Alexandre O. Philippe has steadily become one of the most devoted contemporary chroniclers of silver screen dreamworlds. The roots of the filmmaker’s movie obsessions can be found in The People vs. George Lucas and Doc of the Dead, but the major turning point was 78/52, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — and especially the mythology, allure and impact surrounding the shower scene — received an illuminating and entertaining reading that blended internet-era geekery/fandom with university-level film studies. Since then, Philippe has continued to develop a confident storytelling voice somewhere between the accessibility of Laurent Bouzereau and Jamie Benning and the erudition of Mark Rappaport and Thom Andersen.
Lynch/Oz, which premiered this week at Tribeca, contemplates the intersection of The Wizard of Oz and the filmography of David Lynch. Longtime fans of the American director will need no convincing to seek out this latest look at their idol, but cinephiles of all stripes will discover that Philippe is not shy about going big. In other words, come for Lynch and stay for the feverish celluloid love lessons that reach far beyond DKL’s oeuvre. Lynch/Oz weaves together dozens of movies in an intertextual kaleidoscope. From Star Wars, It’s a Wonderful Life and Gone with the Wind to The Brain From Planet Arous, I Wake Up Screaming and Under the Rainbow, Philippe can stitch like Arachne.
The director divides Lynch/Oz into six chapters, each tagged with an enticing one-word title (“Wind,” “Membranes,” “Kindred,” “Multitudes,” “Judy” and “Dig”) and hosted by an offscreen admirer of Lynch. Veteran film critic Amy Nicholson sets the stage with observations on the meaning and mystery of the breezes and gales that can blow audiences from the known and familiar to the dark and dangerous. Nicholson says, “I think if there is a driving question, or driving goal that really connects David Lynch in all of his films, it is that nothing should be taken for granted and that nothing is exactly what it is.” She initializes her argument by pointing out that the sound of wind that opens The Wizard of Oz is made by human voices. It works.
Speculative documentarian Rodney Ascher begins his section with some thoughts on Back to the Future, which Philippe split-screens with rhyming shots from The Wizard of Oz. The director uses this technique to great effect throughout the entirety of Lynch/Oz, suggesting that the 1939 text, via the repetition of repertory theatrical bookings and annual television screenings, enjoys a monumental influence that goes far beyond the homages and references in Lynch. Philippe’s own maximalism aligns perfectly with Ascher’s note that “The idea of going on a great journey, extending yourself beyond your comfort level — it’s a story that’s what? Three-quarters of American movies?”
Ascher declares that The Miracle Worker feels like “an early, lost David Lynch film.” The similarities between the dinner scene in Arthur Penn’s 1962 movie and Henry’s visit to Mary X’s house in Eraserhead are marked by what Ascher (like so many Lynch scholars) identifies as the contrast of the comic and the horrifying. Later, in the chapter featuring creative partners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers maintain that Lynch’s use of doppelgangers — yet another ingredient from The Wizard of Oz — interrogates the false nostalgia that everything was better in mid-20th century America.
The brutal treatment of women in the films of Lynch, so often decried as misogyny, could be — according to Benson and Moorhead — the opposite; a kind of stealth feminism, a working through the ways in which patriarchal systems have destroyed women. Benson and Moorhead use Blue Velvet as a prime example, claiming that the movie addresses the issue through Jeffrey Beaumont’s discovery of something terrible he had no idea even existed. Their consideration of how Lynch stylizes characters and/or costumes after iconic personalities like Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Humphrey Bogart, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page presents the subject as a “populist surrealist,” an appellation that could just as readily describe The Wizard of Oz.
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Filmmaker Karyn Kusama particularly appreciates Lynch’s interaction with the meta-story of The Wizard of Oz, as illustrated in the betrayal and tragedy of Judy Garland by the motion picture industry. Kusama’s thesis, that Lynch is always telling the story outside the story, is arguably the most perceptive in the whole film. Her breakdown of Betty’s contrasting auditions in Mulholland Dr. exemplifies what Kusama pinpoints as the quintessence of Lynch: multiple realities/multiple interpretations “as the rule, not the exception — a multiplicity of possibilities.”
Lynch is my favorite living filmmaker, perhaps my most cherished filmmaker of any era, so I acknowledge my bias in this Lynch/Oz review. But Philippe strikes a balance between the mesmerizing, endlessly fascinating constructions of the David Lynch Cinematic Universe and the durability of the powerful spell on moviemaking enjoyed for decades by The Wizard of Oz. I love the freedom that Philippe gives to his interview subjects to scamper down their own respective rabbit holes (John Waters and David Lowery are the other two who bring some real gifts to the party). And whether the references are as overt as those in Wild at Heart or are integrated with a lighter touch, when it comes to David Lynch, there’s no place like home.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.