February 20, 2015 / Filmwell
I have only had the opportunity to see a few of Aleksei German’s films. But …
June 2, 2009
THIS YEAR MARKS THE 70th ANNIVERSARY of the so-called “Year of Miracles” of the Studio Era. The number of films released in 1939 which went on to be canonized as classics of Hollywood cinema is truly astounding, including indispensables like Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Wizard of Oz. Possible explanations for this sudden surge have been rounded up and interrogated at length. Yet it may be that the monkeys-at-typewriters assembly-line of studio system production just happened to hit all the right keys that year. One film especially — which I note is the only 1939 film on this collated list of “Must Sees” — seems particularly miraculous, a product, perhaps, of winged monkeys at typewriters. Salman Rushdie, in his essay “A Short Text on Magic,” reviews the happenstance way The Wizard of Oz was created (by tag-team and sheer accident) and declares that the film comes pretty darn close “to that will-o’-the-wisp of modern critical theory, the authorless text.” Indeed, given the round-robin of writers and directors who fashioned it, Oz seems attributable to Chance, Fate, Divine Intervention or the Collective Unconscious. And yet, magically, apparently, this happenstance masterpiece plumbs heights and depths that have made it among Hollywood’s most beloved offerings.
To hear Mr. Rushdie tell it, though, it is the heights which are all that count. His essay, published back in 1992 as part of the BFI Film Classics series, is of the shoot-from-the-hip (with a shotgun) variety: loads of chatty, factoidal fun, with plenty of hits and misses. He wrote the piece near the beginning of his decade underground, hiding from someone he might have seen as the Wicked Witch of the Middle East. In 1989, Iran’s ruling cleric the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwā (essentially, a death warrant) against the Indian author for what Khomeini declared was blasphemy against Islam in the author’s novel The Satanic Verses. Now, I’m not about to weigh in on that one. But I do wonder if life on the run had some affect on Rushdie’s interpretation of a film that gave us the line, “There’s no place like home.”
Of course, when it comes to an authorless text, it may well be that “home” (as in “interpretation”) is what you make it. Rushdie’s critical approach is one of nostalgia-tinged cherry-picking, taking bits he likes and discarding the rest. The bits he likes are woven into his own history: he tells us that the film was a key inspiration for him as a child; in fact, Oz made him a writer. Rushdie notes his youthful identification of the film’s scary Wizard with his own father; the Wizard gets debunked, and Rushdie came to realize his father wasn’t as all-powerful as he thought. Accordingly, he offers this conclusion: The Wizard of Oz is about growing up. The journey from Kansas to Oz is about leaving home, learning adults are fallible, and making one’s own way in the world.
As for the journey from Oz back to Kansas — well, Rushdie takes issue with that whole aspect of the film. He dismisses it as a mistake at best, and at worst a betrayal; ultimately he leaves that part out of his interpretation.
The general “coming-of-age” thrust of the film is one that’s hard to take issue with. But the need for such radical surgery to support that conclusion seems an unnecessary bit of Oedipal violence. To be sure, Oz contains a few loose ends. For example, Rushdie notes that line from the Wicked Witch of the West about sending “a little insect” against the heroes — which is a reference to the famous “Jitter Bug” sequence cut from the film prior to release. In other words, the line is an archaic survival from an earlier draft of the film. Given such flotsam, Rushdie’s selective overruling of the “author” in his interpretation may not necessarily seem so out of line.
On the other hand, eyebrows might justifiably raise at Rushdie’s treating of what is clearly a major plot thread in Oz as so much junk DNA, to be sifted and ignored. Scratch that: when it comes to orphaned little Dorothy’s longing for and eventual return home to Kansas, Rushdie can’t ignore it, and in fact, he rages against it. He sees all that syrupy pining for dreary, dustbowl Kansas as gutless Hollywood sentimentalism. Worse yet, and even more unforgivable, is Dorothy’s final pledge of allegiance to and announced preference for Kansas, which Rushdie sees as some kind of sick repudiation of all that was good in Oz. “THIS is the home that ‘there’s no place like’?,” he demands with outraged incredulity. ” THIS is the lost Eden that we are asked to prefer (as Dorothy does) to Oz?”
