Damn you, Edwin Porter! In 1903, The Great Train Robbery was an epic; editing was its mutation/adaptation. Natural selection took over, setting the trajectory from the nickelodeon/traveling exhibition era to the mounting excesses of pre-Hollywood. With Porter as reluctant usher, the invisible art expanded in scope and receded into emerging receptive patterns. This first western dispassionately toyed a bit with logic—composite editing and cross cutting pitched into the parlance—and the tinkering was soon etched and inextricable from the flow of the medium. Turn-of-the-century minds were forced to engage in linking rather than linear thought patterns and intuition; it wasn’t a certainty that this level of recall would stick in this format and translate in the mind. Over time, our brain-shapes have reformed accordingly, but this is a flash point. Porter’s reputation as an enigmatic pioneer, working in solitude, unambitious and more comfortable with machines than people, is apt; he would’ve fit in with us just fine.
Still, there’s that one shot, the defining one that lingers in the subconscious, invited or not, a non-diegetic insert shot before that was a thing. It’s one of the seminal frames in all of cinema history: The bandit, antagonist responsible for the title, shooting his pistol directly at the camera. Screwing with the audience has been a requisite component of film since that train arrived at La Ciotat, and Porter dramatized it, projecting the danger of a gun aimed and exploded point blank on a scale larger than reality. And it was detached and shifting: When at the beginning, it introduced the film with no other context than a plunge into sensationalized faux-peril; when placed at the end, it raised the robber from the dead. The cinema is not a safe haven; it’s a communal rehearsal of your demise.
The takeaway: One of the most famous, earliest images in all of film history is dislodged from narrative continuity. And, bonus, it just happens to rile spectators with violent direct-address, to boot—a definitively unidirectional threat dispersed backward, seemingly aimed in all directions, and at each set of eyes, simultaneously. Packed within this twelve-minute reel, and distilled in a single medium shot, a spectrum of cinematic signification is laid out—from precise rationality to lyrical autonomy. And so, Dadaism was left a loose thread: Exposing the mechanism, problematizing object perception and subject control, and disrupting the equable ebbs already percolating—“destroy the drawers of the brain and of social organization: spread demoralization…restore the fecund wheel of a universal circus to objective forces and the imagination of every individual.” To wit, “Dada is an armadillo…”
From the primordial ooze of early film, leap forward in time to the infinite everything. Deep in the recesses, a gem of a modern work recently pillaged the well-trodden past to find a way out. Posted about a month ago, Of Oz the Wizard is one of the more radical recuts to appear on the internet, short-circuiting rationality and finding a new way to intervene and tinker with an element of film we didn’t peg as faulty. Of Oz the Wizard nonchalantly throws out