal canon, Young’s counsel against tragedy and violent spectacles of “horror” and “villany” remains somewhat echoed in ecclesiastical counsel to Mormons today; Mormon youth, for example, are currently encouraged to avoid “entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way” (“For the Strength” 17). Likewise, the manuscript submission guidelines for Covenant Communications, one of the largest publishers of Mormon fiction, informs potential authors that they do “not accept manuscripts that contain offensive material, which includes profanity, vulgarity, excessive violence, or sexually explicit or suggestive scenes” (“Submission”). Indeed, owing to these and other counsels and teachings, Mormons in general tend to be leery of artistic representations of violent and sexual spectacles, regardless of the spectacles’ context.

To be sure, these cautionary words have not kept depictions of violence and sex entirely out of Mormon literature, as readers of Twilight and other Mormon fictions know, although much debate continues over the necessity of such depictions. In his essay “The Problem of Evil in Fiction,” Mormon author Orson Scott Card directly addresses the struggle Mormon fiction writers face when they wish to explore the evil aspects of violence and sex with an audience that frequently “misunderstands” that “[showing] evil is not necessarily advocating it.” As a Mormon writer, Card believes that it is “impossible to write well without dealing directly with evil, [and] portraying it in [his] work” (69-70). Furthermore, he is suspicious of attempts to eliminate any trace of violence and sex from fiction out of a fear that the portrayal of such could lead readers to commit evil acts. Consequently, he warns against writerly attempts to “sidestep the depiction of evil” or “leave it up to the reader’s imagination.” Fiction writers who do so, he argues, frequently fail to communicate what happens in their narrative, so their readers lose insight and understanding into the story and its characters. To illustrate his point, he refers to a rape scene in his historical novel Saints, which depicts the early years of Mormonism. In his first draft of the novel, Card chose simply to refer to the rape rather than to depict it. He found, however, that readers of this draft “were unable to understand [his character’s] later actions in response to” the rape “because they had not actually experienced some of the terror of that scene” (96-97). His point, ultimately, is similar to that of performance theorist Anne Bogart, who reasons that “content is about connectedness.” Without honest content, art cannot connect with an audience nor affect it deeply or meaningfully (see Bogart 108).

The CleanFlicks Aesthetic and Twilight

Despite arguments against it, though, the temptation to sidestep depictions of violence and sex for a less “offensive” aesthetic remains strong in the Mormon community, giving rise to what I call the CleanFlicks aesthetic. Named after the controversial Utah-based movie editing company CleanFlicks, which until recently made a business out of “slicing, dicing and sugar-coating Hollywood movies for Mormon tastes,” the aesthetic advocates an art free of “gratuitous sex and violence, [...] profanity and blasphemy” (Buckman, Janofsky).[1] The tell-tale characteristic of this aesthetic is the use of “non-sequitur jump cuts” as soon as scenes of intense violence or sexuality begin, which shield audiences from the spectacle, but can also leave them confused about what’s going on. Beyond confusion, though, is the matter of how this aesthetic affects the relationship between character and audience. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault points out that the violent spectacle has the potential to inspire “solidarity” between the victims of “violence exercised without moderation and restraint” and those who witness the violence (63). What happens, then, when audiences—or readers—are not permitted to stand as witnesses and connect emotionally with characters who are victims of unrestrained violence? How then is “solidarity” achieved?

Already I have shown how Meyer applies the CleanFlicks aesthetic to the climactic fight scene in Twilight, and how the aesthetic undermines, to a certain extent, the sense and suspense of that scene. Arguably, though, not much is lost—or gained—by shielding James’s demise from our gaze. In contrast, a more problematic application of the CleanFlicks aesthetic occurs in Eclipse, the third novel of the saga, when we finally learn the history of Rosalie, the most aloof and antagonistic member of the Cullen family. Early in the novel, Rosalie tells Bella how, before becoming a vampire, she had been engaged to a wealthy young man named Royce. One night, shortly before the wedding, Rosalie encountered Royce and his friend, a stranger, who “looked [her] over like [she] was a horse he was buying” (159). Both of the men were drunk, and the friend demanded that Royce remove Rosalie’s coat so that he could get a better look at her figure. Rosalie then recounts:

“Suddenly, Royce ripped my jacket from my shoulders [...] popping the brass buttons off. They scattered all over the street.

