The Films of 2017: Call Me By Your Name

The exquisite pain of first love in all its attendant clumsiness is the subject of Luca Guadagnino’s literate and sensuous Call Me By Your Name, a gay coming-of-age drama in which its teenage protagonist’s unlikely affair with his father’s research assistant brings him face to face with a desire that he is powerless to resist.  Following Carol and Moonlight, it’s the latest in a string of excellent mid-range independent films to consider the experiences of LGBT characters intelligently and respectfully without smothering them in too much good taste.  Call Me By Your Name is not only honest about its characters and their relationship; it’s also unabashed in representing the blunt force of sexual passion. 


The Films of 2017: Dawson City: Frozen Time

During the years of the gold rush the town of Dawson City, located just over the Alaska border into Canada, ran as wild as any in the annals of frontier lore.  Gambling halls, brothels, and saloons sprang up to cater to the influx of prospectors who flooded the town in the last decades of the nineteenth century.  The movies, too, became a favorite local pastime, especially after the town cleaned up its act and replaced the brothels with a library and a community recreation center.  Every week throughout the 1910s and 1920s silent films were shipped to Dawson, where they screened for the townspeople and then frequently went into storage, it being too expensive or impractical to mail them back to the distributor.  Then, after sound cinema killed the public’s interest in silent pictures, the many boxes of unwanted films were summarily used to fill in the public swimming pool—buried, perhaps fittingly, under an ice rink.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that they were discovered and excavated, many of them damaged but more or less intact.


The Films of 2017: Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is a film as hard and glittering as a black diamond.  It charts, in two long movements, a day and night of terror in modern-day Paris, as a group of très chic French youths—attractive boys and girls of various races and ethnicities, many of them appearing to hail from well-to-do bourgeois families—carry out a series of synchronized bombings and shootings throughout the city, then hole themselves up in an upscale shopping mall as the nets descend.  The film’s two halves, which use space and action to contrasting effects, complement one another to make up a bi-fold image of violence answered by violence.  In the first half of the film, individuals stage attacks on the French state; in the second half, the state retaliates against them.  The context for these actions is left deliberately and chillingly obscure by Bonello, whose approach to his material is almost Godardian in its opacity.  


The Films of 2017: Good Time and The Human Surge

Good Time, which was recently voted the best film of the year by the contributors of Film Comment, is a testament to the power of brotherly love in more ways than one: it was written, directed, and edited by real-life siblings Josh and Benny Safdie, and it tells the story of Nick and Connie Nikas, whose reckless fraternal bond propels its action-caper plot.  (Benny Safdie also appears in the film as Nick, playing opposite Robert Pattinson as Connie.)  The film opens with Nick and Connie’s ill-fated attempt to rob a bank, which lands Nick (who is developmentally disabled) in prison.  A fight with a fellow inmate then leads to Nick’s hospitalization, prompting Connie to try and spring him loose.  I can’t say I’m particularly fond of the Safdies’ brand of urban miserablism, though there is a certain spectral beauty to Good Time’s fluorescent-bathed cinematography, and its electronic score, which has an 8-bit-video-game crunch, is propulsive and catchy.  Jennifer Jason Leigh also turns up for about one scene, playing perhaps the most compellingly rendered of the film’s many desperate characters. 

Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge, another favorite of the Film Comment crowd, is slightly less miserable than Good Time but considerably more dull.  Structured as a tripartite examination of youth culture in three regions across the global south—Mozambique, the Philippines, and Williams’ native Argentina—it plays like a slower and more oblique version of a Pedro Costa movie.  Like Costa’s films, The Human Surge appears to mix narrative and documentary modes, so that it becomes difficult to tell if we’re watching actors improvising or “real” people.  In either case, Williams’ constantly roving camera uncovers almost nothing interesting as it follows his subjects, except for maybe some ants, shown in close-up, going about their business under a pile of dirt onto which a boy is shown urinating.  This is slow cinema at its most impenetrable and interminable.    


The Films of 2017: Downsizing

Four years ago I wrote that I missed Alexander Payne’s collaborations with his former writing partner Jim Taylor, with whom he made such deliciously nasty films as Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt.  Be careful what you wish for: Payne and Taylor have reunited this year for Downsizing, a comedy starring Matt Damon as a financially strapped occupational therapist who decides to economize by shrinking himself to the size of an action figure, that is almost depressing in its banality.  Payne has flirted with the mainstream ever since 2004, when Sideways (his last film co-written with Taylor, until now) became a breakout hit, but until now his films have sat more or less comfortably in Indiewood territory.  Downsizing finds him embracing the kind of middlebrow A-list cinema at which his early work sneered. 


