Red shoes click together. Bold curtains separate the living world from the dream space. Wind opens the curtains, revealing multiple paths. The American Dream and the American Nightmare cross at the intersection of a yellow brick road. The fabric of our reality is split down the middle. We have been split down the middle. There is another version of us. It is as real as we are unreal. The veil between life and death is a little thinner here. So thin you cannot tell. And on the stage, in front of that unfurling curtain, a performer emerges, and they sing but they are not singing, their voice caught in limbo but also freed from their body. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
The shared symbols in the work of David Lynch and Victor Fleming’s indisputable classic, The Wizard of Oz (1939), elucidate much of their shared cinematic sandbox. For director Alexandre O. Philippe, the enduring obsessions of other directors are his bread and butter. He’s painted his work into a certain corner with The People Vs. George Lucas (2010), 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017), & Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019), as a quasi-academic cataloger of pop fiction. Phillippe’s documentaries about movies are fine, narrow works that tell us at a surface level about the people making the art that we love. The thesis here is a pretty small one: The Wizard of Oz is in conversation with all of David Lynch’s work. Yeah, so what? It’s in conversation with a whole breadth of cinema. So, this requires a different approach than just laying out the literal, visual parallels.
Phillippe has arranged an omnibus of essays. His work is in piecing together disparate essays into a six-part document that creates a convincing and cohesive argument. Seven notable students of Lynch have been gathered: Amy Nicholson (head film critic at LA Weekly); John Waters (famed trangressive director of independent comedies); David Lowrey (director of The Green Knight (2020)); Rodney Ascher (kindred director of docs about movies — famously Room 237 (2012)); Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead (co-directing duo of The Endless (2017)); and Karyn Kusama (director of the now-reclaimed new cult classic Jennifer’s Body (2009)). It’s a great cast for such a project and each contributor brings something different to the table, spanning a diversity of approaches that keeps some of the same repetitive content (yes, lots of red shoes and curtains) from essentially restating itself until it no longer feels like it means anything. It all accumulates to a broader but less specific view of Lynch as a director working in direct conversation with and appreciation of The Wizard of Oz.
You get the stories you want to hear about Lynch. That he refuses to talk about his work (this makes these second-hand stories a necessity for telling his legend). That he obfuscates what he says enough that people can put their own really beautiful ideas into it. That the works ultimately belong to the public and the presenters here and to us, and that our part in watching these movies is what is most important about realizing what is inside of them. How, when asked questions at a film festival, he was famously evasive — until he was asked about The Wizard of Oz: not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about The Wizard of Oz. That John Waters helped highlight some of his early films and they have an enduring friendship around that and early meetings at beloved Lynch fast food stop Bob’s Big Boy. What you want to believe about Lynch and what he makes is all justified here.
The problem of looking down a film in a vacuum is that you only see one thing. Yes, all these themes are there (often evident and material, just as often right out of peripheral view), but the next step is what to do with that information. Not all of the segments have a next step. Most of the runtime it is just drawing the connections and allowing us to do the rest of the work. That is still a valuable function and essentially a valid companion reading piece alongside any one of Lynch’s films. The film does best when the themes are right there on the surface — the very literal name-dropping of The Wizard of Oz and what happens in Wild at Heart (1988) and the formative structuring of Twin Peaks & Mulholland Dr. (2001) as explorations between reality and the thinning veil of unreality and death. You can take The Wizard of Oz and apply it to all American pictures about fantasy, all musicals, most children’s movies, the careers of all surrealist auteurs, etc., etc., and you’ll get a hell of a lot of juice out of it, but nothing is as ripe for the picking as Lynch’s filmography which, as the film posits, is often in direct conversation with The Wizard of Oz. If you can get anything out of that prospect, you’re going to get it here, and a few of the essays may even subtly expand your understanding of both Lynch and Oz. Both Lynch and Oz are better off for the comparison.