“‘Show him what you look like, Rose!’ He laughed again and then he tore my hat out of my hair. The pins wrenched my hair from my roots, and I cried out in pain. They seemed to enjoy that—the sound of my pain….”

But Rosalie cuts her story off here, telling Bella, “I won’t make you listen to the rest” (159-60). Consequently, what exactly happened to Rosalie on that night remains a mystery, although the implication is that Royce and his friend beat and raped her nearly to death—an act-as-spectacle that reveals the heinous human cost of violence. Meyer, however, leaves “some of the terror of that scene” to our imagination.

To be sure, Meyer does give us some sense of how awful Rosalie’s experience was for her, primarily through her characters’ reactions to it. What reaction we do not get, however, is our own unmediated reaction to the terror of the scene, since Meyer’s use of the CleanFlicks aesthetic gives us very little to react to. In one sense, we struggle to connect and sympathize with Rosalie as a character on an emotional level because we witness little more than the pulling of her hair. Moreover, Meyer compounds the distance between us and Rosalie when she fails to take us to the scene of Rosalie’s later revenge—a scene which has the potential to give readers a window into the depth of Rosalie’s trauma. As before, though, Meyer again cuts short the spectacle, which was crescendoing rapidly into a macabre enactment of a wedding night gone awry:

“[Royce] was hiding inside a windowless room behind a door as thick as a bank vault’s [...] when I caught up with him [....] I was overly theatrical. It was kind of childish, really. I wore a wedding dress I had stolen for the occasion. He screamed when he saw me. He screamed a lot that night. Saving him last was a good idea—it made it easier for me to control myself, to make it slower—” (163)

Again, although we learn that Royce “screamed a lot that night” during his slow, presumably painful death, we are not permitted to see the murderous consummation of this mock-marriage, specifically the way Rosalie’s revenge exacts measure for measure the violence of her rape. Consequently, we have little option but to rely on Meyer’s characters to tell us how to feel about the scene, and assure us that Rosalie suffered trauma, but that justice was served in the end.

Of course, after hearing Rosalie’s story, Bella feels that she understands Rosalie and her antagonism better. To a certain extent, we readers also feel the same way, since Bella acts as our touchstone for appropriate responses. Still, not having experienced more of the terror of the attack on Rosalie, can we truly say that we have connected with her and better understand her motivations as a character? More importantly: since the narrative silences the rape, do we feel any solidarity with the victim? Do we better comprehend the heinousness of the violence enacted upon her?

Conclusion

One could argue, of course, that Meyer is writing for younger, less emotionally mature readers, so her treatment of the violent spectacle is understandably tailored to them and their level of maturity and understanding. It should be remembered, though, that as a devout Mormon, Meyer inherits a long tradition of wariness about depictions of those aspects of life that seem far from being “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.” Furthermore, she is part of a culture that cautions against representations of the violent spectacle because of the potential challenges they pose to individual morality. Her desire, therefore, to tell a story within a genre that is known as much for its performance of “lurid, extravagant, exotic sensationalism” as its “[indulgences] in the perverse, the forbidden, the dangerous, [and] the supernatural” is ostensibly at odds with the kind of literature her community as a whole advocates and encourages (Day 5).

