Feb 7, 2015

Twister (1989)

It seems rather unlikely that an outstandingly vapid no-talent douche like Dylan McDermott would have ever appeared in an underrated cult classic about a dysfunctional Kansas-based family featuring Crispin Glover, Harry Dean Stanton, and junk-ridden literary outlaw William S. Burroughs, but such is the superlatively strange case of Twister (1989) directed by seemingly pseudonymous auteur Michael Almereyda (Nadja, Hamlet). Not to be confused with the famously moronic 1996 film of the same name directed by Dutch cinematographer turned Hollywood hack director Jan de Bont and starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, Almereyda’s debut feature is based on the 1981 novel Oh! written by minimalist writer Mary Robison and shot by none other than Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta, who not only shot important works for noted European arthouse auteur filmmakers like Louis Malle, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet and Alain Tanner, but was the lifelong cameraman of Swiss high-camp auteur Daniel Schmid and was responsible for filming virtually every single one of his films, including Heute nacht oder nie (1972) aka Tonight or Never, La Paloma (1974), and the Fassbinder-penned Shadow of Angels (1976) aka Schatten der Engel, among various other neglected masterpieces. Indeed, it is only fitting that Berta shot Twister, as if auteur Almereyda—a man who seems to have adopted his name from the pseudonym of the father of French poetic realist filmmaker Jean Vigo (whose Spanish/Catalan militant anarchist padre adopted the name ‘Miguel Almereyda’ because it is an anagram for “y'a la merde,” which translates as “there's the shit”)—knew that the film would be, at least commercially speaking, an abject failure that, not unlike the work of Schmid, would only appeal to a special select yet loyal few. A dark comedy in the most idiosyncratic sense that, despite its PG-13 rating, makes most of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre seem like the cinephiliac posturing of an autistic poser who has seen one too many French New Wave flicks, Twister is quirky in a completely uncompromising and preternatural sort of way that, unlike superficially similar works, did not give me the impression that it was directed by some sort of bleeding heart humanist hipster that I could only find funny if they were hit by a handicap bus or gang-raped by a South African tennis team. A rather whimsical and largely plot-less work with a rural Kansas setting that brings new meaning to the regional phrase “There's no place like home,” Twister depicts in a playfully pernicious fashion the rotting degenerate adult broad of a wealthy yet fairly dejected patriarch who made the mistake of marrying and impregnating a self-centered Irish-American bitch who passed on her dysgenic genetics to both of their marvelously misbegotten children. Featuring Suzy Amis as a violently frigid dipsomaniac anti-diva with a young grade school daughter who is more mature than her, Crispin Glover as a ‘tragically misunderstood’ proto-Goth dandy and high kultur dilettante who seems to suffer from Asperger syndrome and thus pronounces words in a strange rhythmic fashion, and Harry Dean Stanton as the former’s long-suffering millionaire capitalist cowboy father who is just not cutout to deal with the peculiar problems of his two grownup children even though he has enough money support a small shitty South American country, Twister is somewhat typical of most of Almereyda’s work in the sense that it centers around a decidedly dysfunctional family with a glaring genetic taint yet at the same time it is in many ways the director’s most ‘accessible’ and least ‘esoteric’ film as a sort a scathingly sardonic and singular celluloid sitcom from posh post-frontier Midwestern pandemonium. 

 When a reasonably well-meaning, if not somewhat unintelligent, young man named Chris (Dylan McDermott in one of the most sympathetic roles of his career) wearing a goofy t-shirt reading “Big Blue Butt-Kicker” comes back from a six-month pilgrimage to Canada in the hope of ‘saving’ his estranged common-law (ex)wife Maureen (played by Suzy Amis, who later starred in Almereyda's David Lynch-produced postmodern experimental vampire flick Nadja (1994)) and their young daughter Violet (Lindsay Christman) from their exceedingly wealthy yet wayward family, he ultimately has a greater life-changing effect on the family than a town-devastating tornado that hits their home around the same time.  Despite the fact that his ex is fairly ugly on both the inside and outside, Chris is willing to do anything to get her back, including regularly suffering Maureen's malevolent misanthropic alcoholic wrath.  Maureen is a somewhat demented, uniquely unpleasant, and sub-homely dipsomaniac bitch and self-described “24-year-old failure” who is such a superlatively shitty self-absorbed mother that she complains to her young daughter, “It’s tiring and exasperating to watch someone littler than you” and even attempts to convince her little girl that she has no father.  Maureen’s brother Howdy (Crispin Glover in arguably the most underrated performance of his career)—a serious 'artiste' that writes mundanely melancholy dirge-like songs with insufferably self-pitying lyrics like “daddy was mean”—may show more self-restraint in terms of not having to rely on narcotics to get through the day, but he is no less unhinged as a perennially ‘misunderstood’ would-be-dandy with goofy longhair who resents his family, especially his father, due to their lack of cultivation and absurdly believes that he is going to marry a hot blonde lumpenprole babe named Stephanie (Jenny Wright of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)) who does not even like him and whose father works as a gardener for his family’s company. Indeed, both of his kids may be cracked losers that suffer from hopeless cases of arrested emotional development despite having genius 150+ IQs, but Eugene Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton in a fairly understated performance) is a self-made multimillionaire who got rich off of soda pop and mini-golf courses. Unquestionably, the only mistake Eugene ever made in his rather simple yet eventful life was marrying and impregnating a crazy McBitch who ultimately sired two crazy bastard broods that inherited their mother's mental instability and debilitating sense of self-destructive narcissism. When Howdy was only three and Maureen was six, their crazed mother abandoned them and their father Eugene for good and never attempted to get in contact with them ever again. Unfortunately for Eugene, neither of his immature adult children have any intention of ever growing up, starting a career, or leaving home for good, thus he must forever face their wrath, unless someone else has what it takes to take his place. 

