On my first day of Western Civ 257: Literature of Western Civilization in college, we started on Homer’s Odyssey and the professor claimed the text was “above criticism,” a statement which I found a bit precious. How is anything above criticism? Is Homer now become Holy Writ?
The more history books I read, though, the more the idea a text is above criticism makes a kind of sense, though. To say the Odyssey is “above criticism” is not to say it is without flaws. Rather, because Homer has been universally vetted and loved by every generation of Western man, his work has entered the Western consciousness at such a deep level that even those who criticize the book are unknowingly using standards of beauty acquired from the book. Our understanding of narrative, heroism, faith, doubt, fidelity and personal transformation are at least somewhat staked in Homer. Were Homer to have never lived, literary criticism would have become something far different. The Odyssey is above criticism because, to a limited extent, the Odyssey is criticism.
While many a classic offers the audience far more to mull over than a contemporary work does, the classic also places the audience in the best possible state of mind to encounter a new work of art; believing that Shakespeare or Virgil or Bach is above criticism, the audience member surrenders to the play, the poem, the concerto and does not spend all his time thinking of something interesting to say when the thing is over. He lets his guard down; the goodness of the thing is vouched safe before the first word, the first note, and so the audience approaches the work with a desire to love, to praise, to understand. St Augustine taught that love was a prerequisite for knowing; it is no coincidence that “knowing” is a Scriptural euphemism for the consummation of love. Ours is an age ever more committed to summary judgments wherein works of art— and human beings— are quickly and cleanly placed under the star of some philosophical commitment, and no further investigation need be made. Secular critics broadly dismiss Christian works of philosophy as “religious,” but Christians are equally given to paint with wide brushes, looking for telltale signs of nihilism or materialism and, as soon as nihilistic elements emerge, throwing the thing under the nearest bus. Knowing a work is considered “a classic” prior to seeing it or hearing it has a way of suppressing the urge to judge hastily.
All this said, motion pictures are scarcely a hundred years old and there is nothing which guarantees the medium will last in popularity for another hundred years. At the end of the 4th century, Theodosius ended the millennium-old Olympics and largely closed down theaters such that Sophocles and Euripides were not revived for almost a thousand years. The typical Medieval drama would hardly be recognized as “a play” by modern audiences— there was no Shakespeare, no Tennessee Williams of the Carolingian era. When we speak of “classic films,” we speak of older films, but few classic films are old enough to be classic novels. Pride & Prejudice is a classic novel, as is Frankenstein, although I am hard pressed to admit even the best novel written in the 50s as “a classic.” Of course, we tend to be impatient and to assign “instant classic” status on the best contemporary art, as though we could strong-arm the future into agreeing with us if only we praise with a gluttonous quantity of adjectives. In 1998, when the American Film Institute first drafted their “100 Years…100 Movies” list, Dances With Wolves was listed as the 75th greatest movie of all time. When the list was revised ten years later, the movie was gone from the list, although Unforgiven had jumped from 98 to 68. I suppose that in a rational age, a movie can become roughly 30% more classic in ten short years. Who knows how not-classic Dances With Wolves became in the meantime?
Between 1998 and 2008, The Wizard of Oz dropped from its spot as the sixth greatest film and was reduced to tenth. In sixth place was another Victor Fleming picture, Gone With The Wind, which was, incidentally, also released in 1939. Quite the year. Both pictures vied with one another for a handful of Academy Awards, although Gone With The Wind took more statues.
The Wizard of Oz has been rereleased a handful of times, typically to reviews which do little more than talk of the film’s iconic status. Upon a recent rerelease, Todd McCarthy of Variety gushed, “A work of almost staggering iconographic, mythological, creative and simple emotional meaning, this is one vintage film that fully lives up to its classic status.” Writing for the New Yorker in 1995, Salman Rushdie suggests “The journey from Kansas to Oz is a rite of passage from a world in which Dorothy’s parent substitutes… are powerless to save her dog… into a world where the people are her own size and she is never, ever treated as a child but as a heroine.” Rushdie’s commentary is more expansive than whoever was working at Entertainment Weekly twenty years ago, although he can’t but write his own agenda appreciatively all over the film. “There’s not a trace of religion in Oz itself… The absence of higher values greatly increases the film’s charm, and is an important aspect of its success in creating a world in which nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares, and needs of human beings.” Perhaps Rushdie is merely doing what all lovers do, generously interpreting all ambiguities, although one wonders whether the great postmodernist would find any traces of religion in the parables of Christ, which rarely treat openly on “God.” Is the verdict still out on whether it is pious to speak of Christ’s parables as possessing “charm”?
