Lynch/Oz: a rich mix of video essays on an American master and his possible primal influence

This compilation of six video essays – directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, and variously narrated by the likes of John Waters, David Lowery and Amy Nicholson – examine the links between a Victor Fleming classic and the dark, disturbing Americana of David Lynch.

13 October 2022

By Ben Walters

Lynch/Oz (2022)
Sight and Sound

Alexandre O. Philippe has previously directed essayistic documentaries about Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Alien (1979). He turns now to two cinematic subjects that aren’t particularly associated with the horror genre but are both distinctly and distinctively nightmarish: Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the works of David Lynch. In Lynch/Oz, Philippe coordinates six video essays, narrated by critics and filmmakers, attempting to unpack the links between Victor Fleming’s seminal musical fantasy odyssey and Lynch’s “populist surrealist” works, which include Blue Velvet (1986), the ‘Twin Peaks’ cycle (1990-2017) and Lost Highway (1997). Touching on resonances and motifs both broad (heroes’ journeys, parallel worlds, uncanny opulence) and specific (curtains, lingering cross-fades, boldly coloured make-up), it makes for a potent dialectical brew, even if some elements land more convincingly than others.

The format brings to mind the online video essay mode of film criticism, where chatty engagement, critical insight, poetic expression and personal memoir are literally or associatively illustrated with shrewdly selected clips and images. There are nods here not only to the key texts but to proposed analogues to The Wizard of Oz as various as Gone with the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Back to the Future (1985); The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) is referenced twice. On the Lynch side, there’s a pervasive inference around the presumably seismic impression made by childhood TV viewings of Fleming’s film, positioning young David as a kind of Dorothy, nudged from Midwestern childhood down the yellow brick road of artistic expression.

Each section offers its own take, in complementary, sometimes overlapping ways. Critic Amy Nicholson is alive to the ways wind figures in the works in question, relating the narrative uses of meteorology to more expressionistic atmospheric intentions. The tornado-battered context of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, she suggests, frames it as a psychosomatic fugue of the kind Lynch often portrays, a form of personal psychological rupture that opens the door to a more cosmic understanding that “nothing is exactly what it is”. Meanwhile, Rodney Ascher – whose 2012 documentary Room 237, about the semiotics of The Shining (1980), is a key recent cinematic essay film – zeroes in on the potent strains of archetypal Americana connecting Oz and Lynch.

The section by John Waters is great fun. Baby-boomers of the same age, Waters and Lynch both grew up with Oz on TV and came up as filmmakers on the midnight movie circuit – there’s an adorable archive photo of them looking young together against a kitsch fast-food backdrop. Both filmmakers’ sensibilities are shaped by deeply ambivalent attachments to 1950s American culture and the understanding – informed, Waters suggests, by Margaret Hamilton’s wicked witch – that villainy is charismatic and heroism a matter of perspective.

Ambivalence is central to Karyn Kusama’s contribution, which focuses on the slipperiness and multiplicity of both personal identity and structures of reality, as expressed in Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Kusama highlights in this context the lip-synch motif running through Lynch’s work, provocatively suggesting it might have been inspired by an intuition he had when watching Dorothy launch into ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ that here was an instance of a performer miming to a pre-recorded track – which, of course, it was.

This opens up consideration of how understandings of the real-life conditions of the production of The Wizard of Oz and the life of Judy Garland might inflect darkly the meanings available from a feature that superficially presents as a candy-coloured children’s adventure. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead bring the real Judy to the fore, noting the peculiar frequency of the name (along with ‘Garland’ and ‘Dorothy’) in Lynch’s screenplays. They also unpack the explicit references to Oz running through Wild at Heart (1990).

Finally, David Lowery ponders the discontentment at entering adulthood implicit in Dorothy’s journey and some of Lynch’s work – the idea that this transition simultaneously implies leaving the home forever and realising it can never truly be left behind – and the related notion that filmmakers tend to remake a beloved source text over and over again.

It’s a rich mix even if there are overlaps in these arguments, and more than one struggles to fix specifically to Fleming’s film ideas that really refer to the broad and ancient schema of the hero’s journey. An observation from Lynch himself is the most telling. The Wizard of Oz, he says, has “caused people to dream now for decades” – in ways both deeply heartening and utterly terrifying. Lynchian indeed.

► Lynch/Oz was part of the Documentary Competition at the 2022 London Film Festival; it screened on 7 and 8 October.

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama