It’s more difficult than it’s ever been to get a film distributed and into actual brick-and-mortar movie theaters, but here comes Alexandre O. Philippe’s ruminative crit-essay Lynch/Oz, a documentary, it seems, only a film critic could love. And who cares about them? Can precious screen space suffer the indulgence of a speculative non-narrative film about film, not to mention a deep-reading geekfest about America’s most recalcitrant niche auteur?
But wait, haven’t we already been served plenty of ripe plates of critical-theoretical exegesis, like Philippe’s 2017 78/52 (a 91-minute exploration of Psycho’s shower scene) and 2019 Memory: The Origins of Alien; Nina Menkes’s Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022); Kent Jones’s Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015); Ross Lipman’s NotFilm (2015); Rodney Ascher’s pro-am doc on The Shining, Room 237 (2012); Mark Cousins’s 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011); etc.? Are the movie geeks on the rise? Is everyone a film critic now — even filmmakers themselves?
If only. I’m partial, predictably, but worse things could happen to a groaning art form besieged by Internet-enabled new-media distractionism than to double down and let the cinemaniacs run the asylum. Though it seems an odd nonfiction subgenre. We’re not talking about filmmaker interview-bio-docs, which have always been a thing (going back at least to Peter Bogdanovich’s Directed by John Ford, in 1971), or making-of exposés, or self-fellating promo features like That’s Entertainment! (1974). Moviedom has always enjoyed inserting camera lenses up its own colon. But films that critically and/or scholarlily interpret and explore other films? We could, marinating in our geekiness, think that maybe Jean-Luc Godard is finally beginning to get things his way, in which cinema’s proper subject is cinema, and that writing criticism about movies, instead of making movies about movies, is akin to, as they say, dancing about architecture. Or have we simply arrived at the point where home-video supplement docs, of the kind perfected by Criterion, are now integral to our cultural scenery and are evolving into the main event? (You only need to see/hear Jonathan Lethem elucidate the codes within Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger Than Life on Criterion Blu-ray to get a sense of how rich this particular subculture can be.)
Or is it simply a facet of the millennial/Gen Z crunchy lust for retro nerd minutiae? However you take it, the films themselves, as films, can be trifles — as trifling as a film review, in fact, but also as potentially crackling with buzzy cinephilic energy. They’re docs made up of pure creative reasoning, lionizing and unpacking and quoting from other, presumably beloved films, taking as their focus the experiential intoxication of film-watching — and the time-seasoned memory we hold of those earlier films, burnished with emotion but also maybe fading and ready to be re-electrified all over again. Watching Lynch/Oz makes you want to rebinge the entire Lynch oeuvre, going back to The Grandmother (1970), and if each slice of it is naturally far more fascinating and memorable than Lynch/Oz itself, isn’t that the fate of criticism everywhere? Critics know that they are the human home-video supplements of art culture, whatever their beat, maybe deepening the conversation but also putting a match to active-viewership gasoline and helping our torches burn.
Under the circumstances, I should perhaps feel a little guilty not making a film about Lynch/Oz instead of writing about it. As the title says, Philippe’s film invites us to explore Lynchistan by way of his allusive relationship with Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), a uniquely febrile piece of code-loaded Hollywood Americana that has had a special impact in its post-release afterlife, particularly when it began making ballyhooed annual appearances on network TV starting in 1956, when Lynch was 10. The explicit traces are everywhere — the red shoes, the dwarfs, the curtains, the wicked witches, slow dissolves, the warbling songs, the secret portals, the meta-realms, the innocent confronting the wicked. Philippe sections his film into six chapters, each written and narrated by a different, unseen Lynch-easte — including filmmakers Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, and David Lowery — parsing out their ideas about what the interface is between Lynch and the old musical, and what it means. Plus, of course, a vast cataract of clips of everything, which are quite like getting massaged by a martini.
