' Cinema Romantico: Twister's Opening Scene

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Twister's Opening Scene

Jan de Bont’s “Twister” finished second in the considerable 1996 box office sweepstakes, and congratulations to it, for being a weather-driven rollercoaster ride. Any references to the fatal mayhem that twisters can wreak is merely in the service of “stakes”, not much else, as most of the characters’ orations on the value of accurate meteorology ring hollow, intending to drum up tension that doesn’t exist anyway between two factions of tornado chasers. No, our principal heroes, briskly named Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill (Bill Paxton), come across more desperate to see the inside of a funnel for the thrill of it than for the data they might collect, which might have been an interesting angle to play but isn’t going to happen when a $92 million budget is in play. And whatever; I don’t mean to give “Twister” a bad review to commemorate its incredibly unimportant 20th anniversary.

No, I come bearing praise. People might term “Twister” an atmospheric film because, like, you know, funnel clouds form when the atmosphere is unstable. But I think of “Twister” as a kind of unintentional atmospheric film, one that in its best moments, when there are no special effects and no calculated rushes of adrenaline and no Jami Gertz talking on a mid-90’s cellphone, is intrinsically Midwestern, whether it’s a shot of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman spooning lumps of decadent mashed potatoes onto a plate next to steak and eggs or the mesmerizing frame in which Bill Paxton stands beneath a gloriously darkened sky.

For all its lame attempts at generating a love triangle, and for all its asinine comic release valves like cows flying through the air, this fast-moving movie is often at its best when it just settles down, reveling in its second unit photography or tendering tiny mood-building moments. There is just such a moment at the beginning. Not, mind you, the full prologue of the film’s Helen Hunt played heroine watching her dad scarily fly away the night the F-5 tornado hit her hometown; no, I’m talking about the five successive shots that immediately open the movie. They are wonderful; they are perfect; they are where I’m from.


This shot immediately follows the opening title card, setting the stage, any evening in Midwestern May when the sky is all simple, scenic innocence.



In the next shot, however, the clouds have assumed an ominous gray, the kind that causes the men down at the co-op who have seen a storm or two in their time to remark “something’s brewing.



In the third shot, the sky is getting black, and it is this point when you feel the thrilling, terrifying tingle in your spine.



By the fourth shot, the prelude to the tempest is in full swing; this is Tornado Watch weather.



And because it is Tornado Watch weather, you settle in to keep apprised of the situation by watching the local weatherman, sipping coffee to keep awake because you never know when it might go wrong even if you are continually hoping that it does not go wrong.



Then, it does go wrong. “Tornado Warning.” The two most terrifying words in the Midwest. There is more to come, of course, but in a way, this is more than enough. 

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