Show me the dark: "Twin Peaks: The Return"

As its title would suggest, Twin Peaks: The Return is a belated attempt to (re)cover the hallowed ground (or scorched earth, depending on your view) of David Lynch’s ill-fated television series, the original run of which ended some twenty-six years ago.  Its belatedness is appropriate, because Twin Peaks has always been about the eternal recurrence of a cycle in which returns always come too late and loss proves inevitable.  Twin Peaks’ characters are trapped in an endless loop in which every act of revival only serves to set the stage for another trauma, as in Vertigo, which remains one of the show’s central points of reference.  And we, the audience, are trapped there with them.  If the thought of being caught in such a trap appeals to you as much as it does to me, The Return is likely to be one of the most engrossing and pleasurably confounding works of art you will experience this year. 


Behind the mask: In defense of "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"

The demonic Bob (Frank Silva) assaults Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Recently an acquaintance who “loves Twin Peaks” commented to me that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (dir. David Lynch, 1992) is an “abomination,” to which I replied, winkingly but also dead serious, “If you don’t love Fire Walk With Me you don’t really love Twin Peaks.”  He’s not alone in holding such an opinion.  Fire Walk With Me, which premiered a year after the conclusion of the television series, was a colossal flop upon release and is widely held to be something of a film maudit, even—perhaps especially—by those who “love” the show.  That’s because the film contains almost none of the elements that make the show so easy to love.  The eccentric but pleasant, “relatable” figure of Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) shows up only fleetingly, as do many of the show’s other characters; the film does little to resolve any of the plot threads left dangling upon the show’s abrupt cancellation in medias res; and there is little in the way of the show’s homespun, slightly campy humor.  Absent are the charms of avuncular Pete Martell (“there was a fish in the percolator!”), dizzy Lucy Moran, sultry Audrey Horne, straight-as-an-arrow Sheriff Truman.  Instead we’re trapped in the claustrophobic nightmare-space of Laura Palmer’s last days, leading up to the primal scene of her murder, a crime that we already know to be inevitable. 


Greetings from Twin Peaks

Posting has been light-ish lately these last couple of weeks because I’ve been down the David Lynch/Mark Frost rabbit hole, re-watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks (1990-91) and Fire Walk With Me (1992) in preparation to catch up with Twin Peaks: The Return, the eighteen-episode limited series that aired on Showtime earlier this year.  I generally prefer my Lynch 100-proof rather than watered down, and however engrossing the charms of Twin Peaks may be the show is by its very nature watered-down Lynch.  Then again, Lynch’s attempt at domestication via a network TV series, and the rubbing-up of his own brand of abstract weirdness next to the plot conventions of a prime-time soap, results in a particularly uncanny mix of flavors that’s unlike anything else in his filmography.  And as spotty and uneven as the series may be, the first sixteen or so episodes, culminating in the death of Laura’s killer, are as strange and unsettling as anything he’s ever done. 

Re-watching the show this time around I find myself most struck by the astonishingly well modulated performances of Sheryl Lee, Grace Zabriskie, and Lara Flynn Boyle, all of whom navigate their roles without ever tipping over the line into camp theatrics; by the beguiling appeal of Sherilyn Fenn, whose Audrey Horne—one of the show’s most original creations—destabilizes the boundaries between virgin and sexpot, girl and woman, femme fatale and damsel in distress; and by the magnificent timbre of Piper Laurie’s voice, which Pauline Kael once compared to that of a church organ.  The show’s comic subplots, many of them variations on cliché sitcom setups (ex. Andy Brennan and Dick Tremayne babysitting a mischievous urchin) are cringe-inducing and also kind of fascinating in a what-were-they-thinking? kind of way.  I had all but forgotten the bit about Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) reverting to a state of teenage-hood and re-enrolling in high school (a possible influence on Amy Sedaris’ Jerri Blank from Strangers With Candy?).        

