Are you off to see the Wizard?
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Having recently seen Oz the Great and Powerful, and in the knowledge that it’s still number one at the UK and American box office (and making a fuckzillion dollars while doing so), it’s had me thinking more than any other film has so far this year. Don’t get that confused with liking the movie, though; I happened to think Oz was offensively awful on many, many levels. So many, in fact, it was like a skyscraper of bad – a skyscraper made so tall with these countless levels of dreadfulness, that it would’ve been more impressive for Tom Cruise to climb it as opposed to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in MI:4 – Ghost Protocol, the tallest building in the world. It would’ve dwarfed the damn thing. What I’m getting at is that Oz the Great and Powerful is really, really bad. But why?
Because The Wizard of Oz exists.
Let’s begin with the 1939 classic – nay, masterpiece – which enraptured every child who saw it in the day, and every youngster who is lucky enough to have their parents buy it for them now. Movies are the best hand-me-downs we have; what else is there that’s better than passing on a collection of personally nuanced memories to your loved ones, especially to those young enough to ferment it in their own imaginations? I proudly include myself in that tradition of hand-me-downs; I caught The Wizard of Oz on VHS in my youth, and promptly formed an avid obsession with scarecrows and tin men. I was also terrified by that huge floating green head toward the end, claiming itself to be the great and powerful wizard, which was then revealed to be something else entirely thanks to the simple act of opening a curtain. This moment to me as a wide-eyed child was superficially entertaining, but in the years to come it quietly occurred to me that it was a subversion of the most influential kind. The Wizard’s exposure was a quiet lesson in not trusting everything that I saw; that seeing doesn’t necessarily always mean believing, that to question everything was the most profound modus operandi for remaining wide-eyed into adulthood, but in a more different – and important – sense.
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The Wizard of Oz‘s focus on artifice is at its core; is the Land of Oz merely Dorothy’s dream? It functions enough on that narrative level, but it goes much, much deeper. What this 73 year-old movie does best (73!) is take its own artifice, and make you believe in it completely – by believing in it itself.
We can clearly see that the movie sets that Judy Garland, aged 17, finds herself on are just that: movie sets. Director Victor Fleming doesn’t attempt to hide this, to cover it up; after all, it is 1939, and there was no way he could misuse CGI to try and make the Land of Oz look more ‘real’. And that’s the juncture at which modern filmmakers – and audiences – are accustomed to accepting. Aquiescing. But that’s just the thing – as much as your may forget your car keys, or are unable to solve a seemingly simple crossword, your brain is actually rather brilliant when it gets down to the subject of knowing what’s real and what isn’t. It’ll know when something’s computer-generated (at least for most of what today’s technology can offer), and when something is real. So when you see the lavishly coloured, obviously wooden Munchkin Land, or the exquisite matte painting of the Emerald City substituting as the horizon which Dorothy and her curious assorted pals stare at in awe ahead of them, you know instantly they’re fake – but your brain registers it as real. Why? Because you inherently know when something is actually there with the actors, when something can be touched. CGI, on the other hand, you know isn’t there. Neuroscientists Robert T. Knight and Marcia Grabowecky state that ‘… the brain’s understanding of anything, whether factual or abstract, arises from our manipulations of the external world, by our moving within the world and thus from our sensory-derived experience of it’ – which is perfect in illustrating that notorious concept, suspension of disbelief. When James Bond performs that insane car stunt in The Man With the Golden Gun, a move that couldn’t possibly happen in day-to-day life without all the research and design that’s put into it by the filmmakers, it looks incredibly ridiculous. And so what did the guys behind the film decide to do? Put a a slide whistle over the soundtrack (watch the link). This comic sound effect is inserted to let you, the viewer, know that they know that it’s ridiculous. Personally, I find it’s a failure of the director to believe in the world he’s created – exactly the opposite of Victor Fleming and his Oz, a world brought to life through believing in its own artifice. Which leads me nicely to Oz the Great and Powerful.
Despite its sloppy-ass writing and miscasting of its lead (James Franco fan here, but it’s a shame Robert Downey Jr. couldn’t have made it as planned), that’s not where the real problem with Oz lies. Sam Raimi, a director I look up to because he created cinematic universes which operated within their own sets of boundaries and rules – the Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies – never seems to want to let himself fall into this particular world that he’s pasting up on cinema screens. It exists only two-dimensionally on those screens; films should be windows that we can step through and explore with our minds. Raimi does what is required of him from the studios, but he seems to have lost that wide-eyed sensibility that he so proudly exhibited, right from his small beginnings in horror through his big-box office superhero pictures. He seems to have stopped believing.