The film is obviously powered by that ancient tension between the familiar and the strange, between going away and coming home — Rushdie admits as much. Nevertheless, this film, he maintains, is “unarguably about the joys of going away, of leaving the greyness and entering the color, of making a new life in the ‘place where there isn’t any trouble.'”
Exhibit A in this passionate assertion is, of course, THAT SONG (which was nearly cut, proof again of the happenstance), so unforgettably sung by THAT SINGER (who, again, was almost not chosen). The most unarguable point Rushdie makes is his affirmation that “Over the Rainbow” is among the purest expressions of longing ever committed to film. I’m certainly not going to argue with him. (Indeed, lately I’ve been especially smitten by the late Eva Cassidy‘s rendition.) By luck or design, the film doesn’t even try to balance the thematic tension with a second song of heartfelt longing, this one about “going home;” it’s hard to imagine that that would have worked. On the other hand, the chant “There’s no place like home” has its own power — more, I think, than Rushdie gives it credit. But there’s no question that “Over the Rainbow” is a show-stopper, even when it’s a show-starter; in this case, it’s probably the show-maker. And anyone for whom the song has sparked that unquenchable flame of longing for a particular kind of Otherness, can surely sympathize with Rushdie’s confusion and even ire when the conflagration seems inexplicably extinguished by the dust of ugly old Kansas.
Unfortunately for Mr. Rushdie, however, I think the problems he has with The Wizard of Oz are even more thorny than he acknowledges, both inside and outside the film. As I consider the anatomy of Oz, I find that features he treats as junk DNA are actually woven into the essential identity of the film. (And BTW, the ongoing debate over that so-called “junk” DNA seems to be tipping in favor of the possibility that those stray, seemingly useless strands aren’t so junky after all, and may in fact perform vital role in the genome!) What I’m talking about here isn’t just Dorothy’s yearning for home and preference for Kansas. My point has to do with how those elements seem to be ratified by other action, which is wound inextricably into the central matter of the film. For example, Rushdie actually praises the scene where Dorothy and friends discover that what they were looking for (courage, brains, etc) actually lay within them. Yet he doesn’t seem to notice how that revelation precisely parallels Dorothy’s declaration that if she ever goes looking for her heart’s desire again, “I won’t look further than my own back yard.” In fact, this is the main lesson Dorothy learns in Oz. To Rushdie’s thinking, the rejection of Oz for Kansas is (no pun intended) blasphemy; but it clearly seems of a piece with with the lesson the humbug Wizard identifies: that everything they needed, they had all along.
It gets worse. Not only does Dorothy, as Rushdie says, seem to prefer Kansas and her own back yard, but this endorsement of the ordinary over the extraordinary flows parallel to another, disturbing thematic stream. Oz seems particularly intent on debunking phonies. The Wizard, naturally, is debunked as humbug by the revelation of “that man behind the curtain.” The Companions’ need for some extraordinary affirmation of their worth is debunked by the discovery that they already possessed heart, brains, courage and the means to go home. The truly troubling implication, which Rushdie doesn’t allow himself to follow to the end, would seem to be that Oz itself is one more shiny deception, one more bit of smoke and mirrors, in fact, the humbug of all humbugs.
Wow. Could that possibility really be in there? Is it possible that a film beloved by generations could have been playing such a dirty trick on us all? The notion of employing our heartfelt longings to go over the rainbow as a means to tell us there’s really nothing over the rainbow? No doubt, even if he doesn’t work out these details, this does seem to be what is behind the intensity of Rushdie’s complaint against the film: “Are we to believe that Dorothy has learned no more on her journey than that she didn’t need to make such a journey in the first place?”
No wonder he’s so ticked.
