It would be disingenuous to call Mark and Michael Polish a novelty act. Yet the handsome and soft-spoken 27-year-old identical twins are quick to admit that there is a certain sideshow appeal both to their own unusual biological circumstances and to those embodied in the conjoined protagonists of their debut feature, Twin Falls Idaho. "We thought it was just us," explains Michael from behind a half-eaten omelet at the Taaxi Restaurant. "Then we go on this press tour and find out that people are more fascinated by them than we are. Like in Seattle, this guy had books and books about them. It seems to be a kind of common obsession."
And indeed, given the rarity and rather exotic appearance of conjoined twins, a bit of obsessive curiosity is to be expected. Although science has yet to offer a cogent explanation for the phenomenon, the accepted wisdom is that sometime after the sperm has finished its business and the newly fertilized egg has split into two identical globs of life, in approximately one out of every 70,000 cases, the globs do not manage to separate cleanly. In most cases, the resultant fetuses are born dead; when they survive, though, the twins are often connected by a thick band of flesh stretching between the thigh and abdomen or the rear of the cranium. History's most celebrated conjoined siblings and the pair that inspired the term Siamese twins were a 19th-century duo named Chang and Eng Bunker, who made their fortune in the Barnum & Bailey Circus before settling down as farmers, taking respective wives, siring 22 children between them, and dying within hours of one another at the ripe age of 63.
As grade school children in Northern California, Mark and Michael Polish were entranced by a grainy photograph of the Bunker twins in The Guinness Book of World Records. "It was the way they were standing," recalls Mark. "They were so stoic. Just from that image, we knew there was an intriguing story in that kind of life."
It was more than the novelty of the image, however, that fueled the imaginations of the young Polish brothers and ultimately inspired Twin Falls. As twins themselves, Mark and Michael were keenly aware that the difference between medical miracle and tragedy is often nothing more than a twist of fate--or, in this case, of the double helix. Appropriately, then, the conjoined pair that the brothers play in Twin Falls are less a medical curiosity than a particularly poignant embodiment of codependence. "We thought of doing a biography of the Bunkers at one point," explains Michael, "but we're not Siamese. We thought it would be better to tackle the way we feel about each other, our sibling rivalry and companionship. It would be more truthful to us."
A joint project in every sense of the word (Michael directed, and both brothers star and share writing credits), Twin Falls drifts rather gently into the world of Francis Falls (played by Michael) and his better half, Blake (played by Mark), who have taken up occupancy in a seedy hotel in an unspecified American city. When they order a hooker (played by Uma Thurmanesque beauty Michele Hicks), the brothers begin a ménage à trois of the most unusual sort.
As the Polish brothers soon discovered, financiers were less interested in an earnest film about brotherly love than in a potential freak show. Michael winces slightly as he recalls one studio exec who suggested a comedy about conjoined twins getting "the ultimate divorce" (said exec makes an unflattering appearance in Twin Falls in the person of a cravenly voyeuristic talent agent). So, with little experience--Mark had some training as an actor, and the pair had made an indie short titled "Bajo del Perro"--and less money, the Polish boys set out on their own.
Although a synopsis of Twin Falls and its title invariably conjure the hyperrealistic perversity of David Lynch, such comparisons are for the most part unwarranted. Shooting on a shoestring budget of $500,000, Michael decided to eschew costly effects (barring one painfully exposing shot in which the Falls brothers are examined by a doctor) in favor of subtler atmospheric touches. "I was really fighting with the stereotype of independent film," he explains. "I was trying to fight that white, talky feel, like, 'I have something to say.' I really wanted to base the film on visual motifs and just put it in front of the camera and keep it in a state of art as opposed to a state of just, you know, talking."
"We wanted to keep the person who was watching from grabbing onto it," chimes Mark (the brothers have a lingering childhood habit of finishing each other's sentences). "We wanted you to free fall into this environment and just be totally detached from your normal self."
If the film's dreamy visual style and relaxed pacing lend it a fairy-tale gentility, it is the Polish brothers themselves who prove the main attraction. Strapped into a corset and wrapped in a triple-breasted suit, they deliver a remarkably credible performance as the conjoined Falls twins--so much so, in fact, that reporters and publicists are usually surprised (and disappointed) to discover that they are not actually attached at the hip. "Now that we're doing this press tour, everybody sees us," explains Michael with a wry grin. "You get a crowd who comes to see the real thing, and if you have two separate guys, they think it's kind of lame."
Twin Falls Idaho starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
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