Golden-nugget-wise, though, it’s a mixed bag: Waters does little more than reminisce, hilariously, of course, about the 1939 film and about his friendship with Lynch, while for Kusama the real story of Mulholland Drive (2001) is the real-life decline and demise of Oz star Judy Garland. Filmmaking partners Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (whose latest film, 2022’s Something in the Dirt, has at least a title Lynch would thumbs-up) belabor the idea that the journey-to-the-Wizard-to-get-home structure has repeated itself everywhere, including Apocalypse Now (1979), After Hours (1985), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). After noting how even Lynch’s Dune (1983) has a Dorothy’s Odyssey shape to it, Ascher quite correctly points out that the ubiquitous and nearly Jungian template of the older film’s plot, including the crossing of a mysterious membrane into a parallel world, might in fact be “everything.”
But even when the points are a little dubious or less than insightful, Philippe’s discursive omnibus is a blessed trip for filmheads (not just Lynch fans), because it scratches the itch — that itch we have to free-associatively craft a conspiracy board of connections and sublayers, even out loud as we’re watching. Doing it with creative friends is a boon; Nathan Juran’s creaky but fertile sci-fi nugget The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) is indexed twice in Philippe’s film’s ruminations, which might surprise even Lynch. Filmmakers, though, don’t make the best film critics (they rarely see enough films, for one thing), and so, unsurprisingly, the stand-out here, in sharpness and chops, is veteran critic Amy Nicholson, who eloquently positions It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a heartfelt kind of echo chamber/missing link between Oz and Lynch. But even her granular reading can’t help but suggest that nearly any modern auteur with a weighty filmography could, given the Oz archetypes, justify Philippe’s approach, including Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, and Cronenberg.
At the same time, Lynch is hardly the aggregate of his influences, and Philippe could just as well have made Lynch/Vertigo or Lynch/Jack Smith or Lynch/Odilon Redon. It’s a bowshot off Lynch’s sui generis achievement to suggest that The Wizard of Oz is somehow pivotal to it, and Philippe’s narrators seem to know that, floating their interpretive theories with all the starry-eyed movie love the moment should occasion. Filmmakers know how hard movies are to make and tend to be kind and zealous, but even film critics, when they’re grown-up (and not John Simon), know that the craft is only as relevant as your ardor for the medium — what you remember seeing long ago and what you’ll see tomorrow.
Something of its own rabbit hole, Lynch/Oz could go on forever, as long as film-viewing is still regarded, at least by some of us, as a creative engagement. Which is what this nascent subgenre of doc is all about, perhaps exemplified by Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), which certainly feels as though it could be three times its two-and-a-half-hour running time and only break as much sweat as Zizek, famous blabbermouth spittle volcano that he is, already does. A kind of semi-interactive lecture on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory illustrated with film clips, the movie is anything but stodgy, and though a rudimentary grasp of Freudian psychoanalysis is pretty much essential, otherwise you just need eyes: Zizek’s hand-holding walks through entire chunks of The Great Dictator (1940), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Conversation (1974), Blue Velvet (1986), and The Matrix (1999) are never less than a blast, because Fiennes contrives (through clever set-building and Remko Schnorr’s digital cinematography) to place the always-anxious, always-splenetic Zizek literally within the films’ scenes, watching Isabella Rossellini’s demi-rape in Blue Velvet from the couch or the writhings of Linda Blair from the corner of the arctic bedroom in The Exorcist (1973), and often talking over the action.
Instead of the abstruse, navel-gazing insularity of most theory, we’re presented with formulations that extend and heighten the meanings of the films, as cataracts of desire and fear that illuminate our own relationship with sex and its discontentments. Even when Zizek is pointing out how Gene Hackman, in The Conversation, seems to be literally examining the scene of the murder from Psycho (a painfully obvious inter-film connection I never noticed before), he is all about the films’ potential to “teach” — about desire, about subjectivity, about the strange but universal need for sexual fantasy (and how it’s expressed as the voyeurism of cinema-watching), about our conflicted relationship with the sexual significance of various body parts. Of course, a percentage of what Zizek says is half-conceived and presumptuous, because he’s obviously flying blind through his own hypereducated ether, but expect to be infected with the fiery urge to rewatch Vertigo and Lost Highway (1997) and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972).
