From The Wiz to Wicked, from Toto to “friends of Dorothy,” arguably no American movie has influenced popular consciousness more than Victor Fleming’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. And yet its lingering thematic and visual presence in David Lynch’s filmography might come, to some, as a surprise. After all, most of us first watch The Wizard of Oz as children; Lynch’s fare often veers so dark that full-grown adults need a visual and conceptual palate-cleanser before heading to bed. For these reasons, Alexandre O. Philippe’s Lynch/Oz would seem a must-see for fans of the yellow brick road or the Great Northern Hotel of Twin Peaks. If only.

What could have been a riveting exploration of how one of the weirdest American movie classics shaped one of our weirdest contemporary auteurs is, instead, a series of desultory video essays narrated by critics and directors who, on occasion, seem to know little about film or film history. Somehow nearly every canonical film is “like” The Wizard of Oz — from The Miracle Worker to The Big Lebowski. The film’s late-Depression context and queer appeal are almost entirely passed over as speakers rhapsodize about what are incredibly common narrative themes and plot points across not just cinema, but both Western and Eastern storytelling: a physical journey bringing about an epiphany, a portal into a new and foreign world, asymmetries of power, and so on. 

Much of what is thematically traced to The Wizard of Oz also applies to the books that preceded it: Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel upon which it was based, Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — not to mention older texts like Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey or the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. Lynch/Oz demonstrates how all great filmmakers build on the work of great filmmakers before them — from Antonioni to Arthur Penn to George Lucas. “Is that an Oz narrative?” asks director Rodney Ascher, commenting on Luke Skywalker traveling to the Death Star to join the Rebellion. “Is everything?”

Still from Lynch/Oz

But if “everything” is an Oz narrative, then why focus on David Lynch? Lynch/Oz is most compelling when the screen splits to compare striking visual parallels between the fantasy musical and Lynch moments: the wicked witch who suddenly appears in Wild at Heart (1990), Naomi Watts’s Dorothy-like awe as she arrives in Hollywood in Mulholland Drive (2002), the preponderance of ruby red shoes donned by Lynch’s female characters. Filmmakers John Waters and Karyn Kusama offer the only redeeming commentary, with distinct, evidence-backed claims specific to The Wizard of Oz and how it influenced Lynch and other directors.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz,” Lynch has said of the film — and from the excerpts of his work in this doc, it’s not hard to believe that. But by comparing this cinematic touchstone to so many movies, of so many styles, several having nothing to do with Lynch (Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America?), Philippe dilutes the thesis of the film. For those with only a stumbling grasp of film history or storytelling staples, Lynch/Oz may prove insightful (“look, all these movies contain similar conflicts or plot points!”), but for those who desire a deeper understanding of either The Wizard of Oz or Lynch’s singular oeuvre, this doc will disappoint.

Lynch/Oz is currently in theaters.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....

One reply on “If Only Lynch/Oz Had More of a Brain”

  1. If indeed Lynch thinks about Oz everyday, then that’s a solid premise for a documentary or an essay. The next question is how to go about explicating that theme. Direct influences only? And how might those be evidenced, especially in work as complex as Lynch’s. Shall indirect influences be considered? What about wide cultural influences that are somehow “in the air” we all breathe? Perhaps the documentary swings too widely for the reviewer’s sensibilities, but she might well acknowledge the sound foundation on which it is based and thank the makers for at least having given it the old undergraduate effort. Is it not better to have filmed and missed the point than never to have filmed at all? The documentary broaches an idea worth further exploration, if not by any means providing the last word on Lynch. It’s worth considering that the great and wonderful Oz may be just that for countless filmmakers in many perplexing ways and indecipherable guises: Great and wonderful.

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