“Must we accept that [Dorothy] now accepts the limitations of her home life, and agrees that the things she doesn’t have are no loss to her? ‘Is that right?’ Well excuse me, Glinda, but it is hell.” –S. Rushdie The Wizard of Oz, BFI Film Classics
Salaman Rushdie finds the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz to be a film that applies to his experience as an emigrant, and appeals in colorful fantasy to Indian sensibilities. Why would Dorothy want to go home when she had become so free and so powerful in Oz?
I don’t discount Rushdie’s reading (and I always enjoy his prose), but I’d proffer a different take on D. Gale’s blustery travels that land in her own back yard. Derrida was right, we all see something different in the films we watch. While Rushdie’s heritage and experience find him saying, with excellent logic, that the ruby slippers that free her to go home only put an end to her freedom and adventure. Rushdie’s reading is excellent, but I see the film differently.
Perhaps part of that is my particular heritage and experience. Dorothy is from a Kansas farm. I’m also a farm native, from a bit further north and east. Dorothy’s family, presumably, were “pioneer stock.” That’s a peculiar and nearly passed away portion of the American population, over celebrated to the point of caricature, but one I feel is due for a rebirth of appreciation in the near future.
Dorothy’s big problems seem to be 1)she’s bored in Kansas 2)the neighbor lady doesn’t like her dog 3)her surrogate parents don’t stick up for her. Oz, “Over the Rainbow” where bluebirds fly and dreams come true is indeed her escape. Where I differ from Rushdie is in thinking that the end of the film, her return from Oz, is not a copout, because this is a movie about escaping for a while to the movies.
The farmlife in Kansas is not made to look pretty or enjoyable. While in any Hollywood film, picturing “reality” is a vague, problematic picture at best; in 1939 a dreary, dusty, difficult life on the prairie was indeed a reality.
It’s also important to remember that this is not L. Frank Baum’s book, this is a Hollywood interpretation, based on the book. (Incidentally, the reading of The Wizard of Oz as social commentary in late 19th century American Populism still works well in the film. For further information on that subject see http://www.halcyon.com/piglet/Populism.htm .)
So who can blame Dorothy for needing an escape? Who can blame her for wanting adventure? That, of course, is what the movies are for. And that’s precisely the function they served in 1930s America. When Dorothy escapes to Oz, she takes the audience right along with her. The camera is directly aligned with Dorothy throughout the narrative.
And what and whom does she meet in Oz? Everyone significant person has a face like, and the personality of, someone she already knows. She brings to her imagined narrative the things she knows from the real world. Notice as well, those of you with big screens or HD capabilities (I saw it with a film class at a theater) that a lot of things in Oz are plastic. In the 1930s, they would have been made of cellulite, or bakelite. A third cousin to the substance was dressed with silver halide and run through Technicolor cameras: celluloid. So the things in Oz are made out of, well the same stuff as movies. That doesn’t feel like a mistake to me.
While Technicolor Oz may be more lifelike in hues, in expression the color denotes fantasy, and the black and white of Kansas feels more like the realism expressed in other films of the time. Oz is the movie world. Oz is the alternative reality. And when Dorothy goes there, she takes all of her problems with her. Like countless other places described by Joseph Campbell as “special worlds” Oz is the place where Dorothy can work out her angst, her fear, her joy.
And for us, the viewer, Oz is the place where we do that, too; Oz, Tatooine, Mordor, or with Gene Kelly in the rain. The movies are our escape, our Oz. There Dorothy can do all the things she wants to but couldn’t in her black and white reality. And we can do them vicariously through her. This is one of the great functions of drama. To arouse emotion and purge it: catharsis. Filmgoers of the 30s needed an escape from an all too bleak reality. So for two hours they “got away” to a celluloid world. It would be nice to think that their return to reality was to a world without problems, but that’s not the way it was. Dorothy learns to appreciate Kansas by going to Oz. Somehow, because she’s had the chance to roam about this strange and wonderful place, she has the resolve to face the harsh realities of Kansas. The escape was her breather, her rest, her chance to dream. And it emboldened her to face reality.
Dorothy’s exclamation “It wasn’t a dream, it was a place. A real, truly live place!” isn’t her fooling herself. Dorothy is just expressing what movie lovers have always know, really. That the experience of the film world, the created reality, is a real place in it’s own way. It may not be physically real for the viewer, but the experience is. The two-hour escape is a reality, enabled by the imagination. There we live out our fantasies. We dream so we can make real life better. We begin to rethink our own world in terms of the good we can find there. Perhaps some places in movies are more real than we give them credit.