“Lynch/Oz” dissects the connections between “The Wizard Of Oz” and David Lynch’s populist surrealism

Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary/film essay premieres locally at UW Cinematheque on June 30.
Art from the "Lynch/Oz" movie poster by Andrew Bannister depicts the silhouette of David Lynch standing on the chevron-patterned floor of the Red Room behind green curtains with a microphone in front. He puffs a cigarette in the spotlight, as the smoke forms the shadow of the Wicked Witch Of The West above.
Custom poster art by Andrew Bannister.

Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary/film essay premieres locally at UW Cinematheque on June 30.

An audience member at a 2001 New York Film Festival Q&A for Mullholand Drive (2001) asked David Lynch whether there was a connection between The Wizard Of Oz (1939) and the film he’d just screened. Lynch replied, “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard Of Oz.” 

Since the beginning of his career, Lynch’s singular creative output has remained in perpetual dialogue with Victor Fleming’s Technicolor musical fantasy. Lynch/Oz (2022)—a recent experimental cinema essay by documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe—meticulously dissects the connective tissue between The Wizard of Oz and the populist surrealism that defines Lynch’s art and filmography. Local Lynch lovers and film fanatics of all kinds can follow the yellow brick road to UW Cinematheque and see the Madison premiere of Lynch/Oz this Friday, June 30, at 7 p.m.

Divided into six chapters with voiceover narration by seven different “hosts,” Philippe’s free-form documentary presents a dizzying array of film clips, stills, and archival footage to illuminate how intricately Lynch has woven the symbolism and cinematic language of The Wizard Of Oz into his artistic vision. In view of the director’s preoccupation with consciousness, transcendence, dream logic, alternate dimensions, duality, and doppelgängers, the enduring influence of Fleming’s film seems obvious.

Lynch also incorporates several overt references to The Wizard Of Oz throughout his work, most conspicuously in Wild At Heart (1990), which depicts Sheryl Lee as the Good Witch descending gracefully from the sky in a glittering, bright pink gossamer orb. Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Luna (Laura Dern), the runaway protagonists of Wild At Heart, often allude to The Wizard Of Oz in conversation. At one point, Luna closes her eyes and taps her red high heels together three times in imitation of Dorothy (Judy Garland); but in Lynch’s film, nothing happens.

In Blue Velvet (1986)—which the novelist J.G. Ballard once summarized asThe Wizard Of Oz re-shot with a script by Kafka and décor by Francis Bacon”—a nightclub singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) wears red shoes while a bright-eyed young protagonist discovers a parallel world beneath the manicured surface of his idyllic, all-American small town. (UW Cinematheque also happens to be screening a 4K DCP of Blue Velvet the day before Lynch/Oz, on Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m.)

As Lynch/Oz dives into this wellspring of inspiration for one of America’s most enigmatic artists, each unique perspective on the subject reframes both the cinema of Lynch and The Wizard Of Oz, thus deepening the mystery of the former and emphasizing how the latter has shaped the popular imagination. Philippe initially approached the project by conducting what he calls “jazz interviews” with the participants, who include Amy Nicholson, Rodney Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and David Lowery. They variously reflect on The Wizard Of Oz as the quintessential American fairy tale, the porous borders between dreams and reality, and the extratextual knowledge that can forever alter one’s perception of a movie (among other topics). Of course Waters offers one of the most entertaining sections, as he discusses the natural affinity between Lynch’s films and his own, describing The Wizard Of Oz as the perfect gateway drug to cinema (and probably the catalyst for his trying LSD for the first time).

While Lynch is by no means the only filmmaker to draw inspiration from The Wizard Of Oz, his relationship to Fleming’s archetypal movie feels peculiarly complex and multilayered. Lynch’s oeuvre captures the pure magic and childlike wonderment of watching The Wizard Of Oz for the first time, while also revealing the dark underbelly of its bright, candy-colored surfaces. In continually returning to the themes and images of one of America’s most timeless and beloved stories, perhaps Lynch has found a cultural key to unlocking the depths of the fractured American psyche.

The title of Lynch/Oz may seem somewhat misleading, as Philippe’s documentary/film essay hybrid frequently goes off on tangents and digresses from its main subject to examine the films of other directors such as Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, Jane Campion, Spike Lee, and Wong Kar-wai. However, Lynch/Oz ultimately expands on the links between Lynch and The Wizard Of Oz to construct an absorbing meditation on the mysteries of the creative process, the intersection of the collective unconscious and personal obsession, the elusive nature of inspiration, and the strange power of cinema.

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