In 1896, audiences watched a mysterious screen showing a train quickly approaching a station. This experience exposed a brand new technology. Unaware of the consequences or implications of this technology, the audience ducked, expecting the train to crash through the screen and physically harm their bodies—or so goes the myth of the Lumiére brothers first screening of their film The Arrival of A Train (1896). While the validity of this myth has been argued, its essence remains essential to discussing film: film actively affects culture. In the more recent 1990s, the work of Dutch filmmaker Jan De Bont visually emphasized the effects of movies on culture in an updated fashion
Three films in particular, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and Speed 2 (1997), employ active imagery to signify the literal encroachment of movies on the lives of the audience. In Speed, De Bont even allows the audience to participate within the experience of the titillating conclusion of the Lumiére brothers’ film, the film’s climax featuring a subway car bursting through a wooden facade onto a Los Angeles street. De Bont forces a focus on the implementation of movies as metaphor for movies, otherwise known as meta-filmmaking, in this 1990s action film film trilogy.
The title sequences of these films give the first hint that passive imagery does not interest De Bont. The opening credits of Speed move down an elevator shaft that would become the setting of the first action set-piece. As each name and title are presented, they are wiped from the screen by incoming metal beams. The title Twister and the production company logos that precede it are ripped from the screen in the same way fences and barns are subsequently disposed of in the movie. In Speed 2 the title glides across blur waves. It interacts with and introduces the image of the water and then transitions into the familiar pavement of the first film as it opens with a high-speed motorcycle chase. These opening titles suggest De Bont’s attention to image. He must actively direct these titles to interact with the image in a way that serves the story. This preemptively asserts that no image in the movie can exist merely voyeuristically, and which the characters later reflect. No character watches the events of their story occur unaffected.
The casting in Speed also reflects a naive realism most likely felt by De Bont. The cast is diverse—mostly due to the city bus setting—in a way that is still seldom seen in Hollywood movies. In an interview with the American Cinematographer Society Podcast, De Bont discusses his intent when working as the cinematographer on Die Hard (1988). He and director John McTiernan set out to make an action film that did not adhere to the action movie formula. As cinematographer, he allowed his style and camera motivations to originate organically within each scene. The characterization of the Nakotomi Tower in Die Hard underlines what would come to define his career in the 1990s: the metaphorization of objects.
De Bont gives as much screen time in Speed to the exterior of the speeding bus as to the characters and heroes inside of the bus. While Annie (Sandra Bullock) technically directs the bus with the help of Jack (Keanu Reeves), their goal is to keep moving quickly. Imagine instead as De Bont directs the film, his hyper awareness of audience perception leads him to direct the movie as fast-paced as possible. The danger of dropping the film’s pace below fifty miles-per-hour could lead to the ultimate explosion: losing the attention of the audience. To avoid this, De Bont does not allow a breath during Speed. Like the motion of the bus, the action is constant and unrelenting.
Similarly, in Twister the many tornadoes further signify blockbuster films. They act as a welcome disruption on the group of storm chasers the movie follows (King). Surely, they are destructive, but the sadistic, adrenaline-junkie side to each main character forces them to pursue these tornadoes ceaselessly. Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) puts her body on the line on multiple occasions to better understand the nature of the spectacle before her. Much like the process of filmmaking, the crew wants to understand the inner-workings of the natural disasters and therefore tap into why they are successful. This film should be viewed as De Bont’s attempt to debunk the successful blockbuster and gain a deeper understanding of their success. Like the characters, he wants to thrust his own scientific machine into the suck-zone of the storm—which according to Dusty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is the area where the storm begins to lift objects off the ground and into itself—to knowledgeably theorize the nature of blockbuster films.
The weakest use of object as metaphor comes in Speed 2 where De Bont attempts to transfer the metaphoric value and intensity of the bus from the first film to a massive cruise liner. Geoff King’s argument that spectacle and narrative naturally coexist falls under scrutiny in the case of Speed 2. This film does not fit as well into the brand established by De Bont until the end of the movie where he once again indulges his need for destruction and Hollywood reflexivity. After the cruise liner barely scrapes past an oil tanker, the crew realizes the ship is now approaching a small but populated harbor town. With no time to spare, they brace for impact and attempt to find the least destructive course to safety. The cruise liner demolishes sailboats and motorboats with remarkably little bloodshed—another staple of De Bont’s work— and begins to rip through a dock in front of homes. De Bont’s ship slowly creeps through the city, tearing down houses, and destroying everything in its path. His most significant critique of media’s effect on culture arrives as the ship comes to a full stop just as it starts to tip over the steeple of a church. The physical assertion of the ship, analogously the film as a whole, into this quaint scene brings to mind two ideas: First, regardless of residents’ readiness, the millennium is quickly and destructively approaching (Natoli). Secondly, film asserts itself into and shapes culture despite the willingness of the affected.
The meta-filmmaking nature of Speed 2 is heavily evident in both Speed and Twister as well. As discussed in the opening of this paper, the climax of Speed rewrites history as it allows the Lumiére brothers’ train to finally bust through the screen. Richard Dyer invokes the Lumiére brothers in another sense in that De Bont has taken their method of filming motion to the extreme and allowed it to encapsulate an entire feature film. In Twister the most obvious revision comes when the crew spends the night at a motel situated next to a drive-in theater. As Bill (Bill Paxton) and Jo discuss their plan to chase tornadoes moving forward, onscreen, a crazy Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) raises an axe and begins chopping through a hotel door in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Just as he raises the axe, a tornado comes over the horizon and rips the screen away. There is a brief moment where images from Kubrick’s film are projected onto the front of the twister. In this instance, the supposed blockbuster defames a classic film and suggests that it can only be projected in the shadow of the newer, glossier films. Perhaps the cruel side of De Bont chose this particular scene from The Shining and opted to cut before the audience could hear the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” line. Knowing when to cut and how to indulge the audience is another one of De Bont’s talents.