As Chris states regarding his ex Maureen to her unsympathetic brother Howdy in regard to what he apparently did to fall out of favor with his bat-shit crazy beloved, “I’ll tell you what I did, I did nothing. Your sister was just so god damn spooked all the time, I mean, she imagines that I’ve done something. I don’t know, she assumes it.” Indeed, aside from being a pathetic drunk and pathological pill-popper, Maureen is a neurotic nutcase who never has anything nice to say and cannot accept a single damn compliment from her beau, who really tries his best to be there for his deranged ex and poor daughter. Maureen is so mentally incapacitated that she describes her greatest fear in life as follows, “You know one thing that would be deadly right now? For me to lay down. I think if I laid down I’d just be lost forever. It’s a problem my mother had all the time…And I have to lookout for it.” As Chris stoically tells patriarch Eugene upon seeing him for the first time in about six months since he originally left for Canada, “I came to save Violet and Maureen from this loony bin.” Unfortunately for Chris, while Eugene is well aware that his daughter is deranged and would love nothing more than to see her move out, Maureen (or ‘Mo’ as he lovingly calls her) is more than just a little bit afraid of leaving the loony bin.  When Maureen absurdly accuses Chris of being the source of all her recent misfortune by complaining, “I believe in my heart of hearts that you’re the cause of everything,” he retorts in a insightful fashion, “You know what I believe…what’s going on with you?  And I’m talking about your whole life...is that you don’t want to grow-up. You know, you want to be like a little kid.” The only person Eugene even remotely respects is his young negress maid ‘Lola’ (Charlayne Woodard of Louis Malle’s considerably crappy Big Deal on Madonna Street remake Crackers (1984)), who clearly resents spoiled bitch Maureen and her brazenly bitchy bourgeois behavior. Unlike Maureen, Lola busts her ass working full-time while going to college, but as she complains regarding her dubious academic career, “… I don’t have time to do all the reading, you know, and all last week Professor Riley jumped all over me for being black.” 

 When the titular tornado finally hits Kansas and ultimately kills no less than fifteen people in the surrounding area, less than proud patriarch Eugene is so dejected that he manages to sleep like a baby through the entire ordeal, as if he was subconsciously hoping that the twister would wipe-out his entire family while he was asleep. To the chagrin of his queen bitch daughter Maureen, Eugene is engaged to get married to his puritanical and pathologically positive girlfriend Virginia (played by fashion model turned Bond girl and Creepshow 2 (1987) star Lois Chiles), who is the host of a kitschy Evangelical Christian children's TV program called ‘Wonderbox’ where she dresses and acts like an unintentionally campy over-the-hill Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Needless to say, Virginia is far too pure and optimistic for the Cleveland family and the special engagement eventually falls apart. Indeed, after Virginia tells Eugene that his entire family has “lost the habit of thinking” and then insults his soda-pop/mini-golf empire, he hatefully remarks, “Well that sure as hell beats running around dressed up like a gingerbread girl on a goddamn TV box on a Sunday morning when nobody is watching except the mentally bankrupt.” After packing her bags and leaving the maniac mansion for good, Virginia tells Eugene that she will pray for him and his children, so he sarcastically responds, “That’s just what I need.” Naturally, Maureen has no problem telling her father that she thinks Virginia is a “bitch” and that she is glad that the engagement fell through. 