Still, Meyer has “successfully combined the most conservative of social values with the most blood-thirsty literary genres” although her vampires are more Mormon than anything else (Mills). In one of her first interviews, Meyer confessed to having a “hard time” describing Twilight because it is “so not like the other vampire books out there [....] It isn’t that kind of dark and dreary and blood-thirsty world,” she insisted, but “a vampire book for people who don’t like vampire books” (Margolis). Indeed, in order to expose us to a world of moral alternatives, rather than one of “raw pleasure without ethics, [...] consciousness or conscience,” Meyer does as her fellow Mormons at CleanFlicks do: she shields us from the base spectacle (Day 7). Doing so, of course, often confuses her narrative, disappoints her readers, and sacrifices a degree of the connectedness and solidarity we could share with her characters when they become victims of violence. Still, for Meyer, the aesthetic decision seems to be based on personal convictions and cultural traditions rather than generic conventions. Like her vampires, she looks for alternatives to bloodshed.


[1] In their study of Mormons and film, “Toward a Mormon Cinematic Aesthetic: Film Styles in Legacy,” Thomas J. Lefler and Gideon O. Burton observe: “Latter-day Saints aspire to movies that enhance, rather than undermine, their spiritual lives and that respect their religious convictions. However, discussion among Mormons about film tends to focus primarily on content—the presence of inappropriate content or the desire for more family-friendly subjects” (275).

Works Cited

“Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” lds.org. n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

Bogart, Anne. And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Bradshaw, Merrill. “Reflections on the Nature of Mormon Art.” BYU Studies 9.1 (1968): 25-32. Print.

Buckman, Rebecca. “A Cottage Industry in Utah Cleans Up Hollywood’s Act—Video Stores, Software Firms Cater to Mormon Tastes; Rob Reiner Gets Pd.” Wall Street Journal. 19 Sep. 2002: A1. Print.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. “Would Joseph Smith Attend the New York Stake Arts Festival?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35.3 (2002): 212-220. Print.

Card, Orson Scott. “The Problem of Evil in Fiction.” A Storyteller in Zion. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993. 69-98. Print.

Day, William Patrick. Vampire Legends in Contemprary American Culture: What Becomes a Legend Most. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 2002. Print.

For the Strength of Youth. Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2001. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Gomel, Elana. Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject. Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2003.

Grossman, Lev. “The Next J. K. Rowling?” Time 171.18 (2008). Print.

Jacobs, A. J. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.

Janofsky, Michael. “Utah Shop Offers Popular Video With the Sex and Violence Excised.” New York Times. 31 Jan. 2001: A11. Print.

Lefler, Thomas J. and Gideon O. Burton. “Toward a Mormon Cinematic Aesthetic: Film Styles in Legacy.” BYU Studies 46.2 (2007): 274-304. Print.

Margolis, Rick. “Love at First Bite.” School Library Journal 51.10 (2005): 37. Print.

Meyer, Stephenie. Eclipse. New York: Little, Brown, 2007. Print.

—. Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

Mills, Tony-Allen. “News Review Interview: Stephenie Meyer.”Times Online. 10 Aug. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.

“Secret Life of Vampires, The.” Newsweek 152.5 (2008). Print.

“Submission Guidelines.” Covenant Communications. Covenant Communications Inc., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

“Twilight.” Rev. of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Publishers Weekly. (July 2005): 207. Print.

Young, Brigham. “Propriety of Theatrical Amusements.—Instructions Relative to Conducting Them.” Journal of Discourses Ed. George Q. Cannon. Vol. 9 London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1862, 242-245. Print. 26 vols.

6 comments: “Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic

  1. William Morris

    I suppose this means that the films themselves pose an interesting dilemma to the Mormon adherents to the CleanFlicks aesthetic (based on the reviews I’ve read, especially of this final one).

  2. Scott Hales

    Exactly. I haven’t seen the latest movie yet, but from what I understand, they add significantly to the violent content of the book, which is almost non-existent.

    CleanFlicks went out of business, I think, shortly before the first Twilight movie came out. I imagine the CleanFlicks edit of would have been a more faithful adaptation of the book than what ended up on screen.

