Nobody Gets to See the Wizard. Not Nobody. Not Nohow
The 70-year old MGM fantasy has become a much-loved part of our collective memory. Its complex themes, including the promise of a Utopian OZ, remain artistically vital. Our adult imaginations still thrive on Technicolor invention, despite the symptoms of life in the current Kansas in which we reside.
OZ: THE STUDIO 54 OF CHILDHOOD
MGM's Veneficus Interruptus
Dorothy Gale, small and meek, knows something about disappointment. The classical sepia-toned young
heroine resides in that drab metaphor where existence holds excitement only during natural disasters. She is granted her most fervent wish-to be transported to a more colorful place-simply to have her expectations thwarted from the instant she arrives. Her new shoes are sparkly and unique, but they are coveted contraband--and she can't take them off. We witness Ms. Gale being drugged, threatened and kidnapped in between musical numbers. The Wizard is not who he says he is or was. Then, to top it all off, she misses the only balloon ride home.
On the upside, as an unexpected newcomer with a vehicular manslaughter under her belt, Dorothy is an instantaneous celebrity in OZ. MGM's film version of The Wizard of Oz is an emotionally bumpy ride that reveals the ups as well as the downs of fame as viewers follow the young Everygirl's flight from a spiteful green stalker and swarms of paparazzi-like monkeys with wings.
Admittedly, OZ is intoxicating and wonderful, but for a kid it can be devastating. The land is colorful and also cruel, and the grown-ups she meets are sincere but fatally flawed. As Salman Rushdie points out in his 1997 essay, The Wizard of Oz: An Appreciation, the film's "driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults..." For the tweenage Midwesterner (as portrayed by a medicated and strapped down 16- year-old tragedy-to-be Judy Garland) this realization proves to be too much. Dorothy Gale wants nothing more than return to the arms of her cold fish Auntie Em and the homely but familiar womb of Kansas.
Whether or not she regrets the decision to give up her V.I.P. status return to the dusty status quo, and we never get to see. For many viewers, children and urbane adults in the 21st Century alike, the film's allure lies in its promise of a place where the challenges are almost insurmountable, but the rewards just as outsize: camaraderie, promise, renown. If one is destined to find the lounge behind the velvet rope is filled with phonies, well, no one ever said that traveling alone via tornado to new worlds would be easy.
Unlike Dorothy, most of the 13 artists brought together for the "Nobody Gets to See the Wizard. Not Nobody. Not Nohow." have chosen OZ over their own distant Kansases. The works here each recall some personal version of the epic fantasy.
For Scott Ewalt, OZ is New York's Time's Square circa 1980, where overstimulation was commonplace. He romanticizes a bygone neon era free of puritanical politicians who erase strip clubs and put corporate gift shops in their places. The Emerald City glows the color of money, envy, voyeurism, cool. Within Ewalt's 2010 triptych another debunked-but-intriguing myth is depicted, that rumor that one of the (ostensibly drunk) Midget actors committed suicide by hanging himself on the forest set. The event, as the legend goes, was overlooked by MGM editors and a blurry form can be seen swinging in the final version of the film. Perhaps Munchkin depression came about because word got out that Terry, (the Cairn terrier cast as Toto) was making more salary than eight or ten munchkin players combined.
Hidden meanings, real or imaged, have become a part of the film's charm:
Caroline Polachek's black light painting Gateway (2010) would look at home any hip student's dorm room.
It takes on the persistent urban legend that goes: If someone syncs Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with the WoZ that person will witness an uncanny Jungian synchronicity and receive several amazing messages in the process. Like so many experiences, this one is heightened by getting stoned.
Kathe Burkhart's Leopard Skin Dildo Garden (2005), taken through an Amsterdam sex shop window in the De Wallen red light district, embraces a frank, female, Cougar-like sexual place. A world where women buy their own pleasuring devices and the men may bring the batteries, thank you very much. The artist's digital photograph on canvas features high-end dildos and vibrators spread out in the Emerald green grass. Like that pre-sexual kid from Kansas and the Cowardly Lion in the poppy field, Burkhart's toys are at rest, temporarily.
