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Creek Running North
March 12, 2005
Fortunate Disaster: Reaping The Cinematographical Whirlwind
It's been some time since I sent this piece off, on what I thought was a firm gentlemen's agreement, to a publication which out of courtesy I will not identify but which may or may not rhyme with "Mondon Deview." As I have not since heard from them, I can only assume my kill fee is en route, and that I am free to share the essay with the significantly wider readership this site enjoys.
Few works of human creativity can be described, without hyperbole, as having changed the world. Guernica, arguably, falls into this category. Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring does as well, despite being roundly condemned by audiences of the day. Uncle Tom's Cabin is another such masterpiece.
It is not particularly surprising that, until recently, film - the newest human art form - had contributed not a single unambiguously great work to the human canon. Oh, people argued for Triumph Of The Will or Apocalypse Now, but the controversial political content and predictable denouements of both films provided handy fodder for their critics.
It wasn't until 1996 that theater-goers saw a film that met the approval of audiences and critics alike, a film that forever redefined the relationship of audience to auteur, and auteur to nature. Within months of its release, whole competing schools of interpretation of the film had sprung up in academe. By 1998, UMI listed eleven doctoral dissertations on the film from Brigham Young University alone.
I'm speaking, as you have certainly realized by now, of Twister.
It's difficult, after almost a decade, even to recall the state of film before Twister, so thoroughly did that F5 tour de force rewrite our expectations of the cinematic experience. Given the profound changes the epic tornado epic wreaked on American society, it is valuable, the year before the inevitable press coverage of the film's tenth anniversary, the Time cover stories and the People Magazine "Do you remember where you were when you saw the cow blow past" features, to review some of what's been said about Twister that's seen print since it blew into our collective consciousness.
First, though it may seem unnecessary given the truly massive viewing of the film - Susan Sontag, in her essay "Against Precipitation; Extreme Weather and Social Thought in Film," estimated that 85 percent of people in the US had seen Twister at least twice - let us quickly review the movie's plot.
Meteorological researcher JoAnne "Jo" Thornton (Helen Hunt) - whose life was forever altered as a child when a tornado sucked her father out of a hole in the ground and into the sky, is meeting her estranged husband Bill Harding (Bill Pullman) in the field in Oklahoma to sign divorce papers so that he can wed his girlfriend Melissa (Jamie Gertz). Thornton is reluctant to sign the papers. She and Harding had worked on a plan to probe funnel clouds with hundreds of small sensors in order to learn the secrets of the tornado, and her team of scientists - notably including the Falstaffian Dustin Davis (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the crew's heavy metal stoner - are overjoyed at Harding's reappearance in the field.
Suddenly a powerful storm emerges over the Oklahoma plains, spawning numerous deadly funnel clouds, and Harding is swept up once more by the thrill of the chase, dragging a reluctant Melissa along. Technical problems prevent the successful launch of the probe carrier - "Dorothy" - time and again, and the tornados keep getting worse. This leads to Melissa's frightened and permanent departure - though her recognition of Bill and Jo's growing rapprochement doesn't hurt.
Finally appears the mother of all funnel clouds, a miles-wide F5 tornado. A brilliant seat-of-the-pants innovation allows success in launching "Dorothy" into the tornado, which then turns and chases Thornton and Harding across a farm. Only by literally tying themselves to the earth do they survive, buildings ripped into the sky from around them, giving Thornton a clear look into the inverted abyss that has haunted her since the Assumption of her father. The team catches up to Harding and Thornton amid loud metal: the music rocks and the credits roll.
Those are the bones of the story, but Twister is, if anything, a whirlwind of nuance, and it is from that nuance that a decade of academic careers have been derived. There are other supporting characters - the kindly middle-aged aunt, the cynical, competitive, well-funded rival scientist and his hapless crew, the attractive yellow Labrador retriever, the guy from Ferris Bueller - but the majority of the complexity is found in plot subtext rather than in character development. The innovation that paves the way for the successful deployment of Dorothy - the name itself likely a sly poke at the neoconservative conception of social-meteorology theorist Sontag as a sort of Wicked Witch of the West - involves cutting hundreds of blade-like wings from soda cans, which give the sensors the requisite lift. These blades slice through the length and width of the tornado, which then - in a rare bit of ham-handed obviousness - chases Harding and Thornton into a barn full of menacing metal blades. Is this merely an F5 wheel of karma, or blatant revenge from the mother of all dust devils? Harding's response - "who are these people?" - is thus neatly reflected back toward the questioner.
