In 1996, a tornado wreaked havoc on a drive-in movie theater in Niagara Falls, Canada on the same day it was supposed to screen the Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton-starring movie Twister. Over the ensuing years this story has taken on urban legend status, with each telling becoming more and more dramatic and fantastic. First the story was that a tornado destroyed a screen that was going to play Twister that evening, then it morphed into a tale about it being destroyed while playing Twister, and then it evolved into “it tore through while the titular twister in Twister was on the screen.” Who’s to know the truth? Well, as Jay Cheel’s funny, fascinating, and playfully investigative documentary “Twisted” points out … apparently many.
Through a series of recreations and interviews with “witnesses,” drive-in employees, local journalists, and psychologists, Cheel takes us back to the night of the incident, painting a vivid picture with multiple people’s memories. Being a local himself, Cheel had heard many second-hand accounts from people who claimed to have known somebody who knew something, but he never found out what exactly happened. As he uncovers the truth, we learn alongside him. We parse through the contradictory accounts and “alternative facts,” and are presented with a miniature lesson in how memories become stories and those stories shape historical facts. This issue of “truth” is a century-old one for documentaries themselves, the medium having been leveraged for propaganda since its invention. How cameras are placed, how footage is edited, and the questions asked of the subjects — all manipulate the truth in some fashion. Cheel says the value in “trying to retain some sort of ‘truth’ really depends on the project, the subject matter, and the filmmaker. The ‘truth’ in ‘Twisted’ is a moving target, so I never had any interest in getting at any sort absolute ‘truth’ beyond the fact that memory can be f—d.” That statement and the themes of “Twisted” couldn’t be more relevant to today. You have a newspaper printing unsubstantiated claims, people witnessing things that didn’t happen, and mental health professionals explaining where everything went wrong. Seems a bit suspicious, no?
As “Twisted” unfolds and new facts are brought to light, we begin to bear witness to the psychological fallacies facing humanity today. We see how a story can be more influential than facts, how — when confronted with a different storyline — some people reconsider while others double down, and that our idea of how memory works is generally ill-informed. Luckily, in this film, the only thing at stake is an urban legend and a few peoples’ egos. Cheel keeps the documentary light, fun, and purposefully unresolved, all the while poking holes in our society’s reliance on memory as fact. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” is incredibly apt for the takeaway of “Twisted,” even though this still might be fiction. ;)
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