Meanwhile, Bob (Frank Silva) remains a villain for the ages.  What is it about Bob that makes him so singularly terrifying?  Is it something to do with his vampiric grin—with the demonic glee that he seems to exude?  David Foster Wallace wrote about the “look of total demonic ebullience in Fire Walk With Me when Laura discovers him at her dresser going through her diary.”  Possessed by Bob, in the afterglow of killing, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) becomes euphoric.  There are few moments in television as profoundly disturbing as the scene in which Maddy dies at the hands of Leland/Bob.  Few are as devastating as Leland’s deathbed epiphany, which succeeds in providing a supernatural as well as a psychological context for his crimes and manages to make both equally traumatic.  Is it more disturbing to think about Leland possessed by an evil spirit or as a man caught in an intergenerational cycle of sexual abuse?  Lynch and Frost are able to have it both ways--which is perhaps appropriate in this show which is so much about doubles, twins, and pairs.  In the mirror-world logic of Twin Peaks, everything comes two for the price of one.

Laughing with Bob.


The Films of 2017: Mudbound

The long shadow of Faulkner, thick with portent and irony, hangs over Dee Rees’ Mudbound from the very first scene, in which two white homesteaders—rival brothers—ask a black family passing by in a wagon for help burying the body of their father.  The full dramatic weight of this scene becomes clear only after a lengthy flashback detailing the previous eight or nine years (roughly 1938 to 1946), as the two families struggle to eke out lives on neighboring Mississippi farms.  The Jacksons, who dream of one day getting out from under the thumb of white folks, are made to suffer the taunts and humiliations of local racists.  Meanwhile the déclassé McAllens struggle to retain their pride after a bad business deal consigns them to life in a ramshackle cabin with no plumbing.  The war leaves its scars on members of both families: after returning home from the Western front the sensitive Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) grapples with shell-shock, and Ronsel Jackson (Kevin Mitchell) finds himself lonesome for a Europe where he was free from the miseries of the Jim Crow South.


"Crumb": The artist as pervert

“I don’t work in conscious messages.  I can’t do that…it has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it.  […]  While I’m doing it, I don’t know what it’s about.  You just have to have the courage to take that chance.  What’s coming out?  What’s coming out of this?”                                                                       —R. Crumb

Robert Crumb has been something of a cultural hero to me ever since I first saw Terry Zwigoff’s documentary film about him in the late 1990s.  Say what you will about Crumb’s work, which engages provocatively with issues of sex and drugs, race and gender: it derives from an artistic impulse that seems to me totally pure, because it flows so directly from the depths of his creative unconscious.  Crumb (1995) is a portrait of a family of artists (not just Robert but also his brothers Charles and Maxon) for whom drawing is not so much a craft or a vocation as it is a compulsion.  Especially in the case of Charles, who suffered from chronic depression and committed suicide in 1992 after the shooting of the film was completed, drawing acts as a form of what Robert calls “graphomania,” a need to pour one’s innermost thoughts and desires, however taboo, out onto the page, even if only in the form of illegible scribbling.  Robert’s own graphomania is only slightly more mild than Charles’.  “Maybe I should be locked up and my pencils taken away from me,” Robert jokes at one point.  But one imagines that even this would not stifle his violent, almost libidinal drive for self-expression.   

According to the cover of a collection of artwork by Charles, Maxon, Robert, and his wife Aline, “the whole family is crazy!”  Zwigoff’s film echoes this sentiment with equal measures of wry humor and pathos.  The Crumb family is a buzzing hive of obsessions and repressions, the three brothers (self-described “wimpy, nerdy weirdos”) having grown up dominated by their “overbearing tyrant” of a WWII-veteran father and an amphetamine-addicted mother.  Maxon refers to their shared adolescence as a twisted family romance, the brothers reportedly sleeping in the same bed into their mid-teens, “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” laboring tirelessly on creative projects that were more fueled by competition than by collaboration.

Compared to his brothers, both of whom figure as prisoners of their own maladjustment, Robert comes off looking almost normal.  His art begs to be read as a more or less successful form of sublimation—a safe outlet for the thoughts and fantasies that might otherwise have consumed him.  Throughout his career Crumb has managed to channel his id without ever becoming its slave.  (David Cronenberg comes to mind as an artist who has similarly toed the line between the surreal and the cerebral—half pervert, half intellectual.)       

The Crumb documentary, which has now fascinated me for the better part of twenty years, still seems to me one of the finest portrayals of the creative process in cinema—its inspirations, its production, and its reception, each of these shaped by psychology, society, and culture.  It’s also always keenly tuned into the personalities of its very human subjects, and one of my favorite moments in the film is one of its quietest: Robert and his adult son, drawing side by side, comparing their work.  Craziness may indeed run in this family, but so too does a powerful creative impulse that stretches across the generations, for better or worse. 

Like father, like son: R. Crumb giving a drawing lesson to his son Jesse.


Cutting "Sisters"

Menage a trois: Bill Finley, Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt in Sisters.

