Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thoughts on The Wizard of Oz

Over the last couple of days, I've finally watched The Wizard of Oz, a movie that the Library of Congress has declared to be the most watched film of all time, according to various sources. The film's penetration into our cultural bloodstream is extraordinary, so it's quite surprising it took me this long to see it.

There were various reasons for this. One is that it's a musical, and I rarely watch musicals. I hate "clever" lyrics-- lyrics which are supposedly (or even actually) clever in a self-congratulatory, smarmy sort of way-- and musicals nearly always have "clever" lyrics. This kind of thing makes me cringe, to put it mildly:

I'd be tender, I'd be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I'd be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart.


Another reason I avoided the film is the song "Over the Rainbow", which-- along with "Puff, the Magic Dragon", "Eleanor Rigby", and various other songs-- I've always placed in the "unbearably sad" category.

However, I found myself intrigued by the movie over the last few years, for various reasons. 

The main reason is my ever-deepening interest in "dream" stories-- stories which turn out to have been "all just a dream", or which may a dream, or which exist in a plane of reality which is dream-like in some way. Inception is one of my favourite movies of all time, for this reason.

It's ironic, because I used to hate such stories-- hate, hate, hate them.

When I was a child, I went through a brief phase of being frightened to go to sleep because I didn't want to dream. I wasn't frightened of bad dreams. I was frightened of any dreams. I was frightened of losing control of my mind and believing that an illusion was real. I'm surprised this doesn't frighten more people-- it's scary, when you think about it.

I can remember, not so long ago, being almost disgusted by philosophical questions like: "How can we know this is waking life and not a dream?" We just know, I thought. And that's still my attitude, on the most straightforward level. However, the issue seems increasingly interesting and important to me on what I might call a metaphorical level; not, "Is this a dream, or is it real?", but rather, "To what extent is reality itself dream-like?" Or even: "Which is ultimately more real, the dream or the reality?"

Another source of my interest in this theme is my general Counter-Enlightenment bias. I think society should respect all those elements of the human condition which we might call irrational, non-rational, or trans-rational. I tend to group them under the term "the dark side of the moon"; and, interestingly, there is a rumour (dismissed by the band, and undoubtedly nonsense) that the Pink Floyd album of that title was written to synchronize with the Wizard of Oz!

The Wizard of Oz is a framed narrative, which also interests me. Framed narratives are similar to dream stories; there are different "layers" of reality involved.

Finally, I was interested in the film because of its sheer cultural impact-- all the quotations and allusions from the film which are scattered through other movies, books, songs and in many other places.

So how did I like the film?

I found it very moving. In fact, my eyes were wet for much of its running time. I generally don't care about acting, but Judy Garland's performance is extraordinary-- the vulnerability and yearning written on her face all through the film is heart-melting.

It certainly has its flaws. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This might be excused considering it's all just a dream, but one expects stories to have a certain internal coherence, if only to be dramatically satisfying. I would argue that The Wizard of Oz lacks this-- the plot holes are gaping.

I also dislike the flimsiness and silliness of its invented world. Oz looks very dull, for all its colour and spectacle. It's too sleek, featureless, plastic. It looks like a theme park. 

Why then, has the film proved so successful? Surely because of its emotional impact, and the depth of its themes.

One of the themes of the film is the contrast between the mundane and the exotic, the familiar and the faraway. Dorothy longs to be "somewhere over the rainbow", and gets her wish. However, once she reaches Oz, she finds herself longing for Kansas again. (Some people point out that this is handled quite clumsily, since her immediate motive for running away is that her dog is about to be euthanized by a cruel neighbour; not a bad reason, really, and not actually stemming from any dissatisfaction with her home, though such dissatisfaction is shown earlier.) When she wakes up, she comes to the conclusion that "there's no place like home". Even while still in Oz, she says: "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, l won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there I never really lost it to begin with."

This is the message of many of my favourite fictions. For instance, it's the central message of my favourite movie, Groundhog Day.

I've always been a lover of the familiar and the ordinary. Indeed, I sometimes worry that my love of the familiar and the ordinary is pathological, and disqualifies me as a commentator upon the human condition. Aside from anything else, I'm a profoundly insular person. I've never really liked stories set in an unfamiliar times or places or environments. I have no interest in stories set in the ancient world, or South-East Asia, or the demi-monde. I like stories set in English-speaking suburbia.

On the other hand, as one might guess from my Counter-Enlightenment affinities, I also craved stories of the supernatural, otherworldly, fantastic, and so forth. To put it in terms of this movie, the only two places that really interest me are Kansas and Oz.

And it also occurs to me that Kansas and Oz, between them, form a complete spiritual reflection of America. Is America the picket fence or the yellow brick road? The answer is surely "both". Perhaps this is true of every country and every people. But I think it's particularly true of America. The same country that is endlessly blasted for being utterly insular, philistine, small-minded etc. etc. is the country that sent men to the moon and cherishes in its soul the unquenchable thirst for new frontiers.

In the end, however, it could be that we are all drawn to one more than the other. Roger Ebert says this in his review of the film:

The ending has always seemed poignant to me. Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again. “The land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in,” decided young Terry McMillan, discontented with her life in Michigan. “It beat the farm in Kansas.”

My view is completely the opposite. I find the farm in Kansas much more appealing than Oz, on every level: atmospherically, visually, imaginatively, and in every other way.