All three of these films have sequences in which De Bont titillates the audience with the promise of something horrendous without delivery (Dyer). His knowledge of audience expectations informs his decisions. The concept of predicting reactions and choosing whether or not to indulge the audience is meta in nature in that it exists only when people view the film. The director’s most indulgent moment comes in Speed as the bus barrels down a busy city street and the film cuts away to show a woman with a stroller about to cross the street. The most minimal knowledge of cross-cutting informs audience members that the juxtaposition of these images leads to the likely collision of the bus and stroller. De Bont does not shy away. The bus slams into the stroller at fifty miles an hour and sends it flying into the air just as dozens of cans are ejected from the seat of the stroller. De Bont has no intention of showing something so horrific as a baby being destroyed by the bus; he only wants the audience to think they are about to see something that visually horrifying.
De Bont and his crew carried a level of extra-textual awareness to every frame of Twister, as so much of the film had to be created in post production. As opposed to recent blockbusters, Twister was shot largely on location which meant shooting quickly when the lighting and weather was advantageous. Apart from the practicality of the shoot, the cinematographer Jack Green notes the difficulty of allowing room in every shot for CGI post-production (Wiener). The scene-stealers in this film—despite Paxton’s interestingly baroque performance—are always the tornadoes which were created entirely in post production. Thinking so much about post-production while simultaneously creating an authentic space within the frame highlights the awareness De Bont takes into account with his projects. He understands how to achieve the necessary spectacle but insists on emotionally grounding it in a way seldom seen in action film. Referential awareness is also a key component in Twister. Aside from The Shining screening and directly quoting Star Wars (1976)—“It’s not a moon, it’s a space station”—Bill’s messianic invention designed to deconstruct tornadoes is named Dorothy. Using the name of the character from The Wizard of Oz (1939) not only reflects on more than 70 years of film but also reminds the audience of just how long tornadoes have terrorized Midwestern U.S. culture. De Bont himself says, “[Tornadoes] are also incredible to look at, beautiful and devastating at the same time—like in The Wizard of Oz. When you look at that tornado, you get mesmerized by it. When I first saw it, I thought it was real,” (Wiener). This sense of hyperbolic fiction delivering reality to viewers is the essence of De Bont’s work in the 1990s.
Censorship is another core component of film scrutinized in De Bont’s films. The example of the cruise liner in Speed 2 plowing through the town up to the point of the steeple serves as a prime example. His assertion that films shape culture and perhaps even broad, cultural morality halts as the ship does when it pushes the boundary of religion without toppling it. One of the most lighthearted moments of Speed comes as a reflection on censorship, as well. As Jack climbs under the bus, he hands his phone to a tourist (Alan Ruck) whom he instructs to relay whatever he says to his partner on the other end of the call. When he notices the sheer amount of C4 under the bus, Jack exclaims, “Fuck me!” but the tourist takes a moment and pseudo-calmly relays, “Oh darn!” This exchange differentiates the Los Angeles resident from the tourist, signifying that the presence of Hollywood has shaped morality and sensitivity differently in this area.
Lastly, De Bont critiques his own films alongside other mainstream Hollywood productions in his depiction of voyeurism and technology. Technology often separates his antagonists from reality. The cruel villain in Speed, Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), views his handiwork through many screens. He rarely puts himself in physical danger except for when he is desperate. In Speed 2, John Geiger (Willem Dafoe) has spent his life working through computer screens, and his cruelty is literally created from a disease contracted while working on computers. The most troubling depiction of technology is in Twister, where the antagonist is the not-so-harmful, corporate sell-out Jonas Miller (Cary Elwes). His depiction troubles me in that it could be De Bont’s most self-reflexive. While not exactly a sell-out, De Bont embraces technology in his filmmaking that his protagonists in Twister might not appreciate. Watching the CGI sequences in Twister believably could provoke Bill to emphatically proclaim, “He’s in it for the money, not the science. He’s got a lot of high-tech gadgets, but he doesn’t have the instincts,” just as he says regarding Jonas. This line also fits into my reading of the tornadoes as other mainstream blockbusters, but is is hard to not think about De Bont critiquing himself in this moment.
“Why is this all happening?” asks Annie with half of a smile on her face. She has had a hell of a day. She has driven a bus rigged to explode, thought she killed a baby, and felt the guilt of seeing her friends harmed, but she smiles because she has somehow uncovered parts of herself. Annie delights in the spectacle because she has no other choice, and this is the essence of De Bont’s work.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox
- Dyer, Richard. “Action!” Action/Spectacle Cinema. British Film Institute, 2000, pp. 17-21.
- King, Geoff. “Spectacular Narratives: Twister, Independence Day, and Frontier Mythology in
Contemporary Hollywood.” The Journal of American Culture. March 1999, pp. 1-16.
- Natoli, Joseph. Speeding To The Millennium. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1998, pp. 11-16.
- Stasukevich, Iain. “Episode 70- Die Hard (Interview with Jan De Bont).” Audio blog post. American Cinematographers Podcast. The American Society of Cinematographers. Web. November 28, 2016.
- Wiener, David. “Chasing the Wind: Director Jan de Bont, ASC and cinematographer Jack Green, ASC track malevolent forces of nature in Twister.” American Cinematographer, May 1996, pp. 36-44.