“What the devil hath joined together let no man cut asunder!”  That was the tagline for Sisters (1973), Brian de Palma’s earliest exercise in playfully sending up the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  And what an exercise!  Sisters is chock-a-block with film-nerd in-jokes and visual gags (like an iris shot that materializes out of a zoom-in on the iris of a character’s eye); it’s a document of ’70s New York at its most delightfully grimy (it’s set on Staten Island, referred to fleetingly in the film as “the lost borough,” no less); it sports a relentless Bernard Herrmann score; and it’s got an absolute doozy of a third act, set at a mental institution where Jennifer Salt’s intrepid reporter is hypnotized and brainwashed by a seriously creepy “doctor” played by Bill Finley.  Sisters feels like it was made by a kid who’s been given permission to use his master’s toolbox for the first time and who can barely contain his excitement.  Even as he would go on to refine this style in later, more impeccable films like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), de Palma already shows remarkable sophistication and sure-handedness in many of Sisters’ key sequences, chief among them being one in which split-screen is used to juxtapose the cover-up of a crime with a nosy neighbor’s attempts to investigate it.  

The use of split screen—a gimmick that would go on to become one of de Palma’s trademarks—literalizes the film’s themes of splitting and cutting, doubles and twins.  (Even Herrmann’s score is based on a constant alternation between two competing notes, B-flat and A.)  Having been traumatically separated from her conjoined twin sister, Danielle (Margot Kidder) has undergone a schizophrenic personality split; her alter ego Dominique cuts up men as a form of revenge against the man who cut them apart.  In a macabre running gag, Danielle wins a set of cutlery on a TV game show, pieces of which—a butcher knife, a meat cleaver—are put to various sinister uses over the course of the film.

Danielle/Dominique makes use of her new cutlery.

Cutting is an act of division that makes two out of one; but Sisters is also about the act of cutting together in addition to cutting apart.  The two women at the heart of the film, seemingly as different as night and day (one a strident, politically engaged journalist with little social life to speak of, the other a seductive, feather-brained model “and sometime actress” who disidentifies with women’s lib), eventually find themselves joined at the hip—a satirical comment, perhaps, on the unlikely bonds of feminine “sisterhood”?  For Danielle the act of separation leads to violence and schizophrenia, while for Grace the thought of being attached to a woman who represents feminism’s worst nightmare is upsetting enough to trigger a mental breakdown.  So conjunction and separation prove equally terrifying in Sisters, something that de Palma plays with even at the level of the editing, as when the two halves of his split screen finally, thrillingly merge.

Split screens, conjoined.


Placing "Ikiru"

Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952).

Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950) remain Akira Kurosawa’s most highly regarded films, with Ikiru (1952) probably in third place, though my preference is for the last of these, in spite of its anomalousness within Kurosawa’s filmography.  I suppose it says something about me that I gravitate not to Kurosawa’s action-packed period pieces but rather to this quietly devastating character study set in the present day.  I also wonder about the shaping of the Kurosawa canon in the U.S., and the extent to which that canon was determined by the order in which the films were seen by American audiences in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

Rashomon proved a tremendous international hit, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in September of 1951 and a Best Foreign Film Oscar in March of 1952.  But both of Kurosawa’s two subsequent films The Idiot (1951) and Ikiru went unreleased stateside until after the success of his next film Seven Samurai, which premiered in the U.S. in late 1956.  It would take another three years before a torrent of these films from Kurosawa’s back catalog would flood American art houses, presumably because until he achieved name recognition his films were assumed to have little market value.  Between December of 1959 and November of 1963 no less than twelve Kurosawa films were released in the U.S.: Drunken Angel, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Sanjuro, High and Low, Stray Dog, The Idiot, I Live In Fear.  And Ikiru, which premiered in late January of 1960.

To look at the original American reviews for Ikiru is to see Kurosawa’s reputation—and his filmographic canon—already beginning to solidify.  By 1962 Pauline Kael had written that “Ikiru is often called Kurosawa’s masterpiece,” though it’s difficult to verify this claim; she herself “much preferred” Throne of Blood, and the praise for Ikiru from such contemporaries as Bosley Crowther and Stanley Kauffmann was not untempered by criticism, mainly having to do with the film’s lengthy funeral sequence.  Having already been exposed to the flashier charms of Rashomon and Seven Samurai, reviewers seemed inclined to praise the relatively modest Ikiru more faintly.  And American distributors, clearly flummoxed about how to market this meditative drama—which resembles The Death of Ivan Ilyich crossed with A Christmas Carol—to audiences, desperately tried to pitch it as a sex movie (hence the image of the gyrating stripper in the film’s tone-deaf poster).  “Accessible” and respected though Ikiru may be, it’s doomed to live forever in the shadow of Kurosawa’s swashbucklers.  



