Friday, 12 March 2010

There's No Place like Oz

The past month, I had a few dreams that have been parodies/homages of The Wizard of Oz. Naturally, I mean the movie, not the book, as the dreams tend to be Technicolor spectacles and involve me skipping down the Yellow Brick Road (since, ever since Judy Garland did so in 1939, there really has not been an alternate, acceptable method of travel along such an itinerary). Upon reflection, I realized that the best part of these dreams were that, in a way, they were just as valid as the “original.” After all, Garland’s Dorothy only dreams she goes to Oz and, upon waking up, I too can say to my friends, “I had the most wonderful dream. And you were there. And you were there,” etc. The whole idea of dreaming that one is in the dream part of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is actually quite post-modern if one thinks about it.

I then had the good fortune of seeing The Wizard of Oz again, on a big screen, at The Film Forum in New York City. I went there with my friend anticipating to marvel at the Technicolor and some of the aesthetic choices, and maybe the acting, but that would be it. I would appreciate Oz as many do: a brilliantly done fable that has withstood the tests of time. I would see the movie as a masterpiece so elegantly simple, a tale with such a universal appeal, and the quintessence of imagination on celluloid. Hell, even the furthest Roger Ebert goes with glorifying the cranial aspects of the film is to say:

``The Wizard of Oz'' has a wonderful surface of comedy and music, special effects and excitement, but we still watch it six decades later because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them. As adults, we love it because it reminds us of a journey we have taken. That is why any adult in control of a child is sooner or later going to suggest a viewing of ``The Wizard of Oz.''

Upon revisiting the film, I was shocked to discover a movie with a tremendous amount of bite. In the act of creating an Oz perhaps more archetypal than that of L. Frank Baum’s novel, it still manages to parody and question the subject material. The Wizard of Oz is simultaneously the classic Oz and the classic Oz parody.

Before I go further, let me just add a few words to those of you raising Joan Crawford eyebrows right now. By the time the movie came out, the novel was already 39 years old and widely regarded as a “classic.” Of course, “classic” delivers both reverence and a propensity to be mocked. Furthermore, the film was at one point under the direction of George Cukor and eventually delivered to Victor Fleming to create. Both of these men were not simple-minded, idealistic artists who only wished to entertain children. Fleming had quite a few pre-Code sex comedies under his belt and Cukor, after leaving both Oz and Gone with the Wind, would find himself directing the bitchy catfight known as The Women. While none of these facts automatically prove my prior paragraph, they should at least quell any knee-jerk reactions that I am simply trying to fit the square peg of post-modernism into the round hole of 1939.

Now for the film…

As I have already said, the movie already feels like a parody of The Wizard of Oz, or at least an homage. Consider any parody/homage you have seen of the film. Most of them involve taking already existing characters and placing them in roles from the classic. One example which immediately comes to mind is Futurama’s. As we watch Leela go along Martin Luther King Blvd (the renamed Yellow Brick Road) she encounters Fry as the Scarecrow, Bender as Tin Man, Dr. Zoidberg as the Cowardly Lobster, Professor Farnsworth as the Wizard, and Mom as the Wicked Witch. We would never simply say she encounters the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lobster, the Wizard, and Wicked Witch. Furthermore, all of the choices are meant to fit the characters to the pre-made roles from the work and each side (for example the Cowardly Lion and Dr. Zoidberg) has a role to play in the ultimate product on screen.

Oddly enough, we never seem to take note that the exact same concept is at play in the MGM classic film. We do not simply meet the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, The Wizard, and the Wicked Witch. Just as we think “Oh, look! It’s Fry as the Scarecrow,” we also should think “Oh look! It’s Hunk as the Scarecrow!” Both are fitting matches, as Fry is quite brainless and Hunk had earlier been talking about a head of straw. Just as Mom’s inclination to evil deeds makes her an ideal choice for Leela’s Wicked Witch of the West, so does Miss Gulch’s cruelty make her an ideal choice for Dorothy’s Wicked Witch of the West. Mom’s choice of words colors her portrayal of the Witch; Miss Gulch’s hatred of Toto makes her green-skinned counterpart threaten “I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog too!” (a line absent from the source material).

I could list the differences between the film and the novel for quite some time. But let me just sum up this argument by talking about how each of the actors uses his or her position to play to his or her own acting and comedic strengths. We are watching a classic vaudeville routine as much as we are watching a recreation of Baum’s classic.