HOLD ONTO THAT TERRIFYING POSSIBILITY. Before we consider whether our most primal longings are just so much humbug, I need to mention another thing Rushdie dislikes about the film: that “it was all a dream.”
There’s no doubt about it — the dream-ending is the most maddening cheat in story-telling: it’s a broken promise, a con, a lazy storyteller’s dodge, literary or cinematic cheap grace. And there’s no denying that The Wizard of Oz clearly shows us both that Dorothy was knocked on the head prior to her trip over the rainbow, and wakes with a bump on her noggin on her return to Kansas. For Rushdie, this business is one more betrayal of the reality of Oz and Dorothy’s experience. The interesting thing to me is I haven’t really heard much of a fuss about this before. Possibly the unapologetic introduction of the dream element in the beginning changes the dynamic, so that most people don’t feel so ripped off at the end. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why Oz is so beloved rather than notoriously hated and leaves most viewers feeling good rather than as angry as Rushdie is at that famous last scene.
Personally, I think fixing on the head bump is taking the action much too literally. It’s not far, say, from a fundamentalist fixating on the “occult origins” of the amulet that turns Kurt Russell into the Shaggy Dog. Employed here, the bump is just one more sop to Cerberus (aka “Fluffy“), a means to get us past the watchful dragons of the skeptical mode — which is another way of saying, it’s just a vehicle to get from Kansas to Oz. In this way, the bump is no more or less significant than pixie dust, Dilithium Crystals or Bibity Bobity Boo.
Now, it is true that J. R. R. Tolkien, he of grand vision and narrow taxonomy, disqualified stories that included transit between our world and Faerie from being “true” fairy stories; I doubt he’d see that decision, applied to this film, hold up in the court of public opinion. (In fact, another of Tolkien’s tests of a fairy story is that it generate longing — so saynomore.) But it seems to me that among the chords Oz plucks, there are compelling resonances about story itself: whatever else it’s about, Oz is a myth about myth. From the beginning in Kansas (ordinary consciousness), to that bump on the head (suspension of disbelief), to that disputed return to Kansas in the end, these elements follow perfectly anthropologist Mircea Eliade’s schematic for mythic experience.
Eliade famously called the world of ordinary experience “Profane Time” — time being operative here, with all the implied temporal vicissitudes, not least decay and death. Obviously, Profane Time is the dimension of Kansas. At the opposite end of the mythic spectrum is “Sacred Time” — a timeless realm, the realm of myth. In Sacred Time dwell the archetypes, the mythic heroes and their deeds. In myth, according to Eliade, one can identify — even participate — in archetypal greatness and so emerge back to ordinary life refreshed, renewed and in touch with one’s true identity. That sounds to me like a pretty good description of the main plot lines of The Wizard of Oz — or a thousand other stories. In fact, it seems to me that what most people want from what we think of as a conventionally-structured hero story has everything to do with re-enacting the ritual of the Eternal Return. For the primitive — and the not-so-primitive — Eliade says, regular trips to Sacred Time are an indispensable part of being human.
About that business of mythic heroes and their archetypal deeds. It strikes me that Oz, despite the soul-stirring musical overture, is the exact opposite of a “place where there isn’t any trouble.” Now, we might speculate that all the trouble was ended for good by Dorothy when she got rid of the wicked witches and bogus wizards, like Errol Flynn cleaning up Dodge City (another film from 1939). But somehow I don’t think so. In any case, Dorothy’s experience of Oz included a whole heap of trouble. My question is: if what we’re really longing for is a place without trouble, why on earth would we come to associate (in a manner unquestioned, as far as I can see) THAT particular longing with THIS particular object? To borrow Rushdie’s analytical approach, it almost seems as if these seemingly contradictory elements are loose threads from two completely different stories: the one a longing for a land without trouble, the other a delight in a particular kind of trouble. Indeed, if we return to our (admittedly selective) use of Tolkien’s measure of a “true” fairy story, we might even say that Oz achieves that distinction precisely because it features, as he says, adventures of heroes “in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.” Now listen to Eliade talk about these things:
“When fairy tales took shape as such, people, both primitive and civilized alike, have listened to them with a pleasure susceptible of indefinite repetition. This amounts to saying that initiatory scenarios — even camouflaged, as they are in fairy tales — are the expression of a psychodrama that answers a deep need in the human being. Every person wants to experience certain PERILOUS situations, to confront exceptional ordeals, to make their way into the Other World — and they experience all this, on the level of their imaginative life, by hearing or reading fairy tales, or, on the level of their dream life, by dreaming. [from Rites and Symbols of Initiation, emphasis mine, along with some gender-neutralizing of the pronouns.]