The Films of 2017: Wonderstruck

Who ever would have thought that a children’s film by Todd Haynes would be a good idea?  Haynes’ previous films about children, fascinating as they are, could hardly be described as kid-friendly; a densely intellectual filmmaker, he has typically served up his visions of childhood with generous heapings of psychoanalysis and queer theory.  And yet his new film Wonderstruck is, as they used to say, fun for the whole family.  There is much here for a sophisticated filmgoer to appreciate, including a hand-crafted stop-motion animation sequence (a throwback to Haynes’ Barbie-doll movie Superstar, perhaps) and a silent film-within-the-film, Daughter of the Storm, that’s an affectionate pastiche of D. W. Griffith.  But Wonderstruck is also a hugely enjoyable entertainment—perhaps the most purely entertaining film Haynes has ever made, because it’s so uncluttered with competing ideas. 


Men in 1972

Of all the great American films of the 70s John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) might be the one to give the new masculinity the most thorough working-over.  Best remembered as a thriller—which of course it is—it’s also a cross-section of various male “types,” as represented by its four main characters and the actors who portray them. 

Jon Voight (right) as Ed.

“I like my life”: Jon Voight’s Ed is the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate, a mild-mannered Atlanta ad exec whose manhood is tested over and over again and proves resilient.  Although the film is an ensemble picture it’s frequently through Ed’s eyes that we see things happen.  And it’s he who eventually assumes a position of leadership within the group—at the cost, we’re led to believe, of his own mental health (and an arrow through the abdomen).  In Midnight Cowboy (1968) Voight played a country boy adrift in the big city; here he plays a city boy whose weekend in the country triggers a traumatic loss of innocence. 

Ned Beatty as Bobby.

“you look just like a hog”: The scene in which Bobby (Ned Beatty) gets raped in the woods at the hands of a scruffy redneck (“lemme hear you squeal!”) still feels shocking nearly fifty years later.  If Deliverance is something of a latter-day Lord of the Flies, Bobby is a figure for the doomed fat kid Piggy.  Bobby represents a particularly subtle form of masculine insecurity: self-conscious about his lack of athletic prowess, and constantly picked on by the alpha male Lewis, he compensates by affecting a certain sexual bravado.  He compares the thrill of whitewater canoeing to sex (Katherine Hepburn, eat your heart out), reminisces about the wet dreams and sexual conquests of his youth, and jokingly (?) likens his air mattress to a blow-up doll.  Then he becomes one of the film’s sacrificial victims, in a turn of the plot that works to confirm his place at the bottom of the pecking order.   

Ronny Cox as Drew.
“he was the best of us”: Drew (Ronny Cox) is Deliverance’s Romantic poet, a guileless, sensitive, bespectacled minstrel with a six-string.  He communicates through music, naïvely attempting to use his guitar to bridge the gap between “civilization” and the “savagery” of the country people.  Later he says he “can’t understand how anyone could shoot an animal” and breaks down in tears at the thought of covering up the murder of Bobby’s rapist.  Too pure for this world, he is destined to wind up a fatality.

Burt Reynolds as Lewis.

“does he think he is Tarzan or what?”: Burt Reynolds’ Lewis—swaggering, braggadocious, hot-headed—spends the first half of the film riding for a fall.  Then in the second half he gets it, in the form of a broken leg that serves as a symbolic castration.  Lewis’ fate constitutes the most trenchant of Deliverance’s ironies.  But even if we can’t help but relish seeing Lewis get cut down to size, we also can’t help but appreciate the priapic brio that Reynolds brings to this role.  He chomps cigars and wears a wetsuit that shows off his chest hair and says things like “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before your can find anything” with a straight face.  Is Reynolds even aware of how much of an officious prick Lewis is?  It’s nearly impossible to tell.  The same co-presence of sincerity and irony marks Reynolds’ performance as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997)—as well as his jaw-dropping 1972 photo spread for Cosmopolitan.  Looking at his centerfold, it’s difficult to know if we’re seeing Burt or Lewis, lying on a rug made from a bear he shot himself.                 


