Tropical Twister: Holy Tornado!

Less than an hour after I clicked on the “publish” button to post my blog entry about witnessing hail in Hawaii for the first time,  a twister — yes, an actual tornado — tore threw nearby Lanikai and parts of Kailua that are about three miles from our house. There was major damage to a few homes, but no one was physically injured from what I’ve heard.

In the past few years, there have been water spouts sighted over the ocean waters around the islands. Once in a great while, someone will photograph or record a dust devil on video — basically, a mini-twister that doesn’t last very long. However, I didn’t even think you’d call a tornado a “tornado” if one ever touched down in Hawaii since it seemed like there should be a special meteorological term for such an event. For instance, hurricanes in Asia are typhoons, and tidal waves are tsunamis. “Twister” is what you would call a tornado in Kansas. But Hawaii?

The closing sentence in my prior post noted my feelings of fear and wonder. Little did I think those could have been my last words had that tornado deviated slightly or was more powerful than it was. We were lucky. It makes you philosophical for a moment, pondering the big questions of existence and fate. Then you think about calling your insurance agent to find out if Acts of God or things like tornadoes are covered by your current homeowner’s policy.

As a writer, it made me ponder other mysteries, such as who are all these new visitors to my Squashed Gecko blog that were Googling “hail in Hawaii” — and what were they looking for? Reports of destruction or articles on climate change, or perhaps whether it is another sign of the apocalypse? I don’t know. However, it did bump up my daily view counts, so I figured a follow up on the tornado was in order.

Ostensibly though, this is supposed to be a blog about screenwriting and sometimes recovery-related thoughts (if you are curious as to why, there is an “About” button you can click on). Even if you are not a writer, and have no interest in movies or TV because you think all modern culture sucks, well, you are still welcome to visit. I digress, which is my M.O. as a writer.

When I sat down to dash off this post, there were two movies that came to mind. Obviously, “Wizard of Oz.” If I had to pick a personal favorite film, that would be it. I could go on and on about why it captured my imagination — and heart — as a child, and continues to entertain me on so many levels decades later. But let me focus on just one aspect that ties into screenwriting…

The opening. Anyone who has studied the Hero’s Journey stages by Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler will instantly recognize the classic set-up of the “ordinary” world, which is a mundane farm filmed in black and white. The movie takes its time in introducing the characters and themes that will be flipped when the twister transports Dorothy (and Toto too!) to the Special World, which magically transforms into Technicolor. To this day, when she opens the door to Oz, I get chicken skin. Yet it’s a few minutes before her journey really gets going. There’s no rush. Nothing feels forced or unnatural.

Which brings me to the second movie, “Cowboys and Aliens.” With a high concept title like that, you’d expect something fun, different and exciting. The movie is none of that, and worse, it’s boring. And yet, the A-list writers and producers clearly understand classic Hero’s Journey structure. They (there’s a bunch of cooks in this script kitchen) take their time in introducing the characters and dosing out back story via brief flashbacks and exposition to tell the audience stuff the Hero doesn’t know or can’t remember. On the page, the opening hook of a cowboy with a mysterious device strapped around his wrist and no recall of how he wound up in the middle of a desert, should work.

But it doesn’t, and I think I know why. There’s actually no mystery. We know it’s an alien device and he was abducted by aliens. It’s there in the title! That’s the main problem with high concept. It doesn’t necessarily fit the Hero’s Journey model as far as emotional involvement, because in this day and age, producers and audiences want to jump ahead without building up the ordinary world in any meaningful way. Hence, the flashback/non-linear structure that has become a cliche in TV and films (thanks, Quentin for ruining many perfectly fine linear stories, all because of “Pulp Fiction”).  Every time I see an opening that starts at what should be the climax, I think uh-oh, here comes the belated subtitle: “Three days earlier” or “One hour earlier,” whatever. To me, that’s a cheat. It says the writer/producer didn’t have much faith in their ordinary world set-up and were worried they’d lose the viewer with a conventional opening scene.

Now imagine if you took the opening of Oz and after Dorothy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”… then what appears on the horizon –instead of a twister, it’s a freaking UFO! Suddenly she and the farm hands are battling aliens that abduct her precious Toto! Well, okay, maybe that’s a little too far over the rainbow. Someone is probably already working on a mash-up of “Dorothy Versus Vampires and Zombies.”

At least that sounds like it could be fun. But “Cowboys and Aliens” confuses the ordinary world with being a dull, dour place where cliches like the Mysterious Silent Stranger rides into town to save the day.

Anyhow, the sun is shining again in Hawaii, and I’m happy to be back in my ordinary world where rainbows are part of everyday life. Which can only mean an alien invasion is probably on the way, or maybe they were the secret cause of the tornado and hail storms.

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