It becomes apparent that this type of critical-essay filmmaking favors certain types of auteur subjects — idiosyncrats but not just, artists whose films harbor secrets, ooze metaphoric possibility, and often reek of misdirected or dangerous sexual ideas. Why? Is it just Freud’s legacy, that we like to read films like dreams that need to be decoded? The first of these hierophants is unquestionably Alfred Hitchcock, and Philippe’s 78/52, essentially a scrupulous, fractal analysis of not merely another film but a single scene, goes as micro as you’d imagine film-crit-film can get. Hitchcock is of course our most lionized and theorized and diagramed mega-auteur, with more films made about him and his oeuvre than any other cinematic figure, and it’s easy to see why: He was mechanically devious, gleefully manipulative, subtextually elaborate, structurally experimental, a big bad believer in the subconscious power of imagery, the resonance of visual codes, and the meaning of collective anxiety. Only Hitchcock could’ve prompted something like Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take (2009), a slippery doc crafted around Hitchcockian doppelgangers and versioned identities by editing footage so Hitchcock sees himself on the street (as “the wrong man”), injecting contemporary footage of physical Hitchcock impersonators, and generally weaving a contemplative web around the filmmaker’s propensity for deceptive resonances.
The other major filmmaker to have had something like this heady cocktail of ingredients was Stanley Kubrick, whose school of hyper-analysis has already opened, with Ascher’s Room 237. It’s hard to beat this Nabokovian gout of obsessive conjecture for I-never-meta dooziness — it’s the first feature film entirely about what another feature film — The Shining (1980) — might actually be about and probably isn’t. What the sultanic and secretive Kubrick may or may not have intended is, now that he’s dead, a great unknowable, making Ascher’s itch-scratching folly a manifestation of extreme interpretation, a what-about-this mode of engagement (literally narrated off-screen by a handful of theorizing uber-fans) that surpasses notions of auctorial purpose, genre study, or thematic context, and therefore becomes just a cataract of zesty acts of creative fiction-making on its own. Room 237‘s brand of “over-reading” isn’t analysis so much as invention, a way to turn ordinary passive movie-watching into active fabricating participation, turning Kubrick’s film into the Overlook itself, a haunted house with an infinite capacity for hidden realities.
But The Shining is that kind of film, and Kubrick was that kind of filmmaker — the combo platter of genre fun, directorial imperiousness, and textual slippages summons a Pandora’s box effect. This was common in Kubrick’s late work — the head-shaking weirdness of Eyes Wide Shut may yield, with time, its own library of Babel, and Full Metal Jacket, despite its solid-footing historical context and sociopolitical thrust, exudes a certain amperage of pure mystery. Of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the aboriginal enigma-as-movie, and yet as Ascher’s film tells it, The Shining wins the wrestling match — the inexplicability of alien intelligence turns out to be a far less fecund and inspiring junkyard for theory-bakers than the isolated maze-house, the family in meltdown, and the metaphysical imposition of the past on the present. We’ll see if a full-on Kubrick speculative-crit-on-film subculture emerges in the years ahead, as the generational clock turns over once again and fascinated new cinephiles find new ways to run the mazes.
Other filmmakers, the less obviously arcane or secretive or obsessive masters — say, Fritz Lang or Douglas Sirk — may get to see their filmographies considered as analytical doc subjects, now that the paradigm has taken root. (You get dizzy imagining the cycle of such films made about the Wes Anderson corpus, once he gets to be a codger.) I’ll take this rising fit of film-culture analysis as a sign of vigor, though in the end this trend in docs might simply be evidence of how our reception habits and capabilities have changed — Psycho, for instance, is no longer the ordeal or spectacle or ordeal-spectacle it once was, but as 78/52 demonstrates, it is an endlessly rewatchable, rewindable, atomizable, flowchart-able slab of charismatic megafauna, of a kind unimaginable before the advent of home video and online platforms. The secrets of a film, and of its production, are no longer the emperor-director’s, but ours to rehash, coopt, convert into movies of our own. Being a viewer, and a critic, has become an artisanal activity. We are the auteur, as Roland Barthes once predicted, and cinema is evolving accordingly. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.