Thursday, October 26, 2023


After watching Alexandre O. Philippe's Lynch/Oz (2022), a multi-chaptered film essay that just started showing on The Criterion Channel exploring David Lynch's putative obsession with The Wizard of Oz (1939), I was reminded of Walter Benjamin's observation about the power of allegory: “Any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else.” Allegory eradicates the detail: “it is . . . a world in which the detail is of no great importance.” Hence, for Benjamin, to allegorize is to perform an act of imposture: it replaces a particular detail by another with a similar structure. The appeal of The Wizard of Oz is due to its parabolic (allegorical) drift, meaning its conclusion contains a simple moral lesson: there’s no place like home. In Lynch/Oz, we are asked to believe that if you allegorize, say, a David Lynch film such as Blue Velvet (1986)—which, like The Wizard of Oz, has a character named Dorothy—it concludes with the same moral lesson as The Wizard of Oz: there’s no place like home. Such moments are presented as hard-earned insights, but hardly as enlightening as the filmmakers seem to believe. There are moments of keen insight, but they are few and far between, and there are discussions in which various sequences in Lynch's films are, oddly, compared to films other than The Wizard of Oz.

While it may be that The Wizard of Oz is one of David Lynch’s most “enduring obsessions,” so, too, is Sunset Boulevard (1950), a Hollywood movie (movie about Hollywood) that has been referenced many times in Lynch’s films. As any fan of the Twin Peaks series knows, Lynch’s character is named Gordon Cole, an allusion to the Paramount executive to whom Norma Desmond speaks on the telephone. And, in a strategic shot in Mulholland Drive, we see the street sign, “Sunset Boulevard.” Director Karyn Kusama, in perhaps the best essay in the film along with Amy Nicholson’s, recalls a screening of Mulholland Drive (2001) at New York’s IFC Center. In a Q&A afterward, Kusama reports Lynch said, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz.” Certainly an over-exaggeration on Lynch’s part, but even if the film inhabits a permanent place in his psyche, his confession provides no passe-partout, or pass key, to understanding his work. Except, of course, by allegorization. In fact, I would argue that Sunset Boulevard is far more important to understanding Mulholland Drive than The Wizard of Oz.

Also, I am surprised that none of the commentators mentioned or discussed the sequence in The Straight Story (in which there is a character named Dorothy!) when Alvin invites the hitchhiking, runaway girl to shelter overnight at his camp. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, who has run away from home in order to protect Toto, happens upon Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan, in yet another iteration of the titular wizard), a charlatan fortune-teller. Like Alvin, Professor Marvel tells the runaway girl to go home because her family wants her and is worried about her. The Straight Story is a road movie, like The Wizard of Oz (if you want to make that argumentnot a stretch), and does conclude with a scene extolling the virtues of family. Beyond such broad comparisons, though, the two films are much different. 

In addition to Amy Nicholson and Karyn Kusama, whose contributions are the most interesting and insightful in the movie, the film’s essayists are John Waters, filmmakers Rodney Ascher (Room 237) Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (The Endless), and David Lowery (The Green Knight).

Showing now on The Criterion Channel.


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Sideshow Attractions

One of the great myths in the history of the cinema is that late nineteenth-century audiences, upon seeing the Lumière Brothers’ film L’arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) (1896), ran in terror because they confused the moving image of a train with a real train coming directly at them. Although it never happened, the myth persists, in various forms, to this day. Apparently, the myth of the Lumière Brothers’ screening had circulated widely enough so that within a few years it was re-created in a film directed by Edwin S. Porter, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), in which a country yokel, or rube, Uncle Josh, dives for safety when he sees on the movie screen the image of a train speeding toward him.

When it comes to the cinema, it seems that at least some audience members are always running in terror from something. Writing about the preview of Freaks in early 1932, Melvin E. Matthews, Jr. cites Hollywood art director Merrill Pye, who recalled: “Halfway through the preview [of Freaks], a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn’t walk out. They ran out.” (Fear Itself: Horror on Screen and in Reality During the Depression and World War II. McFarland, 2009.) Thus, by the early 1930s, the myth popularized by “Uncle Josh at the moving picture show” had become less a matter of history than a form of “common knowledge,” defined by Robert B. Ray as an “evolving assemblage of myths, half-truths, lies, and approximations” (The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, p. 296).

Too often, “common knowledge” passes as film history. The notion that the appearance of sideshow attractions in a moving picture show “shocked” audiences so profoundly that they fled the theater appeals to the contemporary cognoscenti who believe they are far more sophisticated movie viewers than the rubes who emerged during the Uncle Josh era. But audiences at the time were not as naïve as the above anecdote about Freaks suggests. As Robert Bogdan has shown, freak shows had been a popular form of entertainment across the United States since 1840, in towns both big and small. Dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins, bearded ladies, “wild men,” fire eaters, microcephalics (“pinheads,” a word that peaked in usage from 1890 to 1940) and other sideshow attractions had been widely known for almost a hundred years before Tod Browning made Freaks. Moreover, the “geek,” or “sideshow freak,” was used as a central image in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley, published in 1946, just over a decade after the release of Freaks. The film adaptation of Gresham’s novel (1947) is now considered a classic.

In addition, many (though certainly not all) of the performers in Freaks were known in Hollywood and to popular audiences as well by way of carnival attractions such as Coney Island. For instance, the dwarf siblings who appear in Freaks, Harry and Daisy Earles (actual names Harry and Daisy Doll, members of the German-born Doll family) had been in California since the early 1920s. Harry Doll (“Hans”) had appeared in Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three in 1925, and all four of the Doll siblings would appear a few years later as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Angelo Rossitto (“Angeleno”) had first appeared on screen in the John Barrymore silent, The Beloved Rogue (1927), and the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton (“Siamese twins”), born in Britain in 1908, were exhibited as children in Europe and were widely known in the United States by the 1920s. The timid, affectionate, microcephalic Schlitze had been employed by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus since the early 1920s, and had made his film debut in Earle C. Kenton’s circus sideshow melodrama, The Sideshow(1928), starring Marie Provost, Ralph Graves, and “Little Billy” Rhodes. (“Little Billy” Rhodes would later appear in the Western spoof, The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), as well as The Wizard of Oz.) Prince Randian, the “living torso,” had lived in the United States since 1889, and was a popular Coney Island and circus attraction for decades.

The word “attraction,” used to refer to something “which draws a crowd, interesting or amusing exhibition,” dates from 1829. As Tom Gunning points out in his study of “the cinema of attractions,” the source of the word “attraction” is significant precisely because it is “a term of the fairground,” or carnival. While Gunning’s primary interest is in the roots of early cinema, he also observes, “The relation between films and the emergence of the great amusement parks, such as Coney Island, at the turn of the century provides rich ground for rethinking the roots of early cinema.” (“The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” 383) I would suggest that the relation of films and the great amusement parks also provides a productive way of reimagining Freaks, and provides a way to get beyond the common knowledge perception of the film as a sort of simple épater le bourgeois. Born in 1880, director Tod Browning’s early life coincides with the invention of the cinema and its rise as a popular entertainment, even as his later life as a carnival barker coincides with the rise of the major amusement parks. A critical reappraisal would have to begin with the assumption that the cinema is a theatrical form of exhibition rather than merely a form of voyeurism.