Nonfiction filmmaking has the capacity to open up all manner of wonderful avenues, taking viewers to new worlds by exploring under-told stories and shining a light on under-represented communities.
Still, while the genre’s commercial footprint has undeniably expanded with the proliferation of streaming services, its narrative adventurousness has largely receded. Stylistically, many productions now cling to a fairly staid, tried-and-true playbook, in which talking-head interviews provide the main lanes of illumination.
Standing in stark contrast to this standard is director Alexander O. Philippe’s heady Lynch/Oz — a thoughtful work, presently enjoying a limited theatrical release, which announces its distinction from most of its documentary brethren in two bold ways. First, it targets only serious cinephiles as its audience, concerning itself quite little with any casual mainstream framing. Second, it unfolds as an absorbingly crafted cinematic essay, an analytical work of literature told under a mesmeric array of moving pictures.
Eschewing contemporary interviews, the documentary instead leans heavily upon hundreds of different film clips to bolster the insights of its guides, and illustrate the enduring influence of the 1939 musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz on the work of filmmaker David Lynch, from overt references and homages to more enigmatic connections. The result makes a compelling case for Lynch’s use of the film, and the shared cultural language its iconic status has birthed, as both a code and an invitation to explore strange and at times surrealistic new realms.
Lynch/Oz is divided into a half dozen chapters, each portion narrated by a different filmmaker or journalist who provides their own perspective on the subject. The participants consist of directors David Lowery, Karyn Kusama, John Waters, Rodney Ascher, and Aaron Moorhead, along with film critic Amy Nicholson, who kick-starts the movie in shrewdly observant fashion.
While Waters’ segment unfolds more as a memorialized rumination, shifting from personal reminiscence into off-the-cuff analysis, most of these segments are highly scripted and rooted in what feels like strong considered, deeply personal feeling. This creates the sense of an effective relay-race, in which the baton, thematically speaking, is passed from one talented runner to the next.
Nicholson notes the manner in which Lynch has carefully held onto a childlike wonder in his work (not unlike Dorothy on her quest), and also delves into the use of the sound of wind in key scenes in his work, including Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, The Return.
Ascher in particular talks about the representation of dream world and normative realities in both The Wizard of Oz and Lynch’s films. Gestures of theatrical artifice which ring more emotionally unsettling and/or true are also compared — including, for example, the deployment of obvious make-up in a notable flash-cut in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Kusama and Lowery’s highly personal essays, the latter of which closes the movie, connect most strongly.
Lest one think Lynch/Oz is merely speculative or highly indulgent, though, there is plenty of factual mooring which underpins all these readings, including Waters recalling seeing The Wizard of Oz (which basically flopped in theaters upon its initial release, and only became iconic by way of repeat showings on television) as a child, and talking about how it affected him. Lynch, only a couple months older, seemingly had a similar experience.
Swiss director Philippe brings a special touch to this unique endeavor, no doubt aided by some of his previous experience in mining various intersections between film history and broader culture. With 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas, he was ahead of the curve in unpacking some of the darker, toxic realities of mega-fandom. In 2017’s 78/52, he exhaustively deconstructed the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. With 2019’s Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe explored the history of Ridley Scott’s classic science-fiction thriller.
The common thread between those works and Lynch/Oz is the notion that many truly great and lasting films don’t merely tell a story — they also have the ability to tap serendipitously into a deeper collective unconscious. Sometimes that connection is the result of catching zeitgeist lightning in a bottle, but just as often it is highly crafted, the result of a singular vision fused with and funneled through a shared vocabulary that viewers might not even realize they speak.