Oz the Great and Powerful, unlike its septuagenarian predecessor, refuses to believe in its own artifice. That quality that becomes rarer and rarer with more and more short-cuts taken by studios and filmmakers, the basis for much cinematic magic that peppers older movies, is bereft in Raimi’s latest; that’s because of his understandable, but in regards to the tenet of timelessness, ultimately misguided attempt to modernise the filmic portrayal of Oz through pointing out that it’s all fake. It works for films such as Marvel’s successful run of movies; the gleeful poking at aesthetic helps to diffuse some of the ludicrousness inherent in Thor (‘Uh, base, we’ve got, uh, Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood’), and the myriad self-referencing to its own franchise in The Incredible Hulk works well to let us know this is indeed a silly comic-book movie – but is now that much more fun because of its balls to be in on the joke too. However, the entire premise of Oz is that it’s a real place; does Dorothy ever question that the Cowardly Lion just looks like a man in a rather obvious lion suit? Or looks on in hip, eyebrow-raising perplexion when the Wicked Witch of the West melts into a heap of clothes after an encounter with water, a weakness that’s never once mentioned previously in the film? No, she doesn’t. Through sheer character and conviction from all parties making the film, Judy Garland becomes Dorothy, and those sets become Oz. It’s a real place to you as a child, to your child – or to you even now, where you exist in a greyer world you perhaps feel sometimes doesn’t inspire or touch you the way those colourful characters skipping down that yellow brick road do.
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Sadly, the new movie proves itself to be not as Great and not as Powerful as the classic by violating the same grounds. Example 1: A listless James Franco, dressed and acting like Oscar the magician and would-be King of Oz, first meets Zach Braff’s CGI flying monkey Finley when he’s caught up in some vines. As he walks over to help, Franco mutters to himself, ‘Of course I can save this little… talking… monkey… in a bellhop’s uniform…‘. The writers of the film acknowledge the absudity of the situation; the actor acknowledges the absurdity of the situation; so does the director. And thus, the magic of Oz is stripped away – hey, you know what? The movie’s told itself the monkey shouldn’t exist. By proxy, I don’t believe it exists. Fuck you, Franco.
Example 2: The blasted bellhop monkey-that-shouldn’t-exist has his turn at pointing out the fakery. At one point, in order to avoid social ostracism due to the lie Franco is spreading about his magical powers, Finley mentions that they could help out with the ‘infrastructure’, and to perhaps help fill in some ‘yellow brick pot holes’. Firstly, the word ‘infrastructure’ has no place here – it belongs in boardrooms. Secondly, pointing out that the yellow brick road as plot holes, as opposed to it being symbolic in nature – and therefore, perfect – is beyond idiotic, and manages to help desecrate one of the most magical icons in Oz paraphernalia.
Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, Example 3: When the munchkins are first introduced, they burst immediately into a musical number. Franco stops them – ‘that’s enough, thanks’, ‘take five!’ – mid-flow. They look suitably disappointed; and you know what? Me too. The fact that The Wizard of Oz was a musical fits into, once again, how it believes in itself. And that’s the basis of a musical; when anyone begins singing in one, no one else points out the fact, or looks puzzled by it. For them, it’s part of their world – if anything, they’ll join in themselves. Franco literally points out they’re singing a song, and doesn’t like it – in fact, he stamps it out entirely. Must be a metaphor for how Raimi is crushing any life out of his own construction with a big, fat boot.
In this age of CGI, there are few who use it sparingly and wisely. It fills in the gaps, erases the wires, as opposed to completely building a world and calling it real. That’s why directors like Christopher Nolan should be lauded, regardless of any petty qualms you may have toward him; Inception‘s now famous rotating corridor scene is so popular because it’s genuinely exhilarating and mind-blowing. And why? Because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually there, flying through the damn corridors. He’s doing it for real. CGI was utilised to complete the illusion – by removing his wires. On the other end of the spectrum, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a mainly CGI construct – so why does it work? It’s down to its own thematics, the way its world functions; it’s a dream-meets-reality dichotomy, where our belief is constantly tested and subverted (especially at the end of the film). Oz the Great and Powerful never finds that balance. A decent jab with marionette-handling for Franco’s other sidekick, China Girl, does look rather grand – but instead of allowing the amiable fallacy – and therefore, personality – of the puppetry to shine through, Raimi plasters over it all with more CGI.
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There’s actually a moment in The Wizard of Oz that sums up why this new incarnation shouldn’t have been made in the first place. It’s when Dorothy first sings those first two notes in Somewhere Over the Rainbow. That simple octave-jump is so full of wide-eyed wonder, imagination and most importantly of all, belief, it obliterates the hollow shell that purports to be a prequel. In its attempts to cover up, even lose its own sense of wonder at itself, why should we care either? The sets end up looking like sets, because of all the effort put in to make it not so. Sam Raimi should take some advice from Dorothy in that clip, possibly the most important advice for any filmmaker and for us as viewers: dare to dream.