Lynch/Oz is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Even for die-hard cinephiles—and I suspect it's only the die-hard cinephiles we need to worry about—there are a couple of ways to approach Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary Lynch/Oz (2023), and one of them will ultimately be more rewarding than the other.
Feature-length video essays on a particular film or filmmaker are a niche market, to be sure. Some feel like sitting through a long, dry, and not-particularly-enlightening Introduction-to-Film lecture. Others give you the sensation of being held captive by an over-caffeinated basement YouTuber eager to build a following. Many of them—whatever the quality of their insights—can leave you with the uncomfortable feeling that you've been offered a prolonged exposure to someone else's fetish, a vaguely seedy peek at the driving obsessions to which those of us who spend too much time pouring over films in dark rooms are prone. Even the best of them—and I enjoyed Philippe's earlier films 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) and Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)—inevitably leave me feeling like my time might have been better spent rewatching the movies the documentaries were obsessing over.
Lynch/Oz sets out to read the films of David Lynch through the lens of Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939). The documentary posits The Wizard of Oz as a sort of cinematic urtext, an early and formative universal archetype that has influenced all filmmakers that followed it, but particularly David Lynch. Quoting Joel Coen, who once quipped that “every movie ever made is an attempt to remake The Wizard of Oz,” Philippe says:
"[T]here’s little doubt that David Lynch, the most enigmatic of contemporary American auteur filmmakers, keeps tapping into themes, images, motifs, and ideas stemming from that land somewhere over the rainbow. Coen’s statement might sound hyperbolic, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that every Lynch film is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz—sometimes overtly (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: The Return) and other times more cryptically (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.).
Fair enough. Lynch—famously reluctant to comment on his own movies, let alone explain them—once said, "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about The Wizard of Oz.” And not even the casual Lynch fan—and I'm a relatively casual Lynch fan, myself—can have failed to notice explicit references to The Wizard of Oz in many of Lynch's works. (Sheryl Lee's turn as a hallucinatory Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart is just the low-hanging fruit on a career-tree ripe with ruby-slipper imagery, Witch and Munchkin figures, women named Judy, and there's-no-place-like home riffs.)
If you did miss any of these references, Lynch/Oz will gleefully catalog them for you—thoroughly, broadly, and repeatedly. The film is divided into six chapters, all narrated by different film experts: film critic Amy Nicholson; director Rodney Ascher (Room 237); director John Waters (Hairspray); director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer's Body); directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless); and director David Lowery (The Green Knight).
This format avoids one of the traps of these sorts of documentaries: 110 minutes is a long time to listen to a single-person talk about anything, so the alternating curators bring a fresh tone and sensibility often enough to keep the proceedings interesting. Unfortunately, it also creates a new trap: given the relatively limited body of work being discussed, there is a lot of repetition of films, themes, and images from one chapter to the next.
To be clear, there is a lot of good stuff here. Kusama is very good unpacking Mulholland Dr.—arguably Lynch's masterpiece—and Lowery, in the final chapter, is excellent on looking backwards and re-viewing The Wizard of Oz through a slightly darker lens. (I definitely felt like I came to understand the movies discussed better in these segments.) And though the archetypal, hero's journey structure of The Wizard of Oz might undermine the central argument of the documentary—I'd argue it is less the source of the many tropes discussed, and more just an early, prominent cinematic expression of some universal themes—its very all-purpose applicability allows the experts to riff productively on any number of other films and filmmakers besides Lynch. It's a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, The Shining, The Big Lebowski, The Matrix, and many other films all get discussed, as do the works of Antonioni, Argento, Hitchcock, and dozens of other artists.
Following the trains of thoughts of intelligent movie experts as they leapfrog from film to film, teetering on tentative but illuminating associations, is a pleasure any movie fan can appreciate—and it almost doesn't matter what topic you give them to set them off. This, I think, is the best way to watch Lynch/Oz: as a valid and provocative (if somewhat arbitrary) conversational hare Philippe has set loose for some smart people to chase, gathering up their observations along the way. (This is what allows the always delightful John Waters to simply riff on associations between his films and Lynch's: he, more than any of the other narrators, seems to know it's a somewhat arbitrary topic, but he's amusedly—and amusingly—game for the game.)
So the resulting documentary probably reads best as a celebration of cinema as our collective unconscious, a wellspring of shared stories and images that speak to each other forward and backward through time. It is less effective approached as serious criticism, or even in expectation of a particularly deep or insightful exploration of the works of David Lynch. There are fleeting moments of true revelation, but more of the associations drawn are either painfully obvious or seem stretched to the point of breaking.
This is fine, of course: Lynch/Oz is primarily a harmless piece of film-nerd entertainment, not an academic treatise (thankfully). But I wanted more from it. And part of the issue, certainly, is the cultural uniformity of the panel of experts Philippe has assembled, who all tend to approach these two topics—Lynch and Oz—from similar perspectives, and arrive at similar conclusions. Lynch's cinematic universe is—like John Waters' work, as he points out—an extended interrogation of an exclusively (even deliberately) White vision of America, located in our nation's romanticized, sanitized, 1950s-centered delusions about itself. So it is disappointing that Philippe has assembled an almost entirely White American panel of experts—Kusama is the only non-White narrator—to discuss Lynch's work.
The omission of other voices of color is glaring, most notably in the scene where the documentary makes passing mention that the 1950s weren't great for everybody, and punctuates this hand-wave with—of all things—a brief clip of Donald Fullilove's minor comedic Black character in Back to the Future. It is not a question of diversity for diversity's sake, but of a hugely squandered opportunity to explore Lynch's work from a non-privileged perspective, and to unpack themes—of what Philippe calls the "quintessential American dreamland"—in ways that never seem to occur to anyone in Lynch/Oz.