For better and worse, the 109-minute essay doc “Lynch/Oz” often feels like an anthology of thematically-connected shorts, all of which concern American filmmaker David Lynch and his recurring fascination with the classic 1939 movie adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Thankfully, the awkward presentation and inconsistent tone of each segment, divided into chapters with distinct themes, only slightly dampen the general effect of watching a few intelligent, articulate talking-head interview subjects (including filmmakers John Waters and Rodney Ascher) dig deep as they talk over footage from Lynch’s movies.
Some talking heads understandably struggle with adapting their natural speaking voice into voiceover narration. But some awkward phrasing and unnecessary throat-clearing only negligibly diminish writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe’s compelling juxtaposition of footage from “The Wizard of Oz” with Lynch projects like “Wild at Heart,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks.” So while some talking points tend to be belabored and others don’t get unpacked at great enough length, “Lynch/Oz” still offers movie-lovers a variety of thoughtful and dynamic new ways of seeing Lynch’s work.
As in “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene” and “Memory: The Origins of Alien,” Philippe’s previous cine-collage–style documentaries on “Psycho” and “Alien,” “Lynch/Oz” presents movie clips, behind-the-scenes interviews and some other ancillary documentary footage to illustrate different Lynch-philes’ talking points. There are common themes and concerns that loosely unite different readings of Lynch’s movies, but Lynch’s own perspective understandably (and perhaps wisely) doesn’t feature extensively among them.
That’s partly a matter of necessity since, as many cinephiles know, Lynch doesn’t like to talk about the meaning of his surreal, nightmarish movies. Still, it makes sense to sparingly use direct quotes from Lynch himself, given that much of what distinguishes Philippe’s project depends on the free-associative nature of his experts’ analyses, as well as how their takeaways either complement or build on each other. In emphasizing the subjective nature of various featured interpretations, Philippe successfully preserves the shroud of mystery surrounding Lynch’s movies.
In the opening chapter, film critic Amy Nicholson suggests that viewers must embrace a certain amount of enigmatic uncertainty when they approach Lynch’s movies, citing the filmmaker’s real-life direction of “more wind” to his actors as his way of asking them to behave with more “mystery.” Nicholson talks about the central motif of the wind in “The Wizard of Oz” and effectively sets the table for some of the movie’s subsequent insights by suggesting that, like “The Wizard of Oz,” Lynch processes trauma by entering what he calls a dissociative “psychogenic fugue” state.
Documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher (“Room 237”) then builds on Nicholson’s talking points by discussing the porous and sometimes literally overlapping boundaries that separate the dream world from normative “reality” in both “The Wizard of Oz” and Lynch’s projects. Philippe then figuratively passes the baton to filmmakers like Waters, Karyn Kusama, and David Lowery, all of whom inadvertently expand on the preceding theories with their own idiosyncratic takes.
Ascher sees a key scene from “Mulholland Drive” — when Patrick Fischler’s character stumbles upon a witch-like dumpster hag at the back of a diner parking lot — as a sign that the movie can be understood as an “Oz narrative,” since Fischler’s protagonist seemingly enters a weird liminal space by sheer curiosity alone. Kusama’s take on Lynch’s movies will later resonate with Ascher’s, since she argues that Lynch’s characters are like Dorothy Gale, given their mutual “unconscious courage” and compulsively inquisitive natures. Kusama’s interest in Lynch’s use of makeup and lip-synced musical performances also echoes Nicholson’s earlier aside on the barely concealed darker corners of Oz that Dorothy either implicitly accepts or simply chooses not to explore.
Ultimately, Philippe’s movie reveals itself to be about how Lynch’s films both encourage and reward personal interpretations since they’re inevitably about accepting the unexplained and irreconcilable co-existence of both good and evil influences. Sometimes, Philippe’s commentators tend to get lost in their own visions of Lynch’s movies, which can make this movie’s organizing concern with “The Wizard of Oz” seem flimsy. But Philippe often does an excellent job of compensating for these minor shortcomings by using footage to show how Judy Garland, Dorothy Gale and the land of Oz perennially spill over into Lynch’s art.
In Dorothy and Oz, Lynch seems to have found totemic symbols for his own dual longing for and resistance to nostalgia-friendly symbols of Americana and the repressed darkness that lurks around every corner, even within ourselves. The suggestive nature of Lynch’s imagistic projects does a lot of the heavy lifting here, since so much of “Lynch/Oz” asks us to re-watch Lynch’s movies through its different narrators’ eyes.
Still, in providing such a well-structured, dynamic and generally approachable new framework, Philippe and his interviewees not only pay a fitting tribute to Lynch, but also do it without ever being too dry or too academic in their presentation. Philippe might have been able to make an even greater movie with all the material and resources available to him, but there’s enough here to leave Lynch buffs feeling like they’ve attended a well-illustrated lecture on a beloved and rich subject.
“Lynch/Oz” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.