(Editor’s Corner is where Eric talks about overlooked gems, film history, or whatever else he wants to talk about because he’s the boss and no one can stop him.)
I started covering the Sundance Film Festival for real in 2000, but the year before that I reviewed two movies on assignment for the Utah newspaper that employed me at the time. One was Hideous Kinky, featuring Kate Winslet; the other was Twin Falls Idaho, featuring no one. Any guesses which film stuck with me more?
I’ll give you a hint: It’s the one about a pair of conjoined twins in failing health who meet a hooker with a heart of gold, starring a real set of (separate) twins, Michael and Mark Polish, who also wrote it (and Michael directed). Right off the bat, the film was unique. The number of Siamese twin movies I had seen that treated the subject dramatically and with sensitivity was around zero at that point, and has barely risen since. And of all the movies ever made about conjoined twins, Twin Falls Idaho is the only one made by actual wombmates (though not conjoined; as far as I can tell, no conjoined twins have become filmmakers yet).
The Polish brothers did what all fledgling storytellers should try to do: They conceived a story that they were uniquely positioned to tell, one that was fascinatingly specific — even “exotic” — but that had themes of universal application. Very few people in the audience know what it’s like to be physically attached to another human, but anyone who has been profoundly in love can relate in a poetic way to what the weaker of the brothers, Francis (played by Michael), says literally about the other, Blake: “He is the reason my blood pumps and my heart beats.” Blake could survive if he and Francis were separated, but Francis could not — and all who have experienced the pain of an imbalanced relationship wince with recognition.
There’s poetry throughout the film, which has a dreamy, romantic tone and a musical score by Stuart Matthewman full of melancholy loveliness. One particular visual metaphor at the film’s climax gutted me 20 years ago and did so again on a recent re-watch — I had remembered that something poignant was coming but not what it was. The story is simple: Conjoined twins Francis and Blake Falls have checked into a dumpy hotel on an unnamed city’s Idaho Avenue (are you getting where the title comes from?) while trying to track down a long-lost family member. They summon an escort, Penny (Michele Hicks, giving an unfortunately not-good performance), on their birthday, and once she gets over being freaked out, she becomes their friend and helper. She’s also a potential love interest for Blake, but the brothers’ relationship is by far the more important one.
The Polishes have made about a dozen movies since 1999, none as good or as critically acclaimed as Twin Falls Idaho. Their low point was the screwball comedy Manure, which had such a disastrous premiere at Sundance 2009 that the follow-up press screening was canceled; by the time it got a cursory release, 2 1/2 years later, it was retitled The Smell of Success and the director was credited as “Larry Smith.” As with their debut, the Polishes often employ eccentric ideas — their biggest mainstream hit, The Astronaut Farmer (2007), is about Billy Bob Thornton trying to build a rocket in his barn — but they have yet to recapture the intimate and personal feel of that first one.
An interview with the Los Angeles Times on the eve of the film’s theatrical release captures the brothers’ real-life closeness, no doubt enhanced by the long hours spent pretending to be conjoined. There was no money for computer fakery, so they wore a specially designed corset that bound them, squishing their bodies together, hiding two arms (Michael’s right, Mark’s left) and a leg (Michael’s right). For all intents and purposes they were conjoined, half-helpless individually and unable to perform any task without working together. Given its themes of partnership and teamwork, I suspect the film was made better by its makers’ enhanced, forced cooperation. If the Coen brothers ever quarrel, I’m going to suggest they tie themselves together and see if that doesn’t straighten things out in a hurry.
How to watch it: Though not streaming anywhere, it is available on DVD.