The novelist J.G. Ballard once observed that David Lynch’s 1986 freakout “Blue Velvet” is “‘The Wizard of Oz’ reshot with a script by Kafka and décor by Francis Bacon.” Lynch-lovers have long known that the filmmaker has a thing for “Oz” and its alternative realities: In “Blue Velvet,” a tragic woman named Dorothy wears red shoes; in Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (1990), a Good Witch floats down from the sky in a bubble-gum pink orb à la Oz’s Glinda. “If you’re truly wild at heart,” the Good Witch announces to the film’s ultraviolent hero, “you’ll fight for your dreams” — advice that sounds like a statement of Lynchian artistic belief.
In his frustrating documentary “Lynch/Oz,” the writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe explores with scattershot results how “The Wizard of Oz” figures into Lynch’s oeuvre. Divided into six chapters narrated and “hosted” (as the credits put it) by some half-dozen individual contributors, the movie is effectively an auteurist study in a boosterish key. (The film critic Amy Nicholson, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is one of the hosts.) Outside of some originally shot material of an ornate theater, the visuals consist almost entirely of archival footage, primarily from Lynch’s filmography as well as from interviews, ads, etc. — and what soon starts to feel like every single movie made since the dawn of motion pictures.
Each of the chapters in “Lynch/Oz” effectively functions as a mini-essay on the documentary’s subject, with the hosts discoursing on narrative prototypes, the unconscious, visual techniques, Lynch’s work and occasionally their own. The filmmaker Rodney Ascher opens Chapter 2, “Membranes,” for instance, somewhat confusingly by drawing lines between “Oz” and the Robert Zemeckis film “Back to the Future” (1985) as the split screen fills with snippets from both movies. Ascher says he doesn’t know if “Oz” actually inspired “Back to the Future.” Even so, “The Wizard of Oz” is “a really sturdy template,” he continues, adding that it’s “a provocative lens to look at, you know, a lot of different stories through.”
In “Lynch/Oz,” that lens gets smudged awfully fast. One problem is that the documentary restlessly circles back to a handful of films rather than, say, going deep on a single title. Ascher discusses “Mulholland Drive” (2001), and the director Karyn Kusama does the same in Chapter 4 (“Multitudes”). Ascher also talks about “Blue Velvet,” a touchstone that the filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead return to in Chapter 5 (“Judy”). Even when a host doesn’t specifically mention a Lynch movie, Philippe sometimes inserts a clip from one as if to illustrate a point, as when he includes dining scenes from different Lynch works to accompany a story Kusama tells about watching him eat syrupy pancakes when she waited tables.
It’s amusing to hear John Waters talk about Lynch (in Chapter 3, “Kindred”), a contemporary he clearly admires. (Waters’s section sounds like excerpts from a taped interview, while other chapters sound scripted.) And I could have happily listened a lot longer to Kusama, who sums up the Lynch-Oz nexus in one sentence: “When you look at Lynch’s films, which are so driven by a law of the unconscious, why wouldn’t ‘Oz’ be the foundational text for him?” Yet as the documentary repetitiously circles its subject and piles on greater numbers of clips — more than 50 movies are dropped into the 20-minute final chapter (“Dig”), hosted by the director David Lowery — whatever points Philippe is trying to make have been hopelessly lost.
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