The yellowy-gray clouds are ominous, but the weather is still trying to make up its mind. The winds are warm, gusty. A little girl, Violet, hauls a vacuum cleaner across the lawn toward the swimming pool. On a small knoll behind her stands an all-American mansion, part Mount Vernon, part suburban split-level. It looks both cheesy and expensive.
The big white house is the centerpiece of the tacky Kansas estate of a self-made millionaire named Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton), whose money comes from miniature golf and from soda pop that is colored an especially ghastly shade of green. The house and everything in it appear to have been purchased in a single afternoon at a second-rank department store.
At the beginning of Michael Almereyda's spaced-out comedy, ''Twister,'' Cleveland is thinking of investing in miniature cows - ''half the size, twice the milk.'' The only disadvantage is that they tend to get lost in the weeds and become the prey of turkeys and cats.
With a certain amount of good will and no great ability, Cleveland presides over a household that includes his daughter, Maureen (Violet's unwed mother), who drinks too much and describes herself as a 24-year-old failure; his androgynous son, Howdy, who favors black leather pants that look good with his guitar, and Chris, Violet's father, who has returned from Canada to save Maureen and Violet from what he calls ''this loony bin.''
At the moment, Maureen wants nothing to do with Chris. Howdy is courting Stephanie, a pretty, dim young woman who doesn't much like Howdy, and Cleveland is about to marry Miss Virginia, a local television celebrity. Miss Virginia is the emcee of ''Wonderbox,'' a Sunday-morning children's show in which, dressed up like Judy Garland in ''The Wizard of Oz,'' she teaches children about weather, animals and God.
''Twister,'' adapted by Mr. Almereyda from Mary Robison's novel ''Oh!,'' opens today at Anthology Film Archives, which is somewhat off the beaten track on the Lower East Side. The trip, however, is well worth the effort for anyone whose sensibilities have been worn numb by the idiocies of most conventional films.
''Twister'' looks conventional, but nothing works in the ordinary way. It plays less like a movie than like a novel that one reads at one's own speed. The movie is full of pauses, digressions and blind alleys. Sometimes it seems to stop completely.
Like the often tiresome Howdy (played by the often tiresome Crispin Glover), it also seems both aggressive and shy, especially in the way it forces the audience to accept its curious, uninflected narrative. No one event is really any more important than another.
The real subject of the film is the lazy end of American civilization. No apocalypses. No bangs. Not even any whimpers. Everything just sort of grinds down into uneasy, well-upholstered boredom haunted by guilt. Cleveland and his kids have a lot of money and not the foggiest notion how to spend it to have a little fun. They are as without purpose as tadpoles.
There's not much in the way of a story except the title phenomenon, the tornado that isn't even seen on screen.
''Twister'' is composed entirely of random vignettes in which Cleveland, Miss Virginia, Maureen, Howdy, Chris and the rest float around, trying to make contact with one another and failing.
At one point Maureen and Howdy decide they must find their long-lost mother in order to forgive her for abandoning them. Their clue to her whereabouts is a picture of a woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Amelia Earhart and, indeed, is Amelia Earhart, though they don't know it.
After the storm, Miss Virginia gets everyone to play a game. What would each person do if God told him that he had one hour to live? Howdy would write a song. Stephanie says that she would see a doctor.- This is before she has been fired from her job at the high school for damaging some ''major shrubs.''
The jokes are small but invitingly odd, the ending happy and thoroughly bleak. Suzy Amis and Dylan McDermott are very attractive as Violet's inarticulate, occasionally loving parents. Mr. Stanton, like the character he plays, remains a little detached. He watches his messed-up children as if he still loved them but had long since given up trying to understand them.
Tim Robbins and William Burroughs appear in cameo roles, though it is Lois Chiles who makes the film's funniest, most vivid impression in a role that could have been inspired by the public personality of Anita Bryant.
''Twister'' is not an easy film to categorize, which is its charm and the reason it has not received a conventional commercial release. It's one of those entertaining what's-its that are most vulnerable at a time when every movie that isn't a smash hit is automatically regarded as an instant flop.
Long live the mysterious in-between.