 After Howdy’s relationship with his ostensible fiancée Stephanie falls apart after her rowdy redneck (ex)boyfriend Jeff (played by Tim Robbins in arguably the most 'butch' role of his entire career) beats him up and kicks his ass and Maureen becomes so annoyed with Chris’ incessant pleas to marry him, the Cleveland kids put all their hopes into attempting to hunt down and reunite with their estranged Irish-American mother who vaguely resembles Amelia Earhart in both appearance and character (as Howdy remarks, “she just vanished”). After Howdy finds an old letter with his mother’s address, he writes her a letter but she never writes him back, so he, his sister Maureen, and Violet visit the country home where they believe she might be living at. Upon talking to an old fart engaged in a hardcore game of target practice played by alpha-Beat junky William S. Burroughs, the Cleveland kids learn that their mother moved away nine years ago and was apparently planning to relocate to Ireland, so the two siblings decide to visit the homeland of their ancestors. After a nasty dinner fight where Howdy goes on a rant about leaving with Maureen and Violet to go live with their mother in Ireland after their father pours out their bowls of gazpacho soup in disgust, Eugene finally reveals that their mother died years ago in a mental institution after suffering from a fatal case of stomach cancer that was compounded by “not being right in the head.” When Maureen asks her father why he didn’t inform her and Howdy about their mother’s dead, he responds regarding their belated progenitor, “She was a vain and selfless woman and she was just never a factor in your lives is all. And if you had gone to see her after they took her away, she would have just asked for a Pepsi or Hershey bar is all. Those were the things she cared about and not either of you.”   Needless to say, what little hope the Cleveland children had before is completely destroyed after their father completely demystifies their idiotically idealized view of their negligent mother.

 In the end after realizing that their is no hope for his kin, Eugene Cleveland decides “I’m out of it” and immediately gives Chris complete control and responsibility over his house and family, stating, “You have to take care of them now, my family. You’re in charge now.” Although Chris flipped out earlier that same day and burned down a tool-shed after concluding that he will never be able to get back with Maureen and start a normal nuclear family, he does not think twice about accepting Eugene’s less than generous offer to become the new patriarch of the crazed Cleveland family.  Unlike Eugene, Chris is at least motivated enough to bring love and order to the fiercely fucked family.  Not long after Eugene relinquishes his control of his kin and hands them over to Chris, mad Maureen asks the new patriarch to marry her and the two make love for the first time in the entire film, thus hinting that they plan to have more kids. Without even saying goodbye to his kids, Eugene abandons his family and somewhat strangely leaves with his negro maid Lola to an undisclosed location.  Whether or not Eugene plans to carry on a romantic affair with Lola remains to be seen, but he does double her pay and vacation time and even gives her three hundred shares of his company's stocks.  During the final couple minutes of the film, the entire family sans Eugene and maid Lola mindlessly watch trashy TV images involving negress gospel singers, mullet-adorned WWF wrestlers, and stun guns, among other things, in a fiercely farcical scene depicting the absurdly sick joke that is the modern American family. 

 While Twister was an unequivocal commercial failure due to the fact that the film’s distributor, Vestron Pictures, went out of business only a couple weeks before it was scheduled to be released in movie theaters, it is doubtful at best that such an insanely idiosyncratic filmic family feud would have ever been popular with the masses, who would probably not appreciate a film that goes to great pains to satirize their highly domesticated TV-and-beer-narcotized way of life. After all, none of director Almereyda’s later films, including his Hamlet (2000) adaptation starring Ethan Hawke, were particularly popular with the mainstream, so it is almost a miracle that the filmmaker is still able to get films made. Of course, Twister did have its proponents, including Midnight Movies (1983) co-author Jonathan Rosenbaum and The New York Times star critic Vincent Canby, who managed to see the work when it was given a “second lease on life” (to quote Rosenbaum) after the New York’s Anthology Film Archives gave it an extended run in early 1990. In its screen-stealing role by Crispin Glover, who notably also provided his own quasi-darkwave song to the score (which, unlike the music by Hans Zimmer, goes perfect with the work), as an outstandingly autistic weirdo who says even the most mundane words and phrases in the most bizarre and uncomfortably entrancing ways, Almereyda’s debut is the sort of film that needs to be actually seen to be even remotely properly understood or appreciated. As a work where the eponymous cyclone is never even depicted and where virtually none of the characters are in any way empathetic, Twister is surely as audience-antagonistic as borderline mainstream American films come as an anti-family affair that ultimately does for late-1980s Kansas what Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992) aka De noorderlinge did for 1960s small-town Holland.  In terms of its depiction of two siblings that have a romanticized view of the cold and cunty estranged mother that abandoned them when they were just small children, the film is like a Midwestern take on East of Eden, albeit more evil and humorous and minus any sort of redemption (ultimately Almereyda’s film concludes with a farcical false ‘happy ending’ where the forlorn family is united by a TV).  Notably, Almereyda would later utilize the theme of Irish inter-generational dipsomania and mental derangement in his similarly underrated druid witch/mummy themed ‘arthouse horror’ flick Trance (1998) aka The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy aka Michael Almereyda's The Mummy. In its pathological idiosyncrasy, Twister might be marginally comparable to a handful of works of its time like Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984), music video director Mark Romanek's Static (1985), and Keith Gordon's Robert Cormier adaptation The Chocolate War (1988) but ultimately it is a one-off work with no contemporaries that could have only been directed by Michael Almereyda who is, for better or worse, one of America's only real true auteur filmmakers. 

-Ty E

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