Let’s continue along Eliade’s full cycle of mythic experience — wherein we necessarily find ourselves required to work our way back from Sacred Time to Profane Time. It is precisely this return that is the sticking part for Rushdie. Yet it is of the essence to the entire experience for Eliade — perhaps even the linchpin. It’s interesting that Rushdie sees The Wizard of Oz as a “coming-of-age” story, and it is for that reason rejects the return– because Eliade, too, sees nearly all of human mythic adventuring as some kind of “initiatory ritual”. Indeed, Eliade maintains that all of life is a series of initiations, a succession of passages which require ongoing rites. Central to the rite-of-passage at any age, though, is some kind of ritual experience of death — and resurrection. For adolescents, the process typically begins with a ceremonial separation from the tribe and ordinary life, includes various tests and revelations, and climaxes with some symbolic end of the old life of childhood followed by a “new” birth as an adult; certainly the return to the tribe after the experience marks a kind of second birth. The comparisons with Dorothy’s “coming-of-age” experience in Oz and return to Kansas are obvious. Furthermore, inasmuch as myth is a dream and the myth of Oz includes the experience of the dream-within-the-dream, I’d suggest that Dorothy’s awakening back in Kansas at the end of the film is as natural and necessary a completion of the ritual as the audience’s “awakening” at the completion of the experience of watching the film.
Even if the initiatory character of these ordeals is not apprehended as such, it remains true nonetheless that man becomes himself [or “woman becomes herself“] only after having solved a series of desperately difficult and even dangerous situations; that is, after having undergone “tortures” and “death,” followed by an awakening to another life, qualitatively different because regenerated. If we look closely, we see that every human life is made up of a series of ordeals, of “deaths,” and of “resurrections.”
As we can see, these notions of “resurrection” and “regeneration,” as applied to Dorothy’s awakening in Kansas after her experience in Oz, are less a repudiation of Oz than an affirmation of the solemn and life-changing character of her experience. It is not a question, as Rushdie says, of whether or not those experiences are “real,” or whether waking from the dream of Oz invalidates their reality; on the contrary, according to the language of myth, those things are, mysteriously, even more real than waking life. This reading of Dorothy’s “resurrection”suggests that the sense of closure and hopefulness which she feels (and the viewers feel — or most of them) at the close of the film has to do with a sense of life renewed: of a second chance, a blank slate — of being born again.
However, its undeniable that this “resurrection” of Dorothy casts a strange shadow back on her experience in Oz. Certainly, given the multivalent way of myth, it is now possible to see glimmers in Oz of both that land over the rainbow and that land beneath the earth — Purgatory, at least, — which makes this a strange brew indeed. From this angle, Dorothy is Dante and the Scarecrow is Virgil — and Kansas, at the end, is a kind of Paradise Regained. At least, that would account for both Dorothy’s passionate longing for, and joy in awakening, back in her black and white home. That implication is also precisely why Mr. Rushdie recoils in horror — from Kansas as Paradise. It seems as corny and absurd as the tagline from another film: “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.”
