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I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful--had I talked only of the weather and the roads ... this reproach would have been spared.
--Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811)
In this essay, I treat Jan de Bont's film Twister (US, 1996) as a proof text of one of our most venerable laws of etiquette, made lucid by Jane Austen's impetuous romantic character in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood. Talking about the weather and the roads, as this movie devoted to storm chasers in the Oklahoma Tornado Alley does, is polite but deceitful. In the Midwest, where Twister is set, manners no doubt differ from those in Austen's England, but polite familiarity still depends on talk of weather and roads. Storms that disturb North American seasonal weather patterns can prove simultaneously a disaster for crops and a boon to masculinity, as befits a place where male bonding is weather bonding. Under the unremitting substitution of ardent weather talk for a vocabulary of emotions, one can report having been subdued by something greater than oneself--without invoking subjectivity at all. Tailor-made for abashed fathers and blustery forecasters alike, weather talk achieves a prosaic language of the extraordinary: a measure of shared milestones that come in homey units like the Fahrenheit scale, not an uncomfortable emotional barometer with notches for falling in love, coming out of the closet, or trying unsuccessfully to conceive a baby. For example, the 1997-98 El Nino phenomenon is the only spectacle to exceed the sweeping theorem of codependency as a handy explanation for our condition of universal dysfunction. Surrendering to emotional determinism, codependency behaves for popular psychology precisely as El Nino does for weather: it is the forecast that makes prediction monotonous, but it compensates with a chronicle of compounding disasters that is, in its own way, deeply satisfying. Like other disruptions of intimacy, El Nino and codependency are blanket explanations that we are conspicuously forbidden to regard as mundane.
What does Twister, an action movie where the enemy is a tornado, have to tell us about our peculiarly American style of deflecting intimacy while creating familiarity by talking about the weather? The film is peopled by meteorologists as well as their rebel counterparts, the storm chasers, and a single therapist who speaks the cliched languages of the recovery movement. That therapist, Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz), is engaged to Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), and she accompanies him on a trip to recover his divorce papers from his estranged wife Jo Harding (Helen Hunt). On one level, the movie devotes itself to establishing a familiarity without intimacy: the script's goal is to reunite a couple on the brink of divorce without ever resolving a single emotional conflict between them--without ever surmising that men are from Mars, women are from Venus, of reprising any other stale motto from the intimacy industry. On another level, the movie metonymically links weather forecasting with fertility treatments that reproduce a family without sexual contact. By marking discussion of emotions as the terrain of the unlikable Dr. Reeves, the film shows us how to have families without intimacy and how to replicate the familial without endorsing the therapeutic family cell.
Oddly, few were gratified that the Belgian director de Bont took the time to fashion an American epic out of our habit of blustering about the weather. Though the film became a box-office hit, Twister was poorly received by critics, barring the grudging acknowledgement that its widely hyped special effects accomplished what they were intended to do. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times movie critic and resolute normalizer of American subjectivity, complained that de Bont spent no time on character development in his film, noting that the viewer had no sense of intimacy with the actors because the movie was only interested in weather. Nonetheless, Ebert granted that sacrificing nuanced emotional portraits allowed de Bont to devote himself to making simulated weather more graphic and realistic than it has ever been. (1) No matter how graphically a director can show two people in the throes of something big, without characterization, gentle seduction, and a little emotional foreplay to prepare the viewer, it all amounts to a lot of noise and spectacle. Though it contains no nudity or sexual situations and little swearing, Twister was rated PG-13, penalized for "the intense depiction of very bad weather." (2) That assessment is hard to parse, and not just because of its novelty. The rating is counterintuitive because, to paraphrase Marianne Dashwood, to have been reserved and deceitful, to talk only of the roads and the weather, should have spared Twister every reproach.
Ebert explains that the portrayal of the death of Jo's father in a tornado, an event too harsh for very young children, prompted this singular rating: "That means, for you kids under 13, that in the opening scene Jo, as a child, sees her daddy disappear into the Suck Zone." (3) By returning to the emotional register, reminding us that it should feel bad to watch fathers die, Ebert attempts to contain Twister within the language of relationships and intimacy. He therefore misses the point of the rating entirely: the problem is not that Jo's father dies, but that the tornado is metamorphosed into the suck zone. What the film board's rating unconsciously captures in its opportune use of "graphic" is the fact that de Bont's film traffics in a system of remarkably unsubtle signs that configure sex, orgasm, and conception only through "the intense depiction of very bad weather." In other words, Twister is weather porn.
If we look at a few scenes where the specter of sexuality is actually raised, we can see how thoroughly the film reconfigures most intimate discussions around weather in its project to make storms more pornographic than human sexual contact, which is banished from the movie. For example, in a rare stationary scene, the storm chasers sit around the dining table of Jo's Aunt Meg, shocking Dr. Melissa Reeves with their carnivorous allegiances and their breakneck repartee. Rabbit (Alan Ruck) comments informatively--and apropos of nothing--"You know, in a severe lightning storm, you better grab your ankles and stick your butt in the air." Why would he tell Melissa how to behave in a lightning storm? Well, it turns out that she is the film's lightning rod, the locus where all repudiated behaviors and discourses of therapeutic family management are concentrated. The lone female underling chimes in with Rabbit's implicit project to scare Melissa off by telling her she will always be sacrificed in a storm, agreeing, "Yeah, it's the safest orifice to gel hit in." How striking it was in 1996, after a decade and a half of HIV discourse, to hear the anus described as "the safest orifice." Yet it is safe in the movie's terms, because another orifice would impel Melissa and Bill into a nuclear family, and the film is determined to reunite Bill and Jo in an extravaginal coital thrill that it represents as being caught in a tornado funnel. This is a film where all winds blow back to the homestead, or, even more claustrophobically, the fallout shelter of Jo's childhood, a bit of architecture whose function during the Cold War was literally to put the nuclear back into nuclear family.
Dr. Melissa Reeves says it best: "You know, Billy, when you used to tell me you chased tornadoes, deep down I always thought it was a metaphor." These ingenious words are our first clue that things are not as they seem in the stormy subplot of Twister. Though they treat it as a throwaway line that indicates only how naive Melissa is about the true passions of her fiance, it is nonetheless quoted by every reviewer, for it plainly reveals that this trashy summer movie has something up its sleeve: it is the bit of treasure amidst the rubble, if you will. This line also tells us the reason why Jami Gertz's character is necessary to the film at all. Melissa, you see, is a reproductive therapist. Every time the storm chasers are in hot pursuit of a tornado, Melissa's cellular phone rings. On the other end is Donald or Julia, distraught married clients struggling with their infertility, who rely on Melissa to referee their arguments about their inability to …