Au Revoir Les Enfants, awkward slap fight, based on a book, Charlaine Woodard, Cherry 2000, cinema, Cleveland family, Crispin Glover, Dylan McDermott, estranged family, farmhouse, Faulkner, film reviews, films, Flannery O'Connor, Hans ZImmer, Harry Dean Stanton, Howdy, isolated communities, Jenny Wright, Kansas, Lindsay Christman, Lois Chiles, Mary Robison, Michael Almereyda, Movies, Renato Berta, Southern Gothic, strange families, Suzy Amis, Tim Robbins, tornadoes, Twister, Until the End of the World, William S. Burroughs, Wim Wenders, writer-director
Sometimes, a film isn’t about quite what it appears to be about. Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), for instance, is not about a guy trying to get a job. Solaris (1972) isn’t about a bunch of cosmonauts and Over the Top (1989) isn’t about arm-wrestling. Well, actually, Over the Top is about arm-wrestling but I’m sure there’s much more to the complex narrative than that. Part of the joy of watching a really good, complex film (such as Over the Top) is in peeling away the many layers of meaning, cutting through the symbolism and subtext to get at what the filmmakers are really talking about. In many cases, taking an “art” film at face value is a particularly useless exercise: these are meanings that need to be discovered, not tripped over.
Sometimes, however, a film can just stand as a complete mystery, a towering monument to a singular point-of-view that anyone who isn’t the filmmaker would be hard-pressed to decipher. In and of itself, this isn’t always a bad thing: I absolutely adore the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I completely understand them. I love experiencing them, however, which can often make all the difference. In the case of director Michael Almereyda’s head-scratcher Twister (the furthest thing from the ’90s-era Bill Paxton epic, mind you), however, I’ll have to be honest: not only did I leave the film without really understanding it, I also left the film without really enjoying it. I don’t mind needing to watch something a few times to pick up the full meaning: all of my viewings of Taxidermia (2006) have got me closer to understanding but I’m definitely not there yet. When a film is confusing, open-ended and dull, however, repeated viewings become analogous to torture and I’m just not willing to suffer for the meaning. Not even for Crispin Glover in an absolutely amazing red smoking jacket.
It may help to think of Twister as a sort of “Southern Gothic,” a kind of cock-eyed take on Faulkner or a bloodless Flannery O’Connor. The film, based on Mary Robison’s novel Oh!, concerns itself with the Cleveland family, a not-so-merry clan of Midwestern weirdos who live life on their own, strange terms. Father Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton) is a soda-pop and roller-coaster baron who has just brought his fiancée, Virginia (Lois Chiles) home to meet the family. The family consists of daughter Maureen (Suzy Amis), son Howdy (Crispin Glover) and Maureen’s daughter, Violet (Lindsay Christman). Maureen’s estranged boyfriend (and Violet’s father), Chris (Dylan McDermott) is also lurking in the shadows, as is Howdy’s girlfriend, Stephanie (Jenny Wright) and her boyfriend, Jeff (Tim Robbins). Toss their opinionated maid, Lola (Charlaine Woodard), into the mix and you have quite the cast of irregulars.
In and of themselves, the characters in Twister sound pretty intriguing on paper. Howdy, by himself, is such a bundle of neuroses that they could’ve based an entire five-picture series on him. After all, this is a guy who serenades his girlfriend with the creepiest sub-Velvet Underground dirge in the history of recorded music and makes it seem as natural as belting out O Sole Mio. He’s Crispin fuckin’ Glover and this is just what he does, man. McDermott rages around, doing his usual “tempest in a teacup” thing but that’s what McDermott does, too. Hell, Tim Robbins even gets in an awkward slap fight with Glover: how could that not be fascinating?