The last scene of the movie is the one that touches me most profoundly. In fact, it touched me even before I'd seen it, since I'd heard about it so often. Dorothy wakes up, home in Kansas. Her aunt and uncle are there, and so are the farmhands who bear such a striking resemblance to the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, and so is the travelling showman who looks like the Wizard of Oz himself.

The scene also seems poignant to me, but for completely the opposite reason to Roger Ebert's. "I'm not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all", says Dorothy. But she is going to leave...and even if she doesn't, they are all going to leave her, whether through death or simply through passing out of her life. And her devoted little dog Toto will almost certainly be the first to go.

This is the sadness that hangs over every story. The resolution is only temporary. There's no place like home...but is there any such place as home, after all? Even if we stay in the same place, things are not going to stay the same. Is home itself, perhaps, nothing but a dream?

This transience, of course, applies to everything. It's not just parents, spouses and children who die. Everything passes. The world that seems so familiar and reliable to us will one day be as historical as medieval England or ancient China. All the rhythms and routines that we take for granted will pass way.

How much does this preoccupy you, dear reader? It preoccupies me very much, and it always has, even when I was a child. Clive Barker, the horror writer, says that he was nostalgic for childhood as it was happening. I can identify with that. There has literally been no time in my life that I have not been haunted by the transience of everything.

As I've admitted on this blog recently, and as I've previously mentioned in this very post, I really do wonder if this preoccupation is morbid, abnormal, excessive. It obviously informs my view of the world; my traditionalism and my nationalism, to a great extent, are a response to it.

But I'm not alone. Many thinkers and writers have expressed the craving for permanence, for something that can endure against the flux. For instance, there is Edmund Burke's haunting criticism of constitutional upheavel:

By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of summer. 

Yeats, like many other poets, contrasts the permanence of art with the transience of life: 

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

A book about the poetry of Louis Macneice, which I've just started reading, quotes these lines as central to his poetic themes: 

Let all these ephemeral things
Be somehow permanent like the swallow's tangent wings. 

The quest for permanence amidst ephemeral things is, I think, one of the reasons human beings are so drawn to art-- both its creation and its consumption. I know it's true in my case. Writing itself is a reassuring act, given how (comparatively) permanent written words are compared to spoken words, or to the flux of ordinary life. Then there is the hope that one's written words will survive and be re-read.

Much of the pleasure of a "timeless classic" like The Wizard of Oz (or Groundhog Day) is that, in itself, it seems like a shelter against transience. Somebody, somewhere, is watching the movie right now. And, in a sense, Dorothy is never going to leave the farm ever, ever, again; because the movie ends with that declaration. For a moment, the dizziness of perpetual change is overcome, and we can enjoy the illusion (or even, comparatively speaking, the reality) of the unending.


  1. One criticism of the film has been that tin doesn't rust. My father disputes whether that's entirely true.
    In the light of what you pointed out about Dorothy deciding for farm life at the end of the film, it's actually a bit misguided of the homosexual activists to choose this as 'their' movie, something I only fully learned about recently (apparently the rainbow symbol comes from the song, the early black&white scenes are looked at as the pre-'coming out' days, the coloured scenes post-liberation). The term friend-of-Dorothy describing a covert gay man comes from this also, although I've only ever known one person to use this and he was from Singapore where it's all still illegal. No one really reflects on Dorothy's happiness at going home.
    Casablanca movie was on my mind this morning when I heard about the two Scandinavian tourists murdered by an extremist group in Morocco, ironic that it starred Ingrid Bergman.
    One much-mentioned mistake is the fact that the famous pianist so obviously couldn't really play a piano

    1. Without wanting to give any support to the gay agenda, I can understand why anyone who thinks of themselves as misunderstood or an outsider would feel drawn to the film. Judy Garland expresses those emotions so evocatively, it's almost painful.

      Yes, those little things (like the piano in Casablanca) can be really distracting to anyone who can tell the difference. Like when people play chess in films or TV and someone gets a checkmate out of nowhere. That never happens in real life, unless you are a complete novice.

  2. Wow! What a pleasant "depth" post to read. This film is always somewhere far down in my mind even though I almost haven´t seen it. To hinder confusion I did see it (or at least most of it, and most definitely the absolutely marvellous ending scene! but only in very early childhood on tv) and I got the basic message of "finding life´s true core value at home" just as easily as these film makers had intended. How could any one miss it!?
    Just the other day also I saw another timeless classic that everybody (but me) has seen and often several times: It´s a Wonderful Life. Jimmie Stewart´s performance and his overjoy at again seeing his family in the end made a very similar impression, to heart as well as tear channels. Among the most impressive singular moments in the entire (my personal) world of films list. Up there with Citizen Kane, another best ever that I only actually saw utterly belatedly as an adult a couple of years back. Do they still show It´s a Wonderful Life in Irish tv every Christmas, and will it make it into next generation as well do you think?

    As for the Swedish campers that got their throats cut near Casablanca, there were some cynical remarks on the social media when state tv apparently had first branded it as "knife injuries".

    1. I didn't hear about those Swedish campers, that's sad.

      Yes, they show It's a Wonderful Life at Christmas in Ireland too, and I imagine it continuing well into the future! I only saw it relatively recently, was one of those films everyone else seemed to have seen but me, just like the Wizard of Oz. I prefer Citizen Kane, though.

      I'm glad you liked the post! I thought of it as a "depth" post when I was writing it! And yes, I ofen find myself unable to say whether I've seen a film or not-- when I've caught a certain amount of it, perhaps on several different occasions, but never watched it through!