No doubt, out here in all this rich, country air, one might well detect a certain odor of humbug rising from somewhere. And much as I’m ready to click my heels together and extract myself from this long rumination (as may be the reader), I’m thinking that’s not possible until we face down a bit further certain lingering questions raised in Oz about the notion of seductive illusions and this strange elevation of the ordinary that Salman Rushdie rejects as one of them.
ALONG WITH THE TERM “SACRED TIME,” MIRCEA ELIADE refers to the dimension of myth as “Dream Time.” Dreams, like myth, violate the laws of logic and physics; dreams are the realm of protean identity and meanings. In myth and dreams, one might fly, read minds, time-travel, or exist in multiple places or ways simultaneously. The dreamlike images of myth, then, are a useful means (perhaps the only one) for imagining those contradictory phenomena we know as “paradoxes.” G. K. Chesterton, who believed that the things most essential to know were paradoxes, opens his Orthodoxy with a wistful account of his recurring ambition to compose a myth about a mariner who gets lost and “discovers” own country — meanwhile thinking all along he’s happened upon a hitherto unknown continent. This is a most enviable mistake, says Chesterton:
“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the human security of coming home again… This at least seems to be the main problem for philosophers… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?”
Perhaps, then, this Chestertonian paradox is the most magical effect of The Wizard of Oz. Certainly it is true that what what G. K. C. calls a “double spiritual need” has been an endless tension in Western thought: a tug-of-war between universals and particulars, mind and body, being and becoming. Raphael’s painting The School of Athens gathers the history of philosophy around this face-off, as Plato points up to the realm of pure ideas, and earthy Aristotle points back down below. Such imaginative unities may be the best we can do. For Eden is indeed lost, and human experience irreducibly divided: we are half-angel, half-animal: the “home” we long for seems to lay both above and below. The tension can be exhausting; yet grasping after either polarity may involve settling for a half truth.
Among the handful of paradoxes Chesterton deemed most essential was this one: the idea that the more we look at something, the less we can see it — unless we continually goad ourselves into vision, by means of gratitude and humility. From this perspective, the main lesson of Oz isn’t really about choosing Kansas over Oz. It is about allowing Oz to “goad” us into a fuller vision, to let Oz infuse Kansas with transcendence — with magic. That seems to me the true meaning of Dorothy’s declaration that “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own back yard.”
Now, I don’t want to minimize the material or temporal realities of life in Kansas; this side of the rainbow, things can get overwhelmingly ugly, painful, petty, cruel, absurd — profane indeed. Depending on one’s circumstances, escaping from Kansas may be something of a matter of survival. Certainly the stock of humanity’s life-affirming platitudes (and movie tag-lines) wither under the harsh glare of radical suffering. Yet (to employ a platitudinous truth) we none of us can live in castles in the air; we are creatures of Kansas, of matter and time. The escape from these, if not as a temporary respite, would seem to be a matter of escaping from our own humanity.
Then again, moving along the critical spectrum in the direction from Oz to Kansas leads to its own extremes. For one thing, the reconciling propensities of myth are not without critics as uncompromising as Salman Rushdie. The objection here would be the opposite to that of Mr. Rushdie: he resists going back to Kansas; these are naysayers of Oz. The charge is that myth, by offering phony solutions to intractable problems, is (like religion) an opium of the masses — distracting our attention with pie in the sky, possibly from better uses of human energies in solving the real world problems of Kansas. The so-called “Hollywood Ending” has been justifiably criticized for this sort of humbug.
The farthest extreme in this direction is the charge that human longing itself is a dangerous addiction. Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo offers a scathing criticism of The Wizard of Oz. In this Hollywood criticism of Hollywood, the protagonist escapes a full-color Depression into black-and-white movie fantasies — becoming addicted to fairyland in a way that makes her all that much unhappier in Kansas. Purple Rose seems to suggest either that life in Kansas is at least somewhat more bearable without dreams, or that Kansas is so irredeemable, dreams are all we have. That perspective lends bitter irony to the tagline “There’s no place like home.” (Indeed, for the ancients who coined the term, “utopia” is thus ironic, made up of words meaning both “the good place” and “no place”: i.e., there really is no place like home.)
