Thursday, March 21, 2013

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

I saw Disney's prequel to The Wizard of Oz today.  My initial reaction was that it had some interesting effects--particularly the well-rendered china doll--and characterizations--particularly the winged monkey who aids the neophyte wizard--but that it didn't pack anywhere near the imaginative punch of the 1939 classic.  Like so much of today's big-budget fantasy fare, Oz, the Great and Powerful seemed more interested in spectacle than story: instead of deepening or extending the Oz mythology in interesting ways, what we got was a lot of green-screen action sequences (many of them looking like bad 1980s video games, and some of them clearly included only for their 3-D possibilities), an overly familiar tale of a scoundrel becoming a fatherly saint (think Real Steel and X-Men: First Class, just to name the two that popped first into my head), and a painfully familiar tale of evil women (wearing black and showing lots of cleavage) duking it out with their angelic counterparts for the love of a man.

In one respect, though, I found the film interesting: its self-referential nature.  When a film culminates with a showman projecting images of himself onto a screen to dominate the masses, one can't help thinking that the film is making only a barely disguised appeal to its own technological and cultural operations.  (The film does, in fact, refer to Edison's early experiments in moving pictures, so the self-referential nature of the effects cannot be chance.)  The 1939 film, as I've shown in my book Framing Monsters, was itself very much interested in the nature of film and film technology, so there's a nice continuity between the two movies there.

The difference, however, is that Oz '39 was quite skeptical about the power of film as a cultural force; set against the backdrop of 1930s Hollywood's attempts to monopolize the technology, bust unions, and force independent producers and exhibitors out of business, the original film was anything but enthusiastic about film's immense cultural power.  (It's the wizard's cinematic exploits, after all, that are revealed as humbugs.)  But Oz '13 represents the deceptive qualities of film as an agency of salvation: the wizard cows and defeats the two witches through the power of the cinema, and the citizens of Emerald City are liberated, not shanghaied, by this power.  I sensed no irony in the wizard's triumphant use of cinematic illusion to ascend the throne; judging by this film, it seems that little compunction remains in today's Hollywood about the industry's cultural dominance.

And really, why should any such compunction remain?  Film is so pervasive as to be all-but-invisible.  It's everywhere, and as such it's nowhere.

Which is about as good a definition of ideology as you're likely to find.

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