Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Great Acid Cinema: WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

If there's one national myth that still crosses over to all generations, one touchstone tale that every cathode ray tribal fire still hears tell annually, it would be THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), a film so psychedelic and genuinely scary it still throws tripping college kids into nightmare K-holes to this day, only to suck them safely back out like bizarro tornadoes with just a click of the heels and the mantra "I will come down eventually, and maybe someone will give me a Valium" i.e., "there's no place like home."

Not only is it common parlance, fitting the Jungian concept of myth as an archetypal blueprint of the unconscious, but also in the sociological sense of a story that binds us together and gives us a structural symbolic language with which to discuss psychological issues on both a personal and societal level. No matter where your head's at there's a line in THE WIZARD to lend you wisdom: "Oh Auntie Em, I'm stuck in the witch's castle and I can't get home," could be the anguished cry of any girl suffering from anorexia, for example - the witch's castle the quicksand of the repressed unconscious, the terrifying surge of hormones and peer pressure that accompanies late adolescence mixed with dysmorphic body imaging. We're all on the brick road to Oz, only some of us are smart enough to know in advance that the man behind the curtain.... is ourselves. Whaddup, playa?!

A good myth functions as a natural psychedelic, but Oz also functions, like 2001, as a metaphor for acid itself, and remains a common way to describe the effects to people who've never tried it, i.e., tripping for the first time, what it's "like" finds a perfect parallel to the switch from black and white to vivid Technicolor. The tornado might be considered the drug itself. No matter how many times we've seen it, even knowing it's coming after dozens of viewings since childhood, that transition from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz is a bit of a shock. And the shock just intensifies with the arrival of 'The Lollipop Guild' (below); those freaky-haired goblins still give me nightmares. They're like those little weird demon guys in the bottom corners of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which also used to give me nightmares. The great Terence McKenna wrote of 'machine elves' as common mushroom hallucinations, positing that fairies, aliens, mythic creatures, all might be tied up into particular, small, elvin beings that exist in alternate dimensions but are nonetheless real. The ones I once saw were even wearing plaid!!

But a psychedelic journey doesn't end with the 'jump' you feel in perception as your life's film moves from black and white to color, from farmhands to machine elves, but merely the beginning of the trip: there would, in 'real life', be several comparable "jumps" after that, from color to 3-D to complete immersion, to abstraction, and to divine light, to dark terror, and even past that into divine terror or surrender total followed by serenity and then boredom as you just wish the colors would stop already because it's ten in the morning and you haven't been able to fall asleep and the colors get more and more dull and lifeless and washed out but they.... just.... won't.... stop throbbing in and out of near signification. After awhile you just pray for black and white Kansas rain to come and wash it all away. Sooner or later, maybe noon, it finally does -- but there they are still, leering at you, the farmhands... through the window... black and white achieved.

But the night before, well, you watch first as the colors intensify and then take on hues and clockwork animation, a cessation of time and space leading to movements all building forward tentacle-like as if each film frame never left the screen but was just moved to the background as the next frame whizzed past, until the colors are both themselves and all other colors, and these archetypal images of civilization and humanity are exposed in full myriad possibilities: in the dark gray of the scarecrow's outfit you could see army fatigues and ruddy swamps, chain gangs and dirty south racism; the blackened rust streaks on the Tin Man's metal torso can seem to glisten, serpentine, alive and breathing, oxidation happening right before our dilated eyes, particles streaming off into the ether. His glistening silver face paint and fey New Yorker speaking voice place him as some glam rock queen just missing big silver-spangled platform shoes and a white powder 'oil can'; the lion is the anima mundi, the connection to the inner fire that either crushes you in bad trip paranoia or helps you find the lion heart of fearless soldiering. For on acid you wouldn't see just the tin man in the farmhand of Kansas--his untapped archetypal potential--you'd also see a knight in the Tin Man, and a demon in the knight, all the way deep into your own werelion unconscious, which has--with the help of acid--kicked open the door to conscious reality and is running loose, drawing all over the walls with crazy markers, and every line he draws moves with a wormish squiggling life of its own.

Don't we all feel there's a pair of eyes on us, all ways, infusing our every waking hour with a nameless sometime barely perceptible dread that what we're doing is wrong, or 'ooooh, we're in trouble'? That's always the witch. This is Dorothy's story so the Witches are the guardian parents she must outwit to steal their jewels. She kills one just by 'breaking into' Oz, like finding out you took two hits of blotter acid would "kill, just kill" your mother, certificate of death and everything. The symbolic 'kill' in this case is akin to the pulling back the curtain of the great Oz. You don't kill the real mom per se, but you kill her hold over you, and your dependence on her, symbolically, and unless she's tried acid too, you just left her far, far behind on, like, the evolutionary ladder, at least so it feels at the time.

