The documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe, who was born in Switzerland and is based in Denver, has carved out a neat niche for himself. He makes movies about movies — that is, movies about our obsession with movies. He shares the obsession, and as a filmmaker that allows him to overlap the role of superfan, critic, and historian in a way that’s candy for a certain breed of film freak. In “Document of the Dead,” Philippe made a grounded but heady exploration of “Night of the Living Dead” and what the rise of the zombie movie in the late ’60s was all about. In “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene” (his best film), he penetrated the metaphysics of “Psycho,” starting with the shower scene but extending to the entire film, taking a movie that’s famous for its fear and showing you how its true pleasure and mystique lies in the intricacy with which we watch it. “Memory: The Origins of Alien” tried, and mostly succeeded, in deconstructing the shock and awe of the “Alien” chest-bursting scene. And “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist” featured the fabled director explaining how he created the legendary demon thriller.
Philippe’s films are such unique and elevated expressions of cinemania that it took me a while to realize that he had basically made a quartet of documentaries about the four key horror landmarks of the last 65 years. Can “The Chain Saw Experience” be far behind? But whether or not he continues to mine the consciousness of horror, Philippe has now taken a detour down a special rabbit hole.
“Lynch/Oz,” which premiered at the Tribeca Festival, is his latest movie-as-meditation, and this one isn’t just a piece of film love in documentary form. The very premise of the movie — it attempts to coax out the subterranean connections between the work of David Lynch and “The Wizard of Oz” — is a lofty and rather abstract critical perception: an argument in the form of an intuition. Maybe that’s why this is the first of Philippe’s documentaries that feels a touch academic. In the past, the insights that percolate through his movies have been drawn from the voices of critics, directors, actors, and other film-world luminaries who are only too happy to take on the role of sure-I’ll-be-a-pundit-for-a-day. But Philippe himself has done the shaping. He’s the invisible critic, the one off-camera.
In “Lynch/Oz,” Philippe essentially gives the movie over to the seven writers and (mostly) filmmakers he has chosen to explore the interface between Lynch’s disarmingly concrete dream logic and the fairy-tale backlot kitsch surrealism of “The Wizard of Oz.” Each of the essayists delivers, in voice-over (we never see their faces), a 15-to-20-minute digressive rumination on the subject at hand: what they love and respond to in “The Wizard of Oz,” what they love and respond to in Lynch, and the places where the two intersect. Philippe illustrates their insights with endless rolling montages of movie clips, and of course by pinpointing the key visual examples of Lynch/”Oz” connection.
There are motifs like the ruby slippers, echoed in Lynch’s use of ruby high-heeled shoes, or thick billowy curtains, like the curtains that open “Blue Velvet” and frame “Twin Peaks” (and have descended, on some level, from the “man behind the curtain” in “Oz”), or the name of Dorothy Valens in “Blue Velvet.” Along the way, there are clips offered up almost as pieces of evidence, like a battered still from “The Wizard of Oz” glimpsed on the wall of Lynch’s painting studio in the documentary “David Lynch: The Art Life,” or Lynch playing a skewed “Over the Rainbow” on the trumpet. (He’s been unabashed in talking about how important “The Wizard of Oz” is to him.)
And there are broader motifs, like the unfolding worlds within worlds, or the way the evil characters in Lynch’s movies seem to loom over his films, even when they’re not onscreen, just as the Wicked Witch of the West or the skull-headed smoky-pipe-organ projection of the Great and Powerful Oz loomed over Oz. And there’s the primal innocence that binds the nightmare elements of both Lynch and “The Wizard of Oz.” If “The Wizard of Oz” is one of your favorite movies (in my case, yes), and if Lynch is one of your favorite filmmakers (in the case of certain films, yes), then watching “Lynch/Oz” is like seeing two old cinematic friends sitting around talking to each other.
In the documentary, the first essayist we hear is Amy Nicholson, who (full disclosure) is a Variety colleague and a friend, but let me just say: If you want to hear how film criticism can be poetry, listen to Nicholson’s lyrical evocation of “The Wizard of Oz” and the trippy place it came to occupy in the collective unconscious of several generations. There’s a spectral beauty to her evocation of the sound of wind that opens “The Wizard of Oz” (we’re actually hearing human voices) and how that’s echoed in the cosmic wind that blew through early Lynch films like “Eraserhead.”
A bit later, there’s a section featuring John Waters, and this maestro of kitsch — and of good and evil — is funny and trenchant discussing how “The Wizard of Oz” is “like a drug to kids, to get them hooked on movies for the rest of their young lives.” But you may already be picking up on an unintentional trend here: “Lynch/Oz” is a lot of more compelling when it’s talking about “The Wizard of Oz” than when it’s talking about David Lynch. In a funny way, the movie never totally convinces you of its central thesis: that Lynch and “The Wizard of Oz” are long-lost cinematic relations, interfacing across the cosmos.
As presented here, the links between the two are both vivid and inchoate; concrete and fuzzy; real and imagined. What’s more (and here’s a pet peeve), to illustrate every point with film clips, the documentary treats all of Lynch’s movie as more or less equal. Look, here’s an Ozian motif in “Lost Highway”! In “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”! Look, here’s Glinda the Good Witch, and other Oz allusions, in “Wild at Heart”! Yes, but there’s a difference between deliberate allusions (banal) and half-conscious echoes (more resonant), and I’m sorry but “Wild at Heart” is not a good movie.
The filmmaker Karyn Kusama comes on and makes telling points — about the overlapping dream worlds of “Mullholland Drive,” and the fact that so many Lynch heroes are detectives, and that Dorothy Gale is a kind of detective. She wonders if “Oz” “gave him permission to think so big, so wildly and so off the map.” And her point about Lynch and lip-syncing is fascinating. She seems to think that he experienced Judy Garland’s haystack rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as lip-syncing, an insight that’s either brilliant or even more postmodern than David Lynch deserves.
Watching “Lynch/Oz,” you keep hearing words like “doppelgänger” and “avatar” as well as comments like, “Every movie is a transportive event, a cyclone carrying us to another realm.” A line like that doesn’t necessarily put you to sleep like poppies, yet it does make you want to say: Okay, you’ve just made the case for how every movie is a little like “The Wizard of Oz.”
“The Wizard of Oz” was, of course, a fairy tale, a musical, a thriller, a comedy, a horror film, a science-fiction parable of traveling to another world — and, in being all those things, perhaps it was a kind of Ur-source of Lynch’s unique fusion of tones. But really, it influenced so many things. My own take on what gives “The Wizard of Oz” its unique flavor isn’t even mentioned: that the movie, so many decades ahead of its time, was a kind of dada Hollywood daydream of matriarchy, with all the power in the hands of women, and the one God-like man — the Wizard — turning out to be a complete illusion. “The Wizard of Oz” was a fantasy more real than reality. “Lynch/Oz” is bursting with ideas about it, and about how it colonized the consciousness of David Lynch, but the movie is too pie-in-the-sky to quite make it over the rainbow.