If The Wizard of Oz is indeed mythological, then all the guessing about its meaning won’t help, and the inability of most critiques to offer anything more than superlatives when describing it makes sense. In Love in the Western World, the well-known 1940 treatise on “the Tristan myth,” Denis de Rougemont argues that all myths simultaneously conceal and reveal a dangerous truth; the narrative of a myth reveals the truth enough that the subconscious of the hearer can recognize it, but is sufficiently clothed that no one need be embarrassed at hearing it. For de Rougemont, all societies produce myths, although they cannot be understood apart from a perspective granted only by the passage of time. The myth of Tristan and Iseult ultimately confesses a love of death (de Rougemont is so forthright as to claim Tristan hates Iseult), although no original hearer could have discerned this. They would have been too close to the myth, have had too much on the line with such an embarrassing truth, and likely have denied everything. The Tristan myth is ripe with contradictions and logical inconsistencies. Does Tristan sleep with Iseult or not? Yes and no. The myth contains two Iseults, one of whom Tristan beds and the other of whom he does not. In the same way, the narrative of courtly love both affirms the knight would never take his lord’s wife to bed, but at the same time affirms this particular knight does; no attempt is made to reconcile the contradictory claims, but they rather gnaw at one another forever in the mind of the hearer. Such is the nature of myths, according to de Rougement.
The Wizard of Oz is not exactly rife with high-vaulted contradictions, although quite a bit goes unexplained. As soon as she lands in the dreamland of Oz, Dorothy is praised for killing the Wicked Witch of the East (fairy tales are far more violent than we remember), and although she insists it was an accident, no one listens to her, much like no one listens to her in waking life, either. Just as the Wizard is senselessly praised and feared, so Dorothy is senselessly praised and feared. In the denouement, we find the ruby slippers taken from the Witch of the East in the beginning could have sent Dorothy back home at any time, had she only known what to say, or had she been told. Was the journey as senseless as all that? When Dorothy finally wakes from her dream, she says she will never leave her family ever again because she “loves [them] all,” all the while clutching her dog Toto. Despite the swelling music, the audience is hard-pressed to believe the girl has learned anything; she returned home in the beginning, after all, and her love of her family has never been in doubt. The only reason Dorothy has run away from home is to save her dog, which her aunt has consented to “destroy” because she fears Almira Gulch, a mean old crone (it is shocking to think the remarkable Margaret Hamilton, also the Wicked Witch of the East, was only 37 at the time) who owns half the county and hates the creature. While dreaming of Oz, Dorothy pitches a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, eliciting the forever comic death knell, “I’m melting! I’m melting!” Perhaps we are to intuit that when waking Dorothy next encounters Gulch, she will baptize her with the nearest spittoon. Whether Gulch will melt seems less than certain.
My four year old daughter and I watched The Wizard of Oz recently, and while the she looked on, rapt, an hour after it was over, she had quickly forgotten about it and a week later, has not mentioned it again. Thus far in her short life, I have not shown her anything which has captured her imagination quite like the clunky, early 90s BBC renderings of The Chronicles of Narnia. The moral dimensions of those stories seem to principally inform her play; she is forever Lucy, courageously fighting the White Witch or prudently fleeing. When she plays The Nutcracker, she “bravely” fights the Mouse King or complains that Fritz has broken her new Christmas present because he has “no virtues.” Myths are often expressly philosophical or metaphysical, both non-starters for small children. Is The Wizard so godless as Rushdie suggests? Even if it is not, children want heroes and villains and Dorothy is simply too passive to provoke much a response. Elsewhere, Rushdie praises Oz for heavily relying upon female characters— that the only active one in the bunch is “wicked” seems to pass right over him.
I regularly ask my students to compare a film like Transformers 3 with something like Babette’s Feast insofar as conversation is concerned. Which film is more enjoyable to talk about afterwards? Which film would you rather discuss with St Paul? Would it seem so absurd to sing the Gloria Patri during the credits of Babette’s Feast? How about the other film? Because a movie like Transformers 3 appeals purely to the senses, it is simply no fun to talk about apart from sensual experience. Talking about the film is aggravating, much like talking about food when you are hungry. A film like Babette’s Feast or Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole appeal to the senses, but also to the intellect, and so after the sensual experience is gone, the film remains no less present when spoken about. It’s like talking about a Christmas dinner from years ago— it doesn’t make you hungry, but it feeds your soul. Older fans of baseball will tell you they often prefer to listen to a game on the radio than to watch it on television because a good commentator can synthesize themes of the game at once, while a cameraman must systematically race through a series of images. So, too, I have heard friends describe certain movies in such a way that little is lost in not having the movie present— but those don’t tend to be movies about models and robots destroying Chicago. If you must see such a thing, well, you must see it, and even then, you need not think about it.
The Wizard of Oz falls somewhere between a Paths of Glory and a modern blockbuster. It repays a certain kind of deeper thought, although I’m not convinced anyone would have had time for it before Jung and Freud. Too many critiques of the film seem dated, bogged down in theoretical language, and not much interested in human excellence. If the West ever disabuses itself of psychoanalysis, I imagine The Wizard will be lost shortly thereafter. Is it a good time, though? Sure. “Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see,” as Samuel Johnson once said.