‘The Shining’ in ‘Twister’

Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is informed, start to finish, by The Wizard of Oz, but the principal movie that’s actually shown in it is The Shining. The Kubrick classic is on a NIGHT OF HORRORS double bill, along with Psycho, at a drive-in an Oklahoma town where tornado hunters Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are staying.

The twister arrives in a hurry and transfixes Hunt, who has a Dorothy-like history: Twister opens with a flashback scene in which, as a little girl, she watches as her father is literally blown away. Now, in a nice touch, you can’t tell if her face is illuminated by lightning or by the movie on the big screen. Whatever, she fortunately snaps out of it just in time. Then we see some deft synchronicity: Just at the moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson has axed his wife’s door to bits, the twister blows the drive-in to bits.

Meanwhile the main characters think they’ve found shelter in a mechanic’s garage, but nuh-uh. In some slightly heavy-handed symbolism, cans of film and then the marquee itself blow through the space, wreaking more havoc and mayhem. You just can’t trust the movies.

‘Back Page News’ in ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’

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Brodie (Max Erlich) with camera

In 1991, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, documenting a year he spent observing homicide detectives in Baltimore. Two years later, producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and writer Paul Attanasio adapted the book into a TV series for NBC, which ran until 1999.

So: fictional Baltimore detectives based on real-life counterparts. So far, so simple. The levels of reality got more complex in a fifth-season episode, “The Documentary.” The premise is that the Brodie (like most of the characters, he’s known by his last name) has played hooky from his job as crime-scene videographer and has surreptitiously made a documentary film about the homicide unit. On a quiet New Year’s Eve in the squad room, he tells the cops about the movie, and slips the tape into a VCR machine for a private viewing. For those keeping score at home, we’ve now got a (fictional) documentary about (fictional) detectives based on real-life cops.

The title of Brodie’s opus is a mouthful: “Back Page News: Life and Homicide on the Mean Streets of Baltimore.” (The font in which it’s given is the same as that of the “Homicide: Life on the Street” credits we see rolling over the opening of Brodie’s movie.) Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) detects a bit of plagiarism.

Munch: “Mean Streets”? What, are you ripping off Scorsese?

Brodie: I wasn’t ripping him off, I respect the man. But he doesn’t hold a candle to great documentary filmmakers like Robert Frank, or [D.A.] Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Ken Burns.

Munch: Oh yeah, Ken Burns. He’s the only one who’s ever managed to make something more boring than baseball. A documentary about baseball.

Another name Brodie might have added to his list of documentarians is Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County U.S.A and many other classic films. Guess what: as we see in the final credit, she’s the director of this episode of Homicide Life on the Street. (It was Kopple’s first foray into fictional directing. She would subsequently direct two more episodes of the series, and one of a later Levinson-Fontana production, HBO’s Oz.)

A few minutes later in the documentary, two cops chase a perp into an alley. What do they encounter there but two other cops who’ve chased down another perp, shouting, “Freeze!” But it turns out they’re all actors, making TV show called “Homicide.” We know the name because it’s on the cap of the director, Barry Levinson, playing himself. The shot goes back and forth between the homicide squad (from Homicide: Life on the Street) and Levinson’s “Homicide” crew as they stare at each other and say “Homicide?” “Homicide?” “Homicide.” The layers are now dizzying.

Ever the cinephile, Brodie, holding his camera, introduces himself to Levinson and pronounces himself a “big fan.” He adds, “I’ve got to tell you, the real police in Baltimore, they don’t say, ‘Freeze.’ It’s a television thing, I think.”

Coda: The Brodie character didn’t appear in the sixth season of Homicide. In the opening episode of the season, we’re informed that his documentary, Back Page News, has won an Emmy.

 

“Vertigo” in “Twelve Monkeys”

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Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian time-travel thriller Twelve Monkeys begins in the year 2035. We gradually learn that a virus released in 1996 killed off almost all of the world’s population. One of the underground-dwelling survivors, James Cole (Bruce Willis), is sent back in time to the 1990s to try to gather information about the outbreak. He winds up in an insane asylum, where his claims that he has come from the future don’t go over too well.

The TV-in-the-day-room is an essential fixture of such scenes, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on down. Often, mindless chirpy fare on the set comments on the grim reality before us. That’s the case in Twelve Monkeys, where, in addition, everything playing on the TV relates to animals. We successively see three 1940s Tex Avery cartoons:  “Swing Shift Cinderella,” “Little Tinker,” and “Who Killed Who.” We also glimpse a segment from “Horizon: The Cruel Choice,” a 1983 British documentary on animal experimentation (a theme of Twelve Monkeys), which itself includes a clip from the movie The Andromeda Strain. Then, to hit the monkey theme home, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business briefly comes on. (It’s heard more than seen.)

In a later scene, a television is playing “Prehistoric Super Salesman,” a 1969 cartoon. IMDB’s plot description: “Woody Woodpecker is sent back to the stone age by a mad scientist and his time tunnel.”

But the  big set-piece movie-in-movie scene comes late in the film, when circumstances have started to crowd in on Cole and Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he encounters in one of his visits to 1996 and who becomes his companion on the mission he comes to believe is his destiny.

The segment begins with full-screen view of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in which the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are strolling among California redwoods. The dreamy Novak, who imagines herself the reincarnation of a nineteenth-century woman, points out “my” life span on an ancient tree’s rings; the parallels with Twelve Monkeys’ time traveling is clear.

We cut away to see Cole and Kathryn sitting in a Philadelphia movie theater that’s showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon also including (a marquee tells us) Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and Psycho. The parallels to Vertigo multiply. Cole say, “I think I’ve seen this movie before, when I was a kid.” And right after he says the word “before,” Stewart asks Novak (whose present-day character is named Madeleine, just like Stowe), “Have you been here before?”

Cole is mesmerized by the movie, and gets at a striking comparison: that watching a film at different times in your life might be similar to keeping on going back in time to the same moment.

It’s just like what’s happening with us. The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different.

Then someone in the sparse audience shushes him, a nice touch.

The next thing Cole knows, he wakes up alone in the theater, wearing a wig and fake mustache. On the screen is yet another Hitchcock movie, The Birds, reinforcing the animals-run-amuk thread of Twelve Monkeys. He runs out to the lobby and it’s almost as if we’ve literally stepped into Vertigo. Kathryn has on a blonde wig (making her look like so many Hitchock heroines) and actually is wearing the same style of coat Novak wears in Vertigo. At the moment when Cole sees her, the soundtrack is part of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score.

On the Twelve Monkeys director’s commentary, Gilliam describes how things got bizarre when he and his team looked at the scene from which they mined the music.

We discovered that the cuts between Kim and Jimmy Stewart are identical to the cuts between Madeleine and Bruce. Then it got even stranger. The scene [in Vertigo] ends when they embrace and the whole room turns around them…. The foyer of the cinema [in Twelve Monkeys] is circular. We put them on a a turntable and the whole room spins around them.

That scene was eventually cut out. Still, Gilliam says, “It was almost as if the ghost of Hitchcock was making this section of the film.”