One of the most provocative ways to think about this is to consider alongside the myth of Oz, a poem by William Butler Yeats. “The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland” tells the tragic story of an ordinary bloke who might have led a plain if relatively-untroubled existence but for the great misfortune of glimpsing one day, in a kettle of upturned fish, some flicker of something that somehow sparked a longing in his soul for a “woven, world-forgotten isle.” This insatiable longing followed him into the earth, where even the worms devouring his body cried out in a hellishly unfulfilled longing. One might imagine Dorothy, unable to retain her new found zeal for Kansas, will come to pine bitterly for Oz — like poor, drug-addicted Judy Garland, singing her signature song, tragically, into the grave.
If “Over the Rainbow” is such a siren-song, perhaps the most prudent course for all of us would be to plug our ears. On the other hand, if a kettle of fish is liable to provoke that same kind of lifetime ache, then I think there’s not much we can do about the problem of human beings and their insatiable longings.
Be that as it may, it’s probably here that Salman Rushdie is indeed onto something after all, in his somewhat defensive approach to the seemingly contradictory elements of The Wizard of Oz. For with a bit of squinting, one might possibly detect among the swirling ingredients of Oz a creepily subversive debunking of Oz by Oz: which, if so, would be the dirtiest trick of all — using wonder to say that wonder is nothing more than a gaudy carnival hoax. In that case, I think Rushdie is definitely on to something when he suggests that the power of the film, the story, of THAT SONG, overwhelmingly push against — if not outright refute — that kind of diabolical double-cross.
Of course, most readings leave loose ends which some pesky mutt is liable to expose at the worst moment. Rushdie jokes about the “authorless text” without nodding to the debunked wizard of Oz as an obvious metaphor for the “death of the author” — or “the critic,” for that matter — which would necessarily raise nettlesome questions about his own interpretation. Instead, he sticks with a standard reading, seeing the wizard as a father figure. I’ve seen wider interpretations that make the wizard out to be a God-figure; it seems to me that the debunked authority is liable to stand in for any would-be objective interpretation. In that case, we may be on our own here, trying to discern the humbug from the truths in either Oz or Kansas — according to our own lights, just as the ex-wizard said. No doubt, it’s also true that even the authority we find within has been debunked by various curtain-pullers; but the same pesky mutts threaten the curtain-pullers’ authority.
Perhaps what we’re looking at here is one of those things whereby the longer we look, the less we see — unless we bring a particular measure of humility, ala Dorothy, “small and meek.” There is something of a child’s innocence and faith involved in seeing certain things: the fragility of fairies — so threatened by a refusal to believe — seems a clue here. Likewise, longing may be less a dangerous drug than another clue, this one to all that makes life worth living. For, despite the bleakness of some visions of Kansas, it is pretty clear that Dorothy found there — after her return from Oz — family, friendship, morals and meaning. The Wizard may have been humbug, but courage, intelligence and compassion weren’t. Good and evil were real. It seems possible that Kansas (at least in Dorothy’s experience) may not have been as utterly irredeemable as she’d first thought. That somehow, “sunk in the everydayness” of her life, she’d lost a particular way of seeing and appreciating the world. And that through her experience in Oz, she regained that way of seeing and appreciating. To the degree that existence in Kansas must be baptized in a vision from over the rainbow, the main lesson of Oz seems to be that a truly human existence requires keeping one foot in both (and so, Auntie Em, there’s no places like home.)
It’s entirely possible that The Wizard of Oz is merely a contradictory mish-mash of plot points and sentiments. Just maybe, though, something else is going on behind the curtain — either serendipitously, or miraculously, or because maybe those winged monkeys at the type-writers deserve more credit than they usually get. In any case, The Wizard of Oz transcends its humble origins — which is, after all, the aspiration it enkindles in Dorothy and us, too.