Twilight, Sandra Bullock, and Taste Cultures

The ongoing discussion here in blogworld of the Twilight films has me thinking again about how film criticism, cinephilia, and taste cultures intersect.  Although I’ll admit that I know little about the Twilight saga beyond what I’ve absorbed from observing and talking to my girlfriend’s daughter, I’m fascinated by the ways in which the films have become the latest case study in the ongoing debates about female audiences and box office success.  Already, just hours after New Moon has opened, Melissa Silverstein and others have pointed to the fact that the film is breaking box office records, in this case, shattering the record for box office totals for midnight screenings.  Silverstein adds that online ticket seller Fandango is reporting that the film is selling more than ten tickets per second on their site.

Despite these impressive numbers, Silverstein is quick to point out that Twilight’s success is being seen by many as an accident, a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced.  Underpinning that observation is the point that “the film blogosphere” continues to devalue the tastes of the tween girls who have made these films a box office success.  In a round-table discussion with a group of female film writers, Silverstein and her colleagues discuss whether the Twilight films receive “respect” from the film blogosophere, which Silverstein and many of her colleagues characterize as overwhelmingly male.  On the one hand, I’m tempted to complicate this formulation a little. I’m skeptical of the idea that there is a singular film blogosphere.  On the other, I’m certainly aware that there are some dominant players among the gossip blogs in particular and attentive to the fact that film bloggers have become a crucial means by which taste cultures form, whether among Hollywood franchises or among the art-house blogger communities.  Silverstein’s round-table is well worth reading, especially when the writers discuss their ambivalence about the content of the series (it’s use of a traditional rescue narrative, Bella’s fining meaning in relationships while rejecting her studies), while also recognizing the core appeal that the books and films offer.*

But one of the questions informing this particular post comes not from the Twilight films but from other forms of taste-making connected to canon formation.  A few days ago on Twitter, I snarked about an A.O. Scott article about the best films of the decade (which, believe it or not, ends in just a few short weeks).  My complaint: Scott’s article didn’t mention a single film directed by a woman as belonging among the decade’s best or most memorable films.   I’d planned to write a longer post mulling on what this article says about canon formation, cinephila, and taste cultures, but other obligations got in the way.  Fortunately, however, the cinetrix took my passing remark and ran with it, connecting Scott’s decade-in-review article to the masculinized version of cinephilia described by David Bordwell in a blog post many months ago.  To be fair, Scott remarks that many of the most memorable movies of the decade–the ones that will fill DVD bins in big box marts (or, as Scott surmises, the great web portal in the sky) for years–offer “geek-revenge fantasies” that dismiss or ignore women: “Movies seem to be, increasingly, for and about men and (mostly male) kids, with adult women in the marginal roles of wives and mothers, there to be avenged, resented or run to when things get too scary.”

Scott’s remarks obscure quite a bit here, conflating box office success and critical acclaim.  The “geek-revenge” movies, many of them associated with Judd Apatow, have no doubt received quite a bit of attention, but a recent post by Annie Petersen on Sandra Bullock’s appeal to what Petersen calls the “minivan majority,” places some of these comments in perspective, pointing that a Bullock romantic comedy, such as The Proposal, can gross as much as $300 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.  Petersen is right to point out that the Bullock audience may be less visible on the web and that her appeal may not work on many of the male critics who review and comment on her films.  Petersen’s account of Bullock’s appeal to female viewers is well worth reading, but I mention it now to raise the point that Scott’s narrative of the 2000s as the decade of Apatow, Saw films, and stories of “arresred male development” overlooks quite a bit.

I don’t have a larger conclusion here, but these threads have been weaving together in my mind over the last few days, especially as the frenzy of end-of-decade posts begin clogging up my RSS feeds.  An underlying point of Scott’s article is worth addressing: new distribution and exhibition formats, such as Netflix, Hulu, and The Auteurs will shape how our “screen memories” are formed, likely in ways we cannot yet predict.  But these  can also obscure how large groups of people consume, think about, and discuss movies.

Update: Worth noting: New Moon broke the opening-day box office record previously set by The Dark Knight, an especially impressive achievement given that the film opened during the fall, when opening nights tend to be smaller.

* It’s worth adding, of course, that not all viewers and readers of the Twilight saga will follow this dominant reading or even focus solely on the Bella/Edward/Jacob love triangle.  Obviously that’s a major aspect of the story, but nearly two decades of fan studies should tell us that “dominant ideology” readings of Twilight can miss quite a bit.


  1. JoannaOC Said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Great post! is Sady Doyle’s very smart take. And see also her blog post:

  2. Mike Everleth Said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    Nice article with lots of interesting points to think about. But, I wanted to comment on just one sentence you wrote:

    “I’m skeptical of the idea that there is a singular film blogosphere.”

    I’m more than skeptical. I absolutely don’t think there is a “singular” film blogosphere. I think there are several circles of film blogs, usually broken down by genres or aspects of the industry they cover, e.g. mainstream film blogs, indie film blogs, horror movie blogs, insider business blogs, amateur reviewer blogs,etc., etc. An internet reader or film blogger could orbit any one or several of those circles and not ever realize the other circles even exist.

    So, when one mentions the “film blogosphere,” they’re usually referring to whatever circles they orbit.

  3. Annie Petersen Said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    Thanks for bringing up the fact that not all Twilight fans read the film (and the text as a whole) in a unified manner — negotiated (feminist) readings abound, as do straight up satirical/camp ones, as nicely demonstrated over at Gawker:

  4. Chuck Said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Yeah, it’s way more complex than some readers of the phenomenon assume. My girlfriend’s daughter mentioned the humor and playfulness way before she mentioned the love triangle/romance stuff.

  5. The Chutry Experiment » Sunday Links Said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    […] always somewhat ambivalent about end-of-an-era listmaking (as my remarks about A.O. Scott yesterday suggest), but the indieWire list of “25 Things the Oscars Did […]

  6. The Chutry Experiment » Forrest Gump’s Blind Side Said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    […] Silverstein and Annie Petersen have been incredibly attentive to Bullock’s star power (as I mentioned a few days ago), arguing that Bullock’s spunky, quirky charm works well for female audiences […]

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