What makes OZ so special amongst all other kid movies isn't just the music or the set design but the seriousness and wide-eyed in-the-moment intensity with which Garland conveys childhood anxiety, and not just the unthinking misogyny of the celebration of the dead Wicked Witch of the East. "Only bad witches are ugly," the shallow and manipulative good witch notes, but the gravity of it, the naked animus-reckoning. The whole "Ding Dong the witch is dead" carries that PC shudder of patriarchal bullying, with its Satanic panic echo of lynching and all other ceremonial "keep them in their place" tactics like stoning, flogging, defenestration, other things I've too recently been traumatized by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO to name. "You killed her so completely that we thank you very sweetly," such lyrics would be branded misogynistic in today's climate, such unrepentant glee in the death of another person--even a male--would never fly in today's society. Imagine Harry Potter brandishing the head of that snipey blonde kid on a stick and grinning with sadistic delight to the cheers of all Hogwarts?

Drug analogies continue with the introduction of poppies, the lethargic sleep it creates is countered by some good witch "snow" -- i.e. "a speed-ball," which is what supposedly killed John Belushi and Jackie Superstar; and for the Tin Man, a little "oil" loosens the "joints." (the cut "Jitterbug" sequence would have been the DTs or opiate withdrawal), or maybe gay lube, amyl nitrates to enhance the joy of movement.

But the main lesson of Oz transcends drugs to approach the unobtainable kernel of enjoyment that Lacan always writes about, an archetypal unconscious kingdom of Platonic ideals translated into symbolic language, where everything is "the" single thing and not a prefab copy from an endless line as it is today: the pig farmer is the lion, not "a" lion, not one of millions, and the phrase "horse of a different color" comes from this one horse right here in the Emerald City, and the lesson is to realize that all the things and people in your life are part of your archetypal mythic core, should be seen as unique and sacred, not disposable and of fleeting worth. Humans are a dime a dozen, if we let them be, but if every human is THE human, if you are everyone and everything, then humanity is a rich array of beautiful muppet-like human dinosaurs. We don't judge one munchkin overt another, all are delightful, some are creepy, but there they are.

All it takes is fearless self examination and a bump on the noggin from a tornado-driven window frame to see even the most mundane elements of your existence through the lens of the eternal. In order to reach this realm you must not see in terms of better or lesser than (i.e., "maybe we should take more, I'm not feeling anything,") for everything is perfect and mythopoetic as it is; the kingdom of heaven is spread upon the earth; have you the courage to take off your red shoes and soak in it, Madge?

When you stop wishing for a richer tin man, a braver lion, a smarter scarecrow, a better cut of poppy, then you are already on the yellow brick road, the one that leads beyond duality and post-modern malaise. Every time you watch the WIZARD OF OZ can be the first time, a rebirth, a baptism. As a child suffering through dull holidays, the WIZARD was the one thing that brought all the cocktail drinking parents and sugar-addled kids together at the same time, after dinner, to watch, once again, enraptured and connecting. It was our big bonding moment and I can still taste those dark sips of adults' gin and tonics and Whiskey Sours; I can still feel that sense of belonging and import, the smell of other parents' couches, dog hair, turkey and cranberry, the terrible fear leaking through even with all this safety. I was bored stiff by football, but this -- this was real magic, a real purpose, as important as ceremonial fire ritual and storytelling in ancient Aboriginal or indigenous cultures.

Of course, we were all scared of the witch. Young and old, the parents remembered then as we do now, being scared as kids by the flying monkeys -- so were were all freaked out, the way a whole tribe in the jungle might listen to the same story of their tribe's creation every full moon around the ceremonial fire, bonded in their fears and hopes, or all shudder from the same howl in the brush. That's why each trip to Oz is as exciting as the first, because everyone watching is 'in the moment' together, and we can all recognize that we are the only ones who are ourselves, and all is sacred in the Oz pantheon. That's a hard way to feel when all your stories come to you from digital transmissions beamed up and down from outer space to your iPhone. When you can watch OZ over and over on your cll phone, alone, you've lost something. You've inherited the whole world, and just made it small. Not that I don't love having OZ on Blu-ray. Aye, 'tis a devil's bargain which makes distracted hermits of us all.   