But it’s not fascinating. Unfortunately, it’s anything but. In fits and starts, Twister works just fine but the film never develops any sense of forward momentum or narrative cohesion: it just lurches from one strange situation to another. Chris keeps sneaking into the house, getting caught and thrown out but no one really seems to mind. Stephanie is dating Howdy but also seems to be Jeff’s girlfriend…or maybe she isn’t. Maureen and Howdy go on a hunt for their missing mother and track her to a farmhouse where William S. Burroughs is target shooting. Burroughs has never been mentioned or introduced in the film and is only credited as Man in the Barn: when he explains to the “kids” that their mother is now in Ireland, it carries no weight whatsoever: Who the hell is he? How does he know their mom? Is he actually real or a figment of their imaginations? Is Burroughs just playing himself or is he actually a character? It’s a frustrating bit of inanity that handily removed any joy I briefly felt over seeing Burroughs: what the fuck was he doing here?
This confusion even manages to extend to the title, Twister. Spoiler alert: if you’re looking for a tornado, it occupies all of two minutes within the context of the film. Fair enough: I came to see Stanton and Glover as odd family members, not a disaster porn film about high winds. That being said, I simply can’t, for the life of me, figure out what relevance the tornado has. Cutting out any mention or activity around the twister wouldn’t change the film in any discernible way, so what’s the point? I have no problem with symbolism or subtext whatsoever but this just seemed like such an esoteric choice, as random as pulling a name out of a hat. I will admit to not being familiar with the source material, so perhaps the impact of the tornado was just reduced in the film. Nonetheless, this just becomes one more symbol of my issues with the film: its seeming randomness.
Craftwise, the film tends to have a rather muddy, indistinct look that could either be chalked up to a bad transfer or just a crappy production, in general. Writer-director Almereyda got his start as screenwriter on the Melanie Griffith-as-sexbot howler Cherry 2000 (1987), so there’s probably not much reason to assume this would look great but the dull look doesn’t make sticking with the film any easier. This is even harder to understand given that the cinematographer, Renato Berta, was a well-respected craftsman who shot Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) just two years before: what gives? In a further disappointment, veteran composer/soundtrack pro Hans Zimmer turns in a chaotic mess of a score, a mishmash of tones and movements that seem cobbled together from other pieces. It’s never cohesive which, ironically, may make it the perfect soundtrack for the film. A prime example is the scene where Chris and Maureen drive through the town after the twister has passed through: the soundtrack plays the scene like a slasher film, all staccato jabs and nervous energy: it makes no sense within the context of the scene and doesn’t even seem to work as counter-intuitive: it just seems like a stylistic choice that didn’t work out.
So, is there anything worthwhile here? Sadly, there’s actually quite a bit to like in Twister, even if the parts are much greater than their sum. Glover, as always, is genuinely weird and seems to possess as much gravity as a black hole: it’s virtually impossible for any other actor to share screen time with him and not be completely forgotten. Stanton, old pro that he is, tries to compete with Glover but he’s just not given enough to do. That’s a real shame, since Stanton has been one of my favorite actors since the first time I ever laid eyes on Repo Man (1984). He’s definitely not bad here but he’s not awesome, either, which kinda sucks.
There are a few scenes (the aforementioned scene where Howdy sings, a hilarious bit involving Chris and a flaming shot that gets out of control) that are as good as anything in these types of films but they’re too few and far between. The shot scene, is particular, is a real gem: McDermott brings an almost Chaplin-esque quality to the bit, as he tries to blow out the fire but only succeeds in spreading the flames. In a film filled with quizzical moments and scenes that seem designed to make one say “Hmm…,” it’s a genuinely laugh-out-loud moment and I definitely wish there were a few more like that. It also manages to feel out of place but it still works better than much of what came before and after.
At the end of the day, Twister is one of those films that could easily fit my mother’s oft-repeated phrase: “Neither fish, nor foal, nor good red herring.” I’m not really sure what Twister is, truth be told, and I’m not ever sure that I will. I can only sit and ponder what a Southern Gothic film featuring Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover and Dylan McDermott riding out a tornado in a cramped farmhouse might have been like. When I close my eyes, I can almost see the film and it’s a pretty good one: it’s quirky, it has interesting characters and something to say about how disasters can bring all of us, including the truly strange, together. It’s even got a little something to say about family and how you’re stuck with ’em, for better or worse. That’s not this movie, however, and that’s a shame.