It is famously useless (if also occasionally fun) to ask David Lynch about the meaning behind his art, which is why his interviews tend to offer more color than insight, and his panel appearances often prove to be exercises in frustration. It’s also why “Jennifer’s Body” director Karyn Kusama has such a vivid memory of what happened during the Q&A that followed the NYFF screening of “Mulholland Drive” in 2001, when Lynch’s usual elusiveness was suddenly interrupted by a question that seemed to pierce his armor and pull back the curtains of his mind.
The question was simple: “Can you talk about the influence of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on your work?” Lynch’s answer was even simpler, but also intoxicatingly mysterious in the way that simple things often are in his films: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
It should go without saying that Lynch didn’t elaborate. He characteristically left people to draw their own conclusions, trusting that whatever answers they arrived at on their own would be more satisfying than any he might be able to spell out for them. Alexandre O. Philippe’s “Lynch/Oz” is nothing if not a testament to that idea, as this mesmeric essay doc in six chapters — one of them narrated by Kusama — makes a somewhat filling meal out of the tasty breadcrumbs that Lynch has left behind about his lifelong fascination with psychogenic fugues, ominous gusts of wind, and a strange woman named Judy (who we might not be able to keep out of this, after all).
A broadly entertaining analysis of the relationship between American cinema’s most beloved fantasy and its most famous surrealist, “Lynch/Oz” unfolds along the same lines as Philippe’s “Memory — The Origins of ‘Alien’” or Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237,” which also transcended their glorified DVD bonus feature vibes by expanding upon the mystery of the films they were ostensibly trying to solve. Similarly, “Lynch/Oz” is less compelling for any of its individual theories or observations than for how it frames movies as permeable membranes that flicker between personal obsession and the collective unconscious. Filtering “The Wizard of Oz” through the lens of David Lynch, Phillippe and his guests find those energies in close proximity to each other, using two deceptively different visions of America to suggest that our dreams and nightmares have never been as far apart as they seem.
From a pair of red slippers and an appearance from Glinda the Good Witch in “Wild at Heart” to the “There’s No Place Like Home” ad that Lynch made to promote “Twin Peaks” (Thursdays at 9/8 Central!), there are enough overt references to “The Wizard of Oz” in Lynch’s work that Philippe never acts like he has anything to prove. In his film’s first segment, “Wind,” critic Amy Nicholson so evocatively summarizes the abstract connections between L. Frank Baum’s classic fairy tale and Lynch’s modern freak outs that the rest of “Lynch/Oz” is free to explore them in more granular detail and/or riff on them in more personal fashion.
Nicholson establishes a mutual fascination with alternate dimensions, fractured psyches, and dark underbellies (among other things), all of which return to the simple yet inescapable idea that people — much like the movies they make, and the countries they live in — contain vast multitudes that are separated by the narrowest of margins. Self-evident as that idea might be, Nicholson speaks to it in a way that reveals a shared reality between “Lost Highway” and the Yellow Brick Road, Kansas and Suburbia. Her commentary, along with the many different film clips that Philippe uses to illustrate it in the absence of talking heads, tees up a freeform video essay that clarifies Lynch without claiming to demystify him and makes “The Wizard of Oz” seem even more frightening than it might already be in your mind.
If “Lynch/Oz” wisely shies away from any sort of unifying theory about what it all means, it sure has a lot of fun assembling the evidence. Rodney Ascher — who inevitably narrates the second chapter, and just as inevitably steers it back towards “The Shining” — latches onto Betty from “Mulholland Drive” as Lynch’s most Dorothy-like innocent, and gets so specific about that film’s Hollywood overlap between dreams and reality that he even breaks down the blocking in the Winkie’s Diner scene.
That same infatuation with liminal spaces is what encourages Ascher to talk about his extremely personal (yet broadly irrelevant) history with the eighth episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” as if mentioning it might be enough to express something about the physiological impact “The Wizard of Oz” could’ve had on a young Lynch’s imagination. Like much of “Lynch/Oz,” the aside is neither eye-opening nor conclusive, but it’s engaging, it rings true enough, and it speaks to the film’s snow-balling sense that Betty and Dorothy are bound by the impossible desire to restore their illusions of innocence. “There’s no place like home,” and maybe there never was.
John Waters’ stories about his own relationships with Lynch and “Oz” are similarly entertaining (if a bit more self-involved), but also epitomize why Philippe’s film has a tendency to skitter along the surface. “The Wizard of Oz” is such an open-ended text that you can find traces of it in almost every stripe of cinema made since, American or otherwise, and its impact on Lynch is ultimately so personal that no documentary could ever hope to get to the bottom of it.
The only hope is to focus on the ways that one piece of art might be interpolated through the eyes of another artist, which is A: essentially what this film is doing from start to finish, and B: something better shown than discussed. That’s why “Lynch/Oz” is at its best when it’s at its most illustrative — spiking familiar clips with new context, or arranging side-by-side comparisons that hear uncanny echoes between Victor Fleming’s family classic and David Lynch’s most haunted work. It’s also why I spent so much of it wishing I were watching some of that work, instead.
Almost every minute of this movie is pornographically enjoyable for people with even a passing interest in Lynch, but little of it adds to the basic thrill of looking at “Blue Velvet” or “The Elephant Man” through new eyes (“The Straight Story,” to no one’s surprise, only rates a single mention). Philippe’s film is a thrilling invitation to do just that, but after a certain point it can’t help but feel like we’re just dancing about architecture and the aroma of cheap coffee. As Kusama so beautifully puts it, sometimes we learn less about someone from their reality than we do from their dreams.
“Lynch/Oz” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.