This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. In this entry, Will DiGravio reviews Alexander O. Philippe’s latest documentary, Lynch/Oz. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
The sounds and images of few filmmakers linger in one’s mind like those of David Lynch. Entering a Lynch film for the first time, one knows they will see colors and hear things in ways they could never expect. Such moments may later return to us in a dream or when we encounter a similar gesture in real life, carrying with them horror and beauty. It is the great simultaneity of Lynch’s style.
It is fitting, then, that all interested in Lynch’s work should think about the images and sounds that inform his psyche. Such is the premise of Lynch/Oz, the revelatory new work from director Alexandre O. Philippe. Viewers may already know Philippe’s past work, which includes 78/52, a 91-minute study of the Psycho (1960) shower scene. Or perhaps Memory: The Origins of Alien, the story behind Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. Philippe’s work is rooted in a deep respect for the moving image and, in particular, how the creation of cinema can transcend time and space. Truly great works live on forever, bringing with them the images and sounds that inspired them and inspiring new ones along the way.
Skim through a summary of Lynch/Oz, and you might think the premise is a bit boring and on the nose. At its most basic level, the film is a study of how The Wizard of Oz (1939) influenced the life and work of Lynch. One need only glimpse a few minutes of Wild at Heart (1990) to understand that Victor Fleming’s film, based on a novel by Frank Baum, is perhaps the essential influence on Lynch’s art. Lynch himself, as the film notes, has said not a day goes by without him thinking of Oz.
But Phillippe and his team, including the film’s superb editor, David Lawrence, have anticipated such rebukes. The film successfully avoids the pitfalls of its deceptively basic premise and instead becomes about so much more. Beyond the relationship between Lynch and Oz, the film contemplates the impact of movies on children, the labor of filmmaking, the life and tragic death of Judy Garland, how filmmakers connect with their audiences, and the impact of Lynch’s work on others.
Nor does the film feel like an overly indulgent study in auteurism or psychoanalysis. Lynch/Oz derives its credibility from its use of multiple voices. Phillipe wisely divides the film into six different parts to provide various perspectives. Contributors include Amy Nicholson, Rodney Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, and David Lowery. Each offers their own take on Lynch’s work, the land of Oz, and the relationship between the two.
The reflection of Waters, a contemporary of Lynch’s and another Oz-obsessed filmmaker, emerges as particularly effective. That he buys into the film’s premise adds yet another layer of credibility. Kusama’s section provides a similar effect. As a filmmaker who learned the craft while watching Lynch’s work, she provides a critical perspective, playing the role of artist, critic, historian, and fan all at once. It is a fitting approach for a work like this. One could imagine a written version of this work, but the use of film language itself makes it all more immersive and convincing.
The film’s contributors appear only through voiceover in the film. Each of their tones, presumably through Phillipe’s direction, strikes a perfect balance between authoritative and casual. They offer their points of view in ways that feel more like open-ended reflections. At no point do they sound like some final, irreproachable lecture on Lynch’s work. The voiceover style recalls other aspects of contemporary moving image culture focused on remixing and analyzing the work of others. Fans of video essays, for example, will find a similar approach in this film. The film effectively employs supercut-like montages, multi-screen comparisons of films, and superimposition. Images from a Lynch work and images from Oz, for example, often become one.
Phillipe has a tremendous sense of structure. Given the ways that Wild at Heart wears its associations with Oz on its sleeve, it is easy to imagine a version of this film that over-relies on that one work to its own detriment. However, Lynch/Oz in no way uses it as a crutch. Phillipe brings Wild at Heart in at the right times. He waits until well into the film to deal with it in full. One could even imagine a version that makes no reference to Wild at Heart yet remains as compelling and convincing. The film collects seemingly direct references to Oz in Lynch’s work. Such moments include red shoes, characters named Dorothy, a desire to go home, etc. But also offers a more philosophical take on the relationship between the two.
So, what is it about Lynch and Oz? By the film’s end, the contributors and the filmmakers offer several answers, but one is particularly compelling. It is through Oz that Lynch, whose surrealist influences make his films sometimes impenetrable, more palatable. It is through Oz that Lynch finds a populist cinematic language. He connects with those who wondered in amazement at Oz and continues to learn from its lessons today. It inspires us just like it inspired him. Because just like home, there is no place like the world of David Lynch.