Written by Tom Augustine.
The dominant narrative surrounding filmmaker David Lynch is that his films are mysterious, their meaning often hard to parse in the traditional sense. An immensely deft surrealist, Lynch regularly combs known and recognisable tropes of old-fashioned Americana to find the festering, dark and unknown depths that lie beneath, ensuring that his films connect on a psychological or even instinctual level, even if we don’t always know exactly what is going in terms of a film’s plot. To say that he is the greatest living filmmaker doesn’t feel like an overreach – while titans like Scorsese and Coppola of course give him a run for his money, few have harnessed the medium of film in ways that demonstrate the potential of cinema so completely, with such absolute assurance. As well as being perhaps the best, i think it is also fair to say that Lynch is the most American of the living masters, perhaps the most American of all filmmakers, rivalling John Ford. For Lynch, the many contradictions of America are what make the place special – its obsession with freedom despite the many ways in which it is oppressive, close-minded; it’s traditional values of purity and squeaky-clean goodness, and the way that it clashes with America’s ravenous hunger for spectacle and perversion. In his many masterworks like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: The Return, America is the battleground for the ways the psyche wrestles with itself, a place where both the light and the dark wax and wane constantly.
For a filmmaker who famously, resolutely refuses to explain himself, many have attempted to untangle his creative web. They will receive no help from the director, who correctly argues that the films speak for themselves, that the feelings and questions they trigger are the point, and that any human explanation reveals the magician’s tricks, defusing their uncanny power in the process. It’s a lesson other filmmakers (myself included) would do well to learn – because it also creates a burbling wellspring of dialogue and discussion around his work, attempting to decode what we pick up from Lynch’s radio waves. No explanation is better or worse than anyone else’s. In Lynch/Oz, the marvelous essay film debuting on Rialto Channel this month, it’s the way Lynch informs so deeply on so many in ways often completely unique to ourselves that fuels the film’s creative mission. Assembled and directed by Alexandre O Philippe, we hear the voices of critics, contemporaries, great directors in their own right, each with personal relationships to Lynch, but also with The Wizard of Oz, a film that Lynch has highlighted as one of the most significant and inspirational in his creative journey.
August sees Rialto Channel celebrating the stories and influences of screen legends. Alongside a retrospective of some of his greatest films, Lynch/Oz, the fascinating and revealing essay film, delves into the way the work of David Lynch, perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers, is always in conversation with that perennial childhood classic, The Wizard of Oz. Through the words and observations of critics, filmmakers and contemporaries, the film’s speculation reveals new corners of the mind of an artistic genius.
Drawing on a panoply of clips from across cinema history, both American and otherwise, Philippe has assembled six revelatory and thought-provoking chapters that ground Lynch’s work in the context of cinema history, in an attempt to see what discoveries might be found by pushing Lynch’s work up against the films it was inspired by and the films it inspired. At the centre of this is The Wizard of Oz, a beloved children’s classic that is, in its own way, profoundly mysterious and full of hidden meaning that can be drawn out with a bit of digging. Most people encounter Oz as a child, and most people will revisit it at some point in their lives. I rewatched it for the first time in at least fifteen years earlier this year, and found myself crying by the end of it. Repeatedly, in Lynch/Oz, is it argued that the film is not only a powerful nostalgic recollection of our childhood, but a rich symbol of childhood itself, and of cinema in its most distilled, exacting form. There is light and tremendous darkness within The Wizard of Oz, as there is in all of Lynch’s work, and yet even a dogged Lynch fan such as myself may find themselves surprised by the ways in which the spark that The Wizard of Oz triggered in Lynch as a child manifests itself throughout his career.
As with most essay films, some arguments and segments work better than others. A late-breaking segment by The Green Knight and A Ghost Story director David Lowery is probably the weakest in terms of the shades of Lynch that it reveals, instead reverting regularly back to Lowery’s own work in ways that don’t necessarily flatter Lowery. Segments by other filmmakers, most especially Karyn Kusama, work far better. Kusama’s essay is well-thought out and deeply incisive, supplemented by excellent supporting material. Also strong is The Endless and Something in the Dirt filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s take, which delves deeply into the darkness of the recurring Lynchian figure of ‘Judy’; and beloved filmmaker and provocateur John Waters (a friend and contemporary of Lynch) whose reflections are personal and informed by an in-person understanding of Lynch that gives his segment a warm and winking energy. It goes without saying that some understanding of Lynch – some familiarity with his work – is part of the cost of admission. There is value in Lynch/Oz for those who aren’t initiated with Lynch, in the way that it explores the mysterious roots of creative inspiration and wields all of film history in convincing and well-managed ways, but if you’ve never delved into the beauty and madness of Lynch, you may feel on the back foot. Luckily, Rialto Channel is offering a retrospective of Lynch’s work this month – the perfect way to acquaint yourself.
Screen Stories every Thursday at 8:30pm throughout August on Rialto Channel.
Screen Stories on Rialto Channel - Lynch/Oz
Movie title: Screen Stories on Rialto Channel - Lynch/Oz (Philippe, 2022)
Movie description: August sees Rialto Channel celebrating the stories and influences of screen legends. Alongside a retrospective of some of his greatest films, Lynch/Oz, the fascinating and revealing essay film, delves into the way the work of David Lynch, perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers, is always in conversation with that perennial childhood classic, The Wizard of Oz. Through the words and observations of critics, filmmakers and contemporaries, the film’s speculation reveals new corners of the mind of an artistic genius.
Date published: August 4, 2023
Country: New Zealand
Author: Alexandre O. Philippe
Director(s): Alexandre O. Philippe