Viewing the film today, it's more than anything the emotional intensity Judy Garland brings to Dorothy that separates it from today's kid-oriented fantasies. One incredibly intense moment occurs in the witch's castle shortly after Dorothy is abducted by those damned monkeys. The witch uses Toto as leverage to get the slippers, threatening to drown him. When Toto escapes, Dorothy tearfully notes: "He got away! He got away!" Her total devastation is turned into a flicker of hope and love for a dog. As a kid you resonate so strongly with that moment; you feel such trapped helpless despair in her voice, and the thought that at least her dog's escaped is such a beautiful straw to clutch, such a relief even as she prepares to face death. It's amazing that she's never threatened exactly (who knows what was going to happen after that hourglass ran out?) and yet it's twice as terrifying as movies these days that ladle on violence and torture.

A good drug trip is also a spiritual one, a triumph that opens our castle doors to admit new thoughts and feelings. Our escape from the witch's castle is a celebration of  smarts, heart and courage. The mantra 'there's no place like home'  is what the monks of the OZ ashram teach: deep meditation does the hat trick of taking you to Oz, but not bringing you along at the same time; the split between you and you; what part of you stays behind when you pass through the heavenly gates? The ego, of course, and without the ego you're not separate from the chair you sit on, the air you breathe or the people next to you.  Unless you have followers to do your own laundry, egolessness is a place to visit not to stay, but of course when returning to Kansas you can bring some of the color back with you to share in art, sermons or say, a gonzo-esque movie blog. Let's not forget that, back in Kansas, though the tornado seems to have distracted the real life witch for the moment, soon she'll be back for that dog -- unless the tornado killed her. It's not really mentioned. As in SHERLOCK JR,. the problems of the real are solved while the subject is in the realm of the imaginary/symbolic.

The wizard also fits the Lacanian model of the "Non du pere" - a figurehead who portrays great strength and mystery, the ultimate signifier, i.e. he embodies the "one who knows", who challenges and forbids. He may not actually know anything of value except one essential thing: "when they get what they want, they never want it again" - and thus it is "not how much you love, but how much you are loved by others." He's really referring to himself, because outside of others' love, he has no real power. But his emptiness is a favor, for he shows that all patriarchal power is contingent upon our belief in that power. He admits he's a bad wizard, but he's the best in Oz because he realized they needed a figure who would at least provide an ultimate signifier.

Thus, in being exposed, el Wizardo has no choice but to admit he's a fraud and has no way to help Dorothy or her three companions with their imaginary problems. What he ingeniously does however is carry the Non over into the nom du pere, and thus he 'names' the subjects as having already attained these values. He rewrites their conceptions of their own history, so they realize they earned these gifts through their courage, resourcefulness and bravery in the tasks ascribed. His role as the ultimate signifier, then, is to carry them over the blank spot in the circle--the objet petit a--and place them safely down on the other side. The tokens of this trial--medal, pocket watch, and diploma--assure the subjects the tasks were completed and "they are that" and they have in these items the entrance tokens into the subway of the social order.

This is why the keepsake from an absent lover, a diploma, the graduation ceremony, the wedding photo album, are important for continuing the illusion that "shit happened." Alas, in the days of email all this is more virtual and thus robbed of its mythic personal power, leaving you weak and with baggy eyes from looking too long ascreen.  For lovers, the pressed flower, sent in a letter dabbed with tears and perfume, a half a heart gold chain, a yearbook photo with a sexy signature on the back, all give way to torrid 300 page emails and endless pictures but nothing tangible...nothing will remain once the electricity goes out and the bombs start falling.

Not satin... 
A "near death" experience or acid trip can sometimes knock you into enlightenment, make you appreciate all of life and sing the praises of the banal, but then what? After a few months or years, is Dorothy still going to remember her Oz visit? Really, she should have been allowed to keep one souvenir from OZ, some representation of the unassimilable remainder-- the ruby slippers, ideally. They should have returned with her to Kansas, and remained red, even after the black and white resumed, the same red of the little girl's coat in SCHINDLER'S LIST, or the blood in THE TINGLER, or the color explosion with the gun at the end of SPELLBOUND, or the arrival of color slow and sure into PLEASANTVILLE's black and white conformity.

Failing that, Dorothy would maybe later buy some acid while enrolled at Kansas City University and when she'd see that it's red and sparkly--"ruby" acid--she'd know the score. Open up the Emerald City, baby. Dorothy's coming back with dilated pupils. But Oz can be accessed only with total devotion to the inner Angora-wearing Glenda the Good Witch. One must become pure love, a vessel stripped bare of all traces of ego and judgment. In other words, to see God you have but to blind yourself with the sun or leap from a cliff, or have perfect faith, like Bella in NEW MOON!