The tornado itself is an ambiguous presence, threatening and phallic, but also a hollow, yonic Shiva to be appeased and revered, guarantor of wisdom and granter of random mercies. The effort to "penetrate" the tornado to "win her secrets" and "tame" her - in effect, transmuting tornado to "tornado" - is an obvious exercise in Freudian mental topography mapped onto the Oklahoma landscape. As if to underscore the Freudian subtext, "Jo" is a clear cognate for "yo," the Spanish first person singular pronoun. "Bill" - a Red State diminutive for "William" - is a clear reference to Will. Thus the Ego ("I") and the Id ("The Will") are joined in the terrifying pursuit of a birth canal writ large. In case there might have been two or three audience members who missed the symbolism so far, the writers cast Melissa as - wait for it - a psychoanalyst, whose services are no longer needed when Ego and Id commence to remeld.
The screenwriters' identities reflected the competing, nuanced themes found within the movies. One of the pair of writers, Anne-Marie Martin, came to the project with her deconstructionist credentials in fine form, having played Wendy Richards in the 1980 PoMo classic Prom Night. Conversely, the other writer, Martin's then-husband Michael Crichton, was and is a fervent adherent to the Peckinpah-influenced Leaden Exposition Movement. Though the subtext of the movie is palpable if not in fact bludgeoning, it is thus almost certain that the writers intended none of it. Realizing this, the literary community exploded in excitement. At long last, here was proof of the notion that a work is created not by its authors, but by the end user! The consequent galvanizing effect on the Post-Modern school of literary criticism was one of the film's most notable and lasting legacies. Twister truly left a path of devastating deconstruction in its wake.
Among the evidence that Crichton and Martin could not have intended the subtext is the overwhelming progressive sensibility said subtext indicates. Soon after the movie's release, Larry McMurtry - The New York Review Of Books' beat reporter for all things west of the Lincoln Tunnel - stunned the nation with a compelling analysis of Twister's left-wing slant. McMurtry's NYRB review, "Left Hand Red," focused on the character of the "evil" corporate scientist Jonas Miller, played by Cary Elwes, who was killed in a careless moment by the final tornado. (Is it really necessary, for this film, to warn of plot-spoilers?) The F5 may be Thornton and Harding's Great White Whale, but it is Jonas who is, in the end, swallowed up. Given a resource-rich team of foundation-funded scientists in matching black Ford Explorers (in itself a compelling product placement choice) on the one hand, and a motley team of rock-and-rolling stoners with old pickup and step-vans on the other, which team is best equipped to match the tornado? Call it a "flexibility in chaotic contexts," says McMurtry, or call it "plains-state authenticity," or call it "sell-outs suck"; the upshot is that "the corporation ethic fails in the face of an angry mother nature, while the band of rebels ends up victorious with Helen Hunt in a wet cotton shirt."
In Twister, the very tornados themselves seem to possess a left sensibility eschewing the usual trailer parks - refuges of the dispossessed - to sate their destructive urges on well-built, bourgeois frame houses and farm buildings. It is that very stripping of homes from their foundations that prompted literary theorist Michael Bérubé, in his 1997 essay "Bolting From The Foundations: Twister And Its Explicit Challenge to the Sokal Hoax," to postulate what one might refer to as a bipartite tornado, split between the "brute storm," the actual physical wind and flying debris, and the "social storm," which includes, among other things, whatever purpose we decide to impute to the funnel cloud and the reactions we have to it. Why does a tornado skip one house and level the next one, and can one hypothesize a correlation with the residents' party affiliation? Surely the prevalence of tornados in Red States rather than Blue indicates what Sokal famously (if in jest) referred to as a "stochastic meteorological left chirality." Bérubé's subsequent call for a "Theory of Social Destructionism" was the topic of much discussion, and earned him the rare distinction of a spot in David Horowitz's network of leftist weather critics between Kathy Boudin and Mark Rudd.
But if subtext carries the meaning of the film, it is the striking images - or "images" - that create the demand for the subtext. No discussion of Twister would be complete without a mention of the most evocative scene, a wrenching of a pastoral, bucolic icon into a typically postmodern chaotic moos en scene. I speak, of course, of the flying cow, or as Deleuze referred to it in a discussion of an early draft of the script, la vache craintive en vol.