The Untitled (1990) red shoe sculpture by Robert Gober can't help but evoke the iconic footwear from the film. Made entirely of a red wax that suggests candy and blood in equal measure, the creation honors the fragility of girlhood. Gober's shoe is a faintly melancholy artifact from a special occasion when you were the center of attention.
Institute for Turbulence Research, (V2) (2010), the video installation by Charles Atlas, recollects the terror and excitement of seeking the safety of his childhood basement in St. Louis during the frequent tornado warnings. The chaotic environment created by his spinning objects, radio waves and mirrored projections is as disorienting as it is memorable.
John Brattin cleverly conflates the Munchkin gift of a lollipop (which a preoccupied Ms. Gale quickly discards) with the cranky animated trees who nonetheless bear perfect apples in Technicolor Forest, (elements from the film, Funeral). Brattin, an artist who first experienced WoZ in black and white, creates his own source material for his homemade narrative films. In this case, the artist's modeling clay, Wonder Bread® and wood suckers reverse the course of the MGM protagonist, begin life multi-colored and become shadowy and colorless.
The obsessive texts of Dan Miller are created based on the flotsam and jetsam of the artist's daily mental challenges. He meticulously documents auditory input in graphic, poignant ways. His Untitled (2006) "Academy Award" drawing depicts an overheard moment of glory from the lives of other people.
Daphne Fitzpatrick's sculptural work frequently references her signature urban dandy, or flâneur character. For "Nobody Gets to See the Wizard," the artist has created what did the bra say to the top hat? you go on ahead, i'm gonna give these two a lift .(2010) a magical nod to a dead vaudeville era. The work suggests the film's melted witch in gender-bent fashion, Ray Bolger's light-loafered Scarecrow, and of course Judy G. as the Swell Hobo in later films.
On the subject of Miss Garland, artist Deborah Kass, a lifelong Friend of Dorothy, contributes Forget Your Troubles, (2009), from her "Feel Good Paintings for Feel Bad Times" series. The colorful imperative snippet invokes Dead Judy at her most effervescent. And of course, implicit in the command "Forget Your Troubles" is the acknowledgement that Troubles are a part of the journey. Here, the Kassian appropriation is a Munchkin motto for oppressed little citizens.
Sean Mellyn contributes Judas (2007), an oil-on-canvas of a circumspect young man witnessing a shadowy figure in mid-flight. His 70s mirrored sunglasses reflect the nostalgic, if ominous, skywriting event.
Stuart Semple takes a literal approach to the film, albeit with a British twist. For Ding Dong, Maggie's Dead (2009) his heavy house has landed on the conservative enemy-of-the-arts, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As black as a lump of coal, the piece can be seen as miner's revenge, just one unionized group that would celebrate Thatcher's demise.
The Chipmunks Genuflect, (2010), by Nayland Blake is a plush tribute to lions and tigers and bears everywhere. Actor Bert Lahr (a Leo himself) went on from his star turn as The King of the Forest to originate the role of Gogo on Broadway in Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Waiting for Godot. In the film version of WoZ, as most will recall, the Lion's tail at certain moments threatens to upstage even the great comedian himself.
Susanne M. Winterling's MGM logo displays the "Ars Gratia Artis" banner but is missing its roar. The central void in the image can be seen as the lion's unwillingness to appear, whether through cowardice or snobbery.
The Wizard, if there ever was a wizard, doesn't want to be seen. And OZ, even with all its chromatic adventures, hasn't quite lived up to the "rainbows and bluebirds" promise. But artists can think magically. Making art is like making OZ, and holding to the belief that something worthwhile is behind the curtain. Because everybody wishes to be Somebody. Not Nobody.