When I was in college I wrote two Oz related stories: one about an old homeless Dorothy hallucinating scarecrows--her ruby slippers in a shoe box at the bottom of her trash-filled shopping cart--slowly bleeding to death after being robbed and beaten by a flying monkey; she lies dying in the gutter, saying there's no place like home and seeing the Emerald City open up before her... for keeps.

The other had the younger Dorothy stopping along the yellow brick road for every needy creature that asked for change (literally), until she had an army, a million strong, marching towards the Emerald City like a flood of refugees. Naturally the wizard won't let them in, so they riot, the golden walls of Oz are graffiti-strewn and rock-damaged. They then retreat out into the poppy fields and form a shanty town. Addiction runs rampant and soon the poppies are all picked and the fields are barren and they're all shivering with opiate withdrawal. Dorothy's mob of needy anthropomorphic beings must steal everything in Oz not nailed down and hock it for the good fairy dust the witch sells out back, because the crops the scarecrows left behind when following Dorothy have all been eaten up by crows. Dorothy gets disillusioned and hides out down in Munchkinland, crying in the ruins of her fallen house, searching the cupboards for one more angry fix...

That's Dorothy, smart to the end. All sensible prophets always escape--usually into death--before their followers get too needy and devour them whole; her straw man will come down eventually, back into his black and white dorm room bed, with a thud, all apologetic and hungover, but until then he's technicolor dreamcoat king of the forrrressst! and only his fried retinas and arthritic wrists are left behind as he heads off to fight in World War Wii, the mast to wave... courage.


  1. "acid, cocaine, crack, feminism, heroin, Judy Garland, junk, lsd, poppies, Ray Bolger, tripping, Wizard of Oz" ... sounds about right.

    I think the only times I've watched a movie high (on weed), at least the only memorable times, were Masked & Anonymous and this. I think the former was actually a pretty bad movie, but the sequence when Val Kilmer freaks out while chopping up animals was pretty amusing stoned.

    As for Wizard, my friends & I did the whole corny Pink Floyd thing. The music didn't begin to "match up" to the movie but it did allow me to see the film without falling under the "spell" - it at once seemed more artificial (I've never been more aware of a movie as a documentary of actors standing in front of painted sets, technicians just offscreen) or more "deep" (a pall of depression hung over everything - both Judy Garland's and the nation's/world's circa 1939).

    I also had an epiphany about the Lollipop Guild - that they represented New Deal-era satire of unionism. Not sure about that now that I've come down...

  2. Awesome review for an awesome movie, I always thought that scene in the poppy field was the films way of warning us about the dangers of drug abuse, but I always felt it was referring to weed. Since its a flower, and it kind of mellows every one down to a screeching halt, the same way weed can if you abuse it.

    I loved your review for this classic, it has inspired me to write one of my own, since I have a thing or two to say about the symbolisms on this one, though I must say, you touched upon a couple of things I had not seen in the film.

  3. Thanks for your comment, MM! The New Deal munchkin thing is hilarious. The great thing about myths like this is they are open to so many interpretations and so you can see how many kinds of events and social and personal changes correspond to a similar pattern. Sorry to hear about the depressing aspect, but you should blame Floyd for that. I've never tried the Floyd syncing thing; maybe I'll try syncing up the Wizard of Oz soundtrack with the THE WALL and see where that gets me.

    And Monsieur Connoisseur Gonzalez, thank you so much! PS you should try poppy tea, or white lotus stamens soaked in alcohol and you'll see the narcotic power of unprocessed--and therefore legal--poppies in actionzzzzzz. Weed may mellow you out, but it's not a narcotic... and is technically non-addictive. Legalize it! Free Dorothy from da witch's castle, Rastafari nation one nation under Oz!

  4. "and is technically non-addictive. Legalize it! Free Dorothy from da witch's castle, Rastafari nation one nation under Oz!"

    Funniest thing Ive read today! And yeah, totally agree on this, I did a blog post on Cannabis Cinema a while back, I tried mentioning as many weed related movies as I could, I obviously left one or two out, but are welcome to check out that post!

  5. I looked all over your blog and couldn't find Cannabis Cinema, Connoisseur G! What's the link? That should be a whole blog in itself! Have mercy, Tin Man need hash oil on his joints!

  6. Heres the link dude, enjoy!

  7. Yo, that shit is brilliant. Stoner comedies you are avenged!

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