  3. William Morris

    I think the addition that would be most useful to me is some examples of the aesthetic in fiction geared towards Mormon readers that goes beyond the Covenant quote.

    I also am not sure how to situate Twilight. It fits most comfortably in the same tradition that OSC is part of (and one of the godfathers of). But that tradition doesn’t always shy away from depicting graphic violence.

    So in the sense of it fading to black at the critical moments, it perhaps better fits in with LDS market genre fiction. And there seems to be evidence that there is an overlap between those who read Twilight and those who read the works in that marketing category. On the other hand, it’s come under fire from some segments of that market. And I may be wrong about this, but as I recall. Deseret Book backed off on promoting it and actively stocking it in its stores.

  4. Scott Hales Post author

    I think there’s enough evidence out there that Meyer was aiming for the OSC demographic, at least when it comes to audience. When it comes to content, though, you are right to note that Meyer is significantly less graphic than Card when it comes to language, violence, and sex. My theory–and I think there is enough evidence to suggest this as well–is that Meyer’s experience with Mormon fiction prior to writing Twilight was of the Deseret/Covenant type, which may have dictated to her on some level what is and is not appropriate for a Mormon (woman?) to write.

    Of course, I should note that when I wrote this, I had much less exposure to Mormon literature than I have now–although, as I state in my prefatory note, I think the basic observation still holds true. DB and Covenant, for example, do not always fade to black as rapidly as Meyers sometimes does–at least when it comes to violence–and even Meyer has some moments when she is uncharacteristically bloody.

    When it comes to literary Mormon fiction, I think most writers are more willing to depict violence and sex than they are willing to use, say, the graphic language, which is usually CleanFlixed with a sentence like “Tom swore coarsely” or something like that.

    A few exceptions, like “Dancing Naked” and “The Backslider,” exist–but these often seem like they are bending over backwards to prove that they are not like the CleanFlixed whole of Mormon fiction. Over-compensation seems to be their MO.

  5. Inari

    Interestingly, when reading the last book in the Twilight series I found it so disgustingly gory that I wanted to throw the book across the room. The entire scene of the birth was just… bleuurghh. And I’m not usually disturbed by gore (curse/blessing of being a convert?)
    (I don’t mean disgusting in a negative way if that’s what the scene was aiming for, if that’s what the reader was supposed to feel… But I can’t figure out the reason why that would be her goal though).

    This may be because I’m an emotionless robot, but the non-scene of James’s demise worked well for me, it made sense: the whole book is written from Bella’s POV so if she’s out of it, the reader is out of it too. But the part where this approach of “lets all avert our eyes” got really disturbing for me was the honeymoon sex scene. Apparently the character gets amnesia after sex and has to ask her husband what happened. O_O (It should have a disclaimer somewhere saying “if this ever happens to you, call the police immediately.”) So I think in aspects like that the writer definitely chose form at the expense of function.

  6. Scott Hales

    Inari, I think your comment brings up some interesting points about what Breaking Dawn adds to the series. The Honeymoon scene is what originally got me thinking about the CleanFlicks aesthetic because it is so disturbing–and odd that Bella would not remember the violent aspect of it. It’s one thing to avert the reader’s eyes; its another to avert the character’s. The CleanFlicks aesthetic argues that you can remove certain aspects from a film and make them OK. So…is that why Bella has to blackout? So she can be the victim of violence, but still make that violence okay…and even sexy romantic? Bella, we know, isn’t one who takes pleasure in pain, so in order for her to receive a beating, she has to have the experience fade-to-black for it to be a good thing.

    The childbirth scene also brings up an interesting aspect of the CleanFlicks aesthetic, which I see in Mormon culture as well. Certain violence and gore seems okay compared to others. It is wrong, for instance, to revel in gratuitous violence and bloodshed; but childbirth, because it is not associated with contention, gets a pass. I assume the same is true for depictions of other medical practices. It’s not so much the amount of blood, but the cause of the blood that matters.

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