March 28, 2013

Coiled rope

The movie was good. Marshall got a little scared at the part about the Wicked Witch of the East and that made Nicky laugh, because he likes the Wicked Witch best. “That Good Witch is ugly, ugh,” he said in the middle, when we were having popcorn and Wally was changing reels. “She’s so old!”
“Witches have to be old,” Evelyn said. “That’s how they learn all their magic.”
“She’s not a real witch, anyway,” I said, reaching for the popcorn. “She’s just an actress playing a witch.”
“Don’t be a spoilsport, kid,” Wally said.
“She is,” I said. “You don’t think she’s a real witch, do you?”
“When I’m watching it, I like to think she’s a real witch,” Wally said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
“But way way back in your mind, you know she’s not,” I said. “Don’t you?”
“Sure, I guess.”
Evelyn said, “You never want to think of imaginary things. I love imaginary things … Anyway, some of these things might really be true … we just don’t know for sure.”
     Mom, the Wolf Man and Me by Norma Klein (1972)

Enlightenment philosophy accelerated the descent towards the concrete, in that the concrete was in some ways brought to power with the revolutionary bourgeoisie. From the ruins of Heaven, man fell into the ruins of his own world. What happened? Something like this: ten thousand people are convinced that they have seen a fakir’s rope rise into the air, while so many cameras prove that it hasn’t moved an inch. Scientific objectivity exposes mystification. Very good, but what does it show us? A coiled rope of absolutely no interest.
     The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem (1967/1983/1994)

Everyone disapproves of the ending of The Wizard of Oz. Not the discovery that the whole thing was just Dorothy’s dream as she lay unconscious after the twister hit Kansas – that idea, the first time a kid figures it out, actually seems pretty clever, with Kansas characters having their Oz counterparts or dream doppelgangers. No, the problem has always been that infamous sentence, “There’s no place like home”. For Salman Rushdie, in his short BFI book on The Wizard of Oz, that was such a conservative sentiment, so contrary to the escapist, fantastic spirit of the film. After all her adventures, Dorothy was relieved to be back in that dreary black-and-white landscape with those people?

In his Wizard of Oz entry in Cult Movies, Danny Peary says much the same thing. He notes that the offending line is in the original L Frank Baum book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy says early on:
No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.
But then, Peary adds:
In the book it does not take Dorothy’s experiences in Oz – which she looks back on “gravely” – to teach her that “there is no place like home”. She knows it immediately. But the 1939 film makes this “no place like home” nonsense the picture’s major theme, the conclusion Dorothy somehow draws from her experiences in Oz. And it is nonsense.
It’s nonsense, Peary says, because the Dorothy we see in the early black-and-white scenes is a lonely miserable kid on a barren farm miles from anywhere, tormented by the wicked Miss Gulch who even tries to do away with her dog. Why would she be so happy to return to this?

Ultimately, she isn’t and she doesn’t. As Alison Lurie wrote in a major New York Review of Books essay, collected in her Boys and Girls Forever: Reflections on Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, that ending wasn’t the end of the larger story – Dorothy went back to Oz in sequels, eventually moving permanently and arranging for Uncle Henry and Aunt Em to stay there with her. In the books, Oz became home – a much better home than Kansas. The message changes accordingly. Lurie writes:
Yes, you can escape from your dreary domestic life into fairyland, Baum’s books say: you can have exciting but safe adventures, make new friends, live in a castle, never have to do housework and – maybe most important of all – never grow up.
Like Narnia, and unlike Middle-Earth, Oz is a fantasy world accessible from our own; people go back and forth. In the new prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi, the conman-magician Oscar Diggs gets to Oz exactly the same way Dorothy did more than 70 years ago – a twister disrupts the dull, flat, black and white Midwest and carries him there (as Lurie writes, the books tell us that there are other ways in, including earthquakes and shipwrecks). As in the 1939 film, characters from a black-and-white prologue appear as different versions of themselves in the Oz section, as though Diggs’ off-world adventures were a long dream in which he processes his anxieties. Again, this seems reasonably clever – one of these correspondences, between Kansas and Oz, involving a girl who can’t walk and a china doll, didn’t hit me until later – but it doesn’t actually make sense this time, because Diggs doesn’t return to Kansas/waking life. That’s not a spoiler: as a prequel, this new film has to prepare the conditions for the 1939 film, which it does reasonably well, alluding to origin stories for the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, introducing the witches and setting up the wizard. You already know who lives and dies and who comes and goes. Diggs isn’t dreaming, or at least his dream doesn’t end – at best, he is just a character in Dorothy’s much larger, longer dream. Which could all be just a little too Lynchian for Disney.

What that black-and-white prologue actually tells you is that, unlike other post-digital remakes or revisits of fantasy classics – Jackson’s King Kong, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – Raimi’s film is more a careful and anonymous reproduction than a bloated epic or disastrously “personal” revision. That’s good, right? But it also means that it does lack a certain imaginative dimension. The twister scene is the same as it was in 1939, only twice as long, a little scarier and with obvious 3D insertions (we saw it in 2D). It could all have been even closer to the 1939 film, but it turns out that Disney had to negotiate a legal minefield to ensure that this new version was not too similar, in visual aspects at least, to the earlier one, which is owned by Warner Brothers. The shade of green on the face of the witch could not be exactly the same green as in 1939, and so on. Red shoes were disallowed.  

But as a replica, it’s still fairly successful. Sometime in the early-mid 70s, when I was five or six, The Wizard of Oz was the first film I ever saw in a cinema; every single time Margaret Hamilton’s green-faced witch appeared, I covered my eyes or looked away (a bit like Derek Jarman). Nearly 40 years later, during the prequel, my six-year-old daughter did exactly the same thing. This isn’t some trust-the-crowd response that says audiences know more than critics, but middle-aged movie reviewers moaning that the magic has gone (“It’s cute overload,” complained one) need reminding that this is a kids’ movie.