The Films of 2017: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hell hath no fury like Frances McDormand scorned: in Martin McDonagh’s new film she plays Mildred Hayes, a woman of a certain age who decides to pick a fight with the local police force after they let the case of her daughter’s rape and murder go cold.  Thinking that heightening public consciousness about the crime will help jump-start the investigation, she rents three billboards at the edge of town and posts a haiku-like message that bespeaks her indignation: “RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS. / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”  The billboards stand along a quiet country road, out of the way of much traffic, but their message—conveyed in white letters against a flaming red background—screams loud.  Soon they have become a subject of no small controversy, much to the disgruntlement of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).


The Films of 2017: Lady Bird

About halfway through Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha there’s a wonderfully observed montage sequence in which the title character travels from New York to the Sacramento suburbs to spend a Christmas with her family.  Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird, her first as a director, is like a feature-length version of that sequence, a whip-smart and hugely funny autobiographical coming-of-age story driven by its teenage protagonist’s clashes with her teachers, friends, and mother—time-worn material that Gerwig and her actors have somehow managed to make fresh.  The film spans a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (“Is ‘Lady Bird’ your given name?” “Yes.  I gave it to myself”) as she slogs through her senior year of high school, desperate to flee to college somewhere on the East Coast, “where culture is.”  Prankish and outspoken, Lady Bird shoplifts fashion magazines, challenges the teachers at her Catholic school, and casually snacks on communion wafers.  Her boyfriends include her co-star in the school production of Merrily We Roll Along (Lucas Hedges), a theater geek who—ominously—“respects her too much” to touch her breasts; and a wannabe Marxist rock musician (Timothee Chalomet) who reads Howard Zinn.  Meanwhile, her tightly wound mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) hides her love behind a thick veneer of criticism and disapproval.  The film begins with a scene in which, after arguing with Marion about her post-graduation plans, Lady Bird leaps out of the (moving) car.  


Psychotronic Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) is like living-room furniture: we’ve all seen it so many times that it almost doesn’t look like anything anymore.  That’s why, upon re-watching the film, I was desperate to reorient my viewing position in order to find some new angle from which to come at it.  Looking at Oz through the lens of the psychotronic—that is, looking for the moments where it gets weird or bad or otherwise slips out of gear—becomes one way of seeing it with new eyes.  Psychotronic approaches to Oz have succeeded in defamiliarizing this most familiar of Hollywood classics, and demonstrate how cult cinema can seize on the most unassuming properties.  Oz is a G-rated family favorite that also works as a gay movie, a horror movie, a drug movie; it has inspired delightful interpretations by Salman Rushdie, who prefers the Wicked Witch to Glinda (who doesn’t?), and Terry McMillan, who says she could never understand why Dorothy would want to go back to Depression-era Kansas.  John Waters, for whom the film is a favorite, has described it thusly: “Girl leaves drab farm, becomes a fag hag, meets gay lions and men who don’t try to molest her […] and unfortunately—by a surreal act of shoe fetishism—clicks her shoes together and is back to where she belongs.  It has an unhappy ending.”  Such readings brush Oz playfully and perversely against the grain.

Poppies and superimposition: one of Oz's more psychedelic moments.

Oz can also be appreciated as an example of 1930s Hollywood cinema at its most idiosyncratic.  In spite of its high production values and lavish scale, it’s driven by a folksy variety-act sensibility and shifts gears as abruptly as a vaudeville show.  The presence of Judy Garland aside, the film is populated by B-level comedians and 1930s character actors; most people, even those who have seen the movie dozens of times, would probably be hard pressed to name more than one person in the cast.  Oz’s songs are so catchy and its fantasy elements so gripping that I suspect most of us have spent our lives overlooking the digressiveness of the plot, the delightful goofiness of the dialogue and such groan-inducing visual gags as the horse of a different color.  (My favorite throwaway line is an aside by Professor Marvel, stalling for time while pretending to read Dorothy’s fortune: “Yes, her name is, uh, Emily…”)  Despite being set over the rainbow, the film’s characters speak in a slangy American vernacular.  The film was originally slated to have a dance number in which Dorothy and her friends are attacked by a “Jitter Bug,” and an off-screen voice during “If I Only Had a Heart” seems to parody that other blockbuster fairy tale movie of the late 1930s, Disney’s Snow White.       

The horse of a different color.

This is to say that on top of, or perhaps underneath, its whimsical adventure plot Oz is a crazy quilt of studio gimmickry and cornball humor.  Miraculously, the thing coheres.  But scratch its shiny Technicolor surface and you have something that’s nearly as surreal and screwy—and psychotronic—as 1941’s Hellzapoppin'.