Thornton, Harding and Melissa are driving past a lake when a spectacular pair of twinned waterspouts, curled about one another like the base chains of a DNA strand or the Olsen Twins, advance on their truck. The tornados dance around the truck in a compelling pas de deux, then dissipate, leaving our heroes refreshed.
But on the way toward the encounter, the three pass a pathetic image of disorientation: a large black and white Holstein lifted aloft by the storm and flung around and around the funnel clouds like a soccer ball being used as a tether ball in a grade school whose athletic department's budget has been cut. In one of the most artfully written lines of dialogue in the film, Thornton reacts: "Cow."
When a similar cow flashes past a few moments later, Thornton announces "another cow," to which Harding replies, laconically, "I think that's the same cow."
An essay of this length cannot possibly even begin to describe the wealth of imagery, symbolism and meaning with which this stunning film is replete, and in any event other, better critics have done so already. Worth pointing out on the eve of the blockbuster's decennary, however, is the legacy Twister has left us. Without the groundbreaking analysis of modern industrial society against raw nature expressed in Twister, it is unlikely we would have been graced with the movie's geological siblings in Dante's Peak or Volcano. Without Twister, no Open Water; no The Day After Tomorrow; no Mansquito. Twister has forever altered not only our notions of film, but our relationship with the primal forces of nature and - perhaps most importantly - our relationship with ourselves. We may still resemble our earlier selves when we first saw this epochal film, but after one decade's spin around Twister, we are not the same cow.
We are not the same cow at all.
Posted by Chris Clarke at March 12, 2005 11:03 PM
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Bravo! Wonderful. Tell me, did you do that whole thing just so you could use the phrase "moos en scene", or was that an afterthought?
That just sort of came to me in mid-sentence.Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 13, 2005 07:19 AM
Having not seen this movie, I remain the same cow. That explains so much about why I have felt "out of the herd."Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at March 13, 2005 07:43 AM
Interesting read. Who knew the movie had such a wide impact. The first time I saw it I thought it was great. But, everytime I watch it it I find more I don't like. Like most movies put out by Hollywood, it looks good but falls apart when you think about it. At any rate, you forgot to mention the guy from the first Matrix movie was in it also.Posted by: afarensis at March 13, 2005 08:58 AM
You are really ill. Or "ill." Very funny.Posted by: leslee at March 13, 2005 09:58 AM
My daughter is taking film courses at Mt. Holyoke. I think you've just written her next term paper. Thanks!Posted by: Vicki at March 13, 2005 03:12 PM
huh?Posted by: OGeorge at March 13, 2005 03:22 PM
Hope you had as much fun writing it as I did reading it. Film criticism has never been the same either...Posted by: beth at March 13, 2005 04:47 PM
Great stuff! Just one thing about my own essay-- I'd also argued that although the social storm is the condition of possibility for our understanding of the brute storm, paradoxically the social storm leads us to understand the brute storm as something independent of our observation of it. It's a fine point, yeah, but I just want to make sure that people don't confuse my argument with Baudrillard's notorious post-Matrix rereading ("there is no cow").
And hey, if the Mondon Deview ever does run this brilliant piece of work, I hope you can find space to footnote Laura Kipnis's famous argument that there could be no Twister without Outbreak, the original natural disaster / divorce drama in which the natural disaster somehow undoes the divorce. Kipnis also mentions Independence Day, though I think that's stretching the sense of "natural disaster," in the course of arguing that marriage itself is the disaster and our incomplete suturing into the disaster-imaginary leads us to misrecognize the disaster as the irruption of the Real.Posted by: Michael Bérubé at March 13, 2005 09:19 PM
I'd also argued that although the social storm is the condition of possibility for our understanding of the brute storm, paradoxically the social storm leads us to understand the brute storm as something independent of our observation of it.
Which raises the question: was the storm of controversy over the distinction between the social storm and the brute storm itself a social storm? Or a brute storm?
Thanks for the reminder of Outbreak's place in the tradition, and of course any treatment of the marriage/disaster trope that ignores the Heston-Bujold-Gardner triad in Earthquake! is of necessity incomplete. And Kramer versus Kramer had that little incident with the French press.Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 13, 2005 10:50 PM
"Heston-Bujold-Gardner triad in Earthquake!"
hey whatever happened to Marjoe Gortner, anyway?Posted by: Craig at March 14, 2005 09:10 AM
Marjoe, as it happens, is currently evangelizing for rationality.Posted by: Chris Clarke at March 14, 2005 02:28 PM