Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - The Wizard of Oz

(Written as part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series over at The Film Experience.)

In my Junior year of High School, we had to do something called "The America Project". We had to pick something - an idea, a place, a person, a thing - and present a portfolio explaining why that something is American. I, of course, picked the movies. The final product wasn't very good, for a lot of reasons, but I was a good enough writer to still get a B on it (although, to me, that was as good as failing. I'm serious). In my Senior year, I wrote my final research paper in Advanced Placement US History on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz as the first American fairy tale. Clearly, that idea came one year too late. Because is there anything more American than MGM's 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz? I mean, besides apple pie and baseball?

It’s hard to think of another movie as well-known or as well-loved as The Wizard of Oz. It's so much a part of our collective DNA that it feels like we are all born into this word knowing the story, the songs, and the performances. In reality, Oz was just another film from one of Hollywood's Golden Years, until it became the first Hollywood film to be shown in one evening, uncut, on a commercial network. For many years between 1959 and 1980 (the years when it was shown on television as an annual special event), 49% of American households watched it. Nearly half of America tuning in to watch the same movie, for years on end. When people make the claim that Oz is the most-watched film of all time, it’s easy to believe it. It’s also easy to say that television made Oz what it is today. Without those yearly airings, would it be as popular as it is?

My instinct says yes. Because it’s not just nostalgia that makes people love Oz so much. It’s a really well-made movie, yes, but it’s more than that, too. It’s the magic of the movies, pure and simple.

In every frame, The Wizard of Oz shows us what movies can do that no other medium can. It can transport us, break the fourth wall in ways that theater, music, and dance just can’t. No matter how many times you see it, every time Dorothy opens her front door onto this new, strange, colorful world and surveys Munchkinland, it feels like the first time. Everything, the camerawork, the effects, the crafts, and the music, put you in that place. Everyone becomes a kid again in that moment, whether or not they watched The Wizard of Oz regularly as a kid. This is something that can really only be done in the movies, and even then only a select few do it as well as The Wizard of Oz (Star Wars and… The Lord of the Rings? Avatar?).

Given the collective love for the land of Oz, and all its inherent beauty, it may come as a surprise that my favorite shot is from the Kansas portion of the film. But then, if those opening scenes weren’t so great, we wouldn’t care about Dorothy’s journey. The decision to tint those scenes sepia is so smart. For a long time, the Kansas scenes were shown on TV in black & white, and I have to imagine that robbed the film of a lot of is beauty – the sepia makes Kansas feels not just drab, but a bit dusty in a way B&W does not, and in a way that enhances the feel of those scenes (and to the nostalgia of those watching, I imagine). But whether in sepia or in black & white, I think my favorite shot stands out.

It comes right after the timeless “Over the Rainbow”, easily one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz as a kid, this shot had a really strong hold on me. It was an oasis, always prompting a contented sigh. For a little boy who so desperately wanted to go over the rainbow to Oz, through the looking-glass to Wonderland, or into the wardrobe to Narnia (or later, through a fake wall to take a train to Hogwarts), this was the epitome of everything I ever dreamed of. The ultimate escape. Even though it’s in sepia tones, to me, it was always in colors as bright as they are in Oz. Come to think of it, it's actually the first shot of that land beyond the moon, behind the rain:

Just as with that first scene in Oz, it isn’t the image alone that makes this shot work. The dimming music cue, the sound of birds, and the look on Judy Garland’s face in the shot immediately before it combine to give this image a huge impact. If you've ever dreamed of something better, of being something greater, of doing something more with your life, this shot speaks to you. And if you're a nerdy little boy who loves reading books more than anything, who always gets picked last in gym class, and who only has one friend in the world that isn't a stuffed animal or an action figure; who wants nothing more than to make friends and go on adventures... well, that one shot offers more hope than a whole lifetime of "It gets better"s. That's why The Wizard of Oz endures. That's the power of the magic of movies.

1 comment:

  1. *sniffle* beautiful. I absolutely agree about the Kansas scenes. Without that foundation, Oz is just visual fx & technicolor showing off.