To Be a Siamese or Not to Be?

Michael and Mark Polish’s Twin Falls Idaho turns out to be a movie with a muddled text and a mesmerizing subtext. The title itself is something of a giggly misnomer insofar as it refers neither to the state of Idaho, nor to a locality known as Twin Falls. Actually, the locale is intentionally nowhere, and Idaho is simply the name of a street in this nowhere. Twin Falls denotes a pair

of adult Siamese twins named Blake and Francis Falls, played respectively by two identical twins, Mark and Michael Polish, who also wrote and directed this ultimate distillation of the doppelganger history of movies from the silent German Expressionists onward.

A timidly mournful call girl named Penny (Michele Hicks) is summoned to an apartment where she encounters the conjoined Fall twins, and is understandingly dumbfounded, as are we. I mean where do we go from here? Wherever it is, the pace is maddeningly slow, conversation is sub-elemental, and too many questions are left unanswered. The program notes indicate that the Polish brothers, who are fittingly not of Polish origin, have done their homework on the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who performed as freak attractions for 19th-century circuses. They lived to the age of 63, during which time they married and had 22 children between them. The only such twins I can recall in a previous movie as fictional characters share a crucial circus scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

But Twin Falls Idaho is clearly in a class by itself in its uncannily mythological exploration of the subject. The very process

of being forced to stare at two real-life identical twins masquerading as conjoined Siamese twins on the screen makes us question the exact distance our own distinct identities have to travel to separate ourselves from those nearest and dearest to us. When we realize that these two imaginary freaks are, in a sense, staring back at us as manipulative filmmakers with quirky sensibilities, the joke seems to be on us.

Twin Falls Idaho is the kind of movie that makes me wonder if its eeriest effects are not actually enhanced by the artlessness and clumsiness of its narrative development. The important role of Penny is barely acted at all by the amateurish Ms. Hicks, but her heavy eye makeup gives her the aura of a very early vampire in the Theda Bara mold, and the tightly framed compositions and minimal dialogue take us back to a time when Freudian mirrors projected the forbidden secrets of the soul.

Patrick Bauchau as Miles, a mysteriously ironic doctor friend of Penny’s, and Lesley Ann Warren as the pitifully clueless mother of the abandoned twins contribute what little substance there is to the movie’s life outside its central premise. Miles manages also to inject some needed information into a soundtrack that is singularly vague about what anyone thinks and feels during the final descent to disaster. Yet there can never be another film experience as original and as inimitable as this soulful, beautifully photographed meditation on what makes one plus one still equal one until a traumatic separation ever after afflicts us all.

Who Was Nostalgic for Roberts and Gere?

Garry Marshall’s Runaway Bride , from a screenplay by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, deserves some praise for not going for gross-out guffaws from the junior set with barfing, flatulence, defecation, urination, masturbation and a steady stream of four-letter-word invective. Good-bye, big first week at the nabes. But, no, Virginia, Runaway Bride is not as good as Notting Hill , Pretty Woman or My Best Friend’s Wedding , to name three of Julia Roberts’ biggest hits.

Runaway Bride is simply too soft and predictable even for its intended mature relationship audience. There is something musty and old-fashioned about the very idea of an initially cynical newspaperman putting a bridle on a rambunctious mare, be she runaway bride, madcap heiress or small-town spitfire. In the censor-ridden world of the 30’s in which It Happened One Night (1934) and Nothing Sacred (1937) flourished, marriage was the only available option for screen heroines, and premarital virginity was, at least after 1934, enforced as a condition of courtship. To resurrect such a state of affairs in the name of nostalgia is generally fatal in an inherently realistic and contemporaneous medium like the movies. In the 30’s, there were star couples rather than the current preponderance of solo male superstars.

Ms. Roberts has incurred more than her share of resentment in the meow-meow press for becoming one of the few female superstars in the otherwise exclusive if aging men’s club. In Pretty Woman , her breakout getaway vehicle, she was billed below Richard Gere. As her career has blossomed, and his has faded, Ms. Roberts is now billed above Mr. Gere. Not that the reversal plays that way on the screen. Mr. Gere has mellowed agreeably in middle age, and he has discarded the image of narcissistic sexual predator that had begun to cling to him like box-office poison ivy. Ms. Roberts, however, is somewhat overburdened by all the extra baggage a superstar movie heroine has to carry these days. She can’t play a cheerful street hooker anymore with a straight face. She’s too big a star for that. But she can’t play herself as a big movie star any time soon after Notting Hill , and she only got away with it there because Hugh Grant supplied enough high style and sexy humility to his male Cinderella role to make Ms. Roberts seem less presumptuous as Princess Charming.

So what does she play in Runaway Bride ? A small-town girl with hidden talents and a mysterious and newsworthy reluctance to tie the marital knot virtually at the moment of saying her vows. The town she lives in is full of quaint cracker-barrel characters, and one of the oldest among them remarks that Ms. Roberts’ Maggie Carpenter is not afraid so much of weddings as of the wedding nights that follow. The old crone reminisces that she solved her problem on the wedding night with a pair of knitting needles. Could it be that Maggie is terrified of sex as if she were a Victorian heroine with the vapors? The movie never develops that peculiar possibility in solving the mystery of the farcical premise. Instead, the dialogue slowly and anticlimactically dribbles into whimsical psychobabble in which both the reporter and the reluctant bride become ensnared.

Over all, Runaway Bride is a pleasantly inoffensive middle-range comedy, the type Hollywood used to roll off the assembly line for its regular-habit audience. There are a few bright lines, and one or two funny bits of business, hardly enough in these ravenous times when the bottom-line vultures in the industry and the media circle relentlessly around any mainstream production that fails to gross $100 million. From that gruesome occupation, include me out, as the late Samuel Goldwyn or, more probably Lynn Farnol, his uncredited press agent, used to say. Still, as much as I am sympathetic to the negative virtues of Runaway Bride , I wish that the very likable talents of Joan Cusack, Hector Elizondo, Rita Wilson and Paul Dooley had been more extensively and more significantly exploited. The biggest and most benign stars need more than an array of minions to win today’s brutal wars against all the mindless marauders in the movie marketplace.

Bringing the Blues to Tuva, and Vice Versa

Roko and Adrian Belic’s Genghis Blues has to be seen–and heard–to be believed. This very musical documentary takes us into unexplored regions for the eye and ear between San Francisco and the once Autonomous Republic of Tuva, now a Russian province populated partly by shepherding nomads descended from Genghis Khan.

Paul Pena, a blind blues singer and son of immigrants from Cape Verde, West Africa, lives in San Francisco where he plays a bizarre mixture of Mississippi Delta blues, Cape Verdian folk and Tuvan throat music. Tuvan throat music? Well, like I said, you have to hear it to believe it. To my own tin ear and parochial musical tastes, it sounds both nonhuman and superhuman, and is never going to disengage me from my own Jerome Kern time warp.

That is to say, I know very little about Mississippi Delta blues, and nothing about Cape Verde folk and Tuvan throat music. Documentaries can teach us a great deal, but they can also make us uncomfortable about all we don’t know,

and have no particular desire to know. Genghis Blues got under my skin, however, simply because the bewildering cacophony of unmelodious sounds inflicted upon me somehow reminded me how much pain and suffering is expressed, sublimated and overcome by the seemingly infinite variety of dirgelike anthems.

Mr. Pena’s pilgrimage to the ridiculously remote Republic of Tuva, squeezed in the heart of Asia, between Siberia and Mongolia, introduces us to a heartbreakingly friendly and smiling people who are poorer than church mice, but immensely proud of their ancient imperial heritage. They are amazed to discover that far away in the West, a blind Creole musician has listened to their music via a Moscow radio station he picked up on his shortwave, has learned their language, and has mastered one form of their truly exotic and esoteric multiply-low-octave musical bellows from the throat. He wins first prize in his category to the wild applause of his new friends and admirers. At this moment of musical and spiritual communion, one is reminded of W.H. Auden’s line: “We must love one another or die.” Then near disaster intervenes.

Mr. Pena is running out of his medication, and he can’t get a refill in Tuva. His visit has to be cut short. We learn incidentally that the life of a blind African-American Delta blues singer is no Sunday school picnic even on the comparatively hospitable streets of San Francisco, where he has been robbed in the past. This chilling splash of cold-water reality on the warmhearted ceremonial festivities has the effect of authenticating Genghis Blues as the honest record of an amazing cultural, spiritual and physical adventure.

To Be a Siamese or Not to Be?