I could argue that Dorothy’s Kansas is more akin to our own than to that of L. Frank Baum’s and that, in fact, Dorothy herself has read The Wondeful Wizard of Oz. Encountered with a similar situation and a need to sort out problems, she is taken by her mind into a world very similar to a book from her childhood. The characters of the novel are replaced with familiar faces and situations are modified to become more pertinent to her own crisis. After all, in the original work, Dorothy truly travels to Oz and we know little about Kansas beforehand. The mirroring of her Kansas life to her Oz life is a device unique to the film. Just as I have had dreams about The Wizard of Oz that have reflected my own life (and have found myself not referencing the source material in my dream), so could Garland’s Dorothy have encountered such an experience.

But I digress. The whole dream sequence (i.e. the meat of the film) is conscious of its own theatricality. Every character is an actor playing a role. The movie rubs its Technicolor in the viewers face more than almost any other film had or ever will. But with this self-awareness also comes a self-awareness of the sinister nature of a children’s story, particularly the very one on which it is imbuing cinematic immortality.

This film is not a faithful recreation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s tale. Everything has an edge, a bite, and wink and a nudge to the audience. The whole celebration is Munchkinland is, indeed, quite manic, gaudy, and indicative of an acid trip. Most parodies will include some jab at Munchkinland. But look at Dorothy’s face during the event: she knows she is not in Kansas anymore and the film knows we are not in Kansas anymore. The entire transition to Oz must be anything but gradual. From sepia to Technicolor, from a world where the most action comes from falling into a pit with some pigs (twister excepted, as it is the doorway between Kansas and Oz) into a frantic celebration of nonsense and high-pitched singing. Whereas Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and earlier children’s movies seem comfortable in their spectacle, The Wizard of Oz both excels in such category and is at odds with its own nature.

Furthermore, there is Glinda. Most people seem willing to write Glinda off as an empty-headed character of insipid pink goodness. But actually, Glinda is quite sinister. Parodies have noted the danger she placed Dorothy in by not telling her how to get home immediately (again, a difference between Baum’s novel and the film, as there are two different good witches and Dorothy only meets Glinda at the end). Yet her dark nature only begins here. Watch again the first encounter between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West. Glinda pushes Dorothy towards the billow of smoke before pulling her away to “protect” her. Furthermore, throughout the whole exchange, she taunts the Wicked Witch of the West and practically paints a target on Dorothy. Even putting the ruby slippers on Dorothy by magic is a machination of the film. In this “parody” of Oz, the good witch is just as foul-minded and sadistic as the wicked one. At least the Wicked Witch is courteous enough to be ugly and to grimace.

I could again rattle off examples, such as the effeminate, queer natures of the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion or the changed nature of the Wizard’s gifts. All I will say about the latter subject is that whereas the novel emphasizes the fulfillment of the characters and how they had those traits all along, the movie appears more skeptical. After all, the Scarecrow doesn’t even give a correct mathematical equation. Instead, the focus on that scene is the movie seems to be the deception and ineptness of the Wizard and gullibility of the others. Their gifts are as much of a placebo to keep them happy as a kid’s movie is a placebo to make children feel at ease with a world on the brink of war (or a dream to make Dorothy believe there is no place like home).

And that sentence does bring us to the end. The end may be the most unsettling part of the film. Yes, there is no place like home, but there’s also no place like Alcatraz. We are ferried away from a tear-jerking scene where Dorothy says goodbye to the first characters we have seen display true affection and respect to her to the boring, sepia world of Kansas, full of claustrophobic shots and people who do not believe a single word coming out of Dorothy’s mouth. Is Dorothy’s final mantra the truth or merely a way to delude herself into happiness, even though she just abandoned her friends and the beautiful Technicolor world of Oz where she was a hero?

In short, the entire movie seems critical of its own story and characters. It tinges “good” characters with hints of sadism, heroic ones with behavior not fitting their genders, and joyous celebrations with bouts of insanity. The very tale is a dark retelling of Oz despite being the iconic telling of the story. And, all the way, it manages also to doubt its own reality. The very novel is framed as a dream, not a reality, a world of fake sets and actors in make-up. Yet, would that make Kansas the reality? Are we comfortable allowing a world without color and with character actors on the loose in the vague pretense of being farm hands to be reality? I am not sure. After all, this reality is far less present than the dream and in the end, both are figments of the imagination.

I suppose reasons like this are what grad school is for. I have only scratched the surface of the Oz question, one that most movie critics seem terrified of even acknowledging. Which I guess I leave as my final question: why has no one written about this…or if they have, why has it not broken into the world of common critical knowledge? Are we so desirous of always having one piece of innocent childhood to return to that we will, if necessary, turn something that was never all that innocent into it? In the end, I guess we are like Dorothy: ready to ignore the reality of our situation and, no matter the circumstance, click our heels together and mutter “there’s no place like home.” We do not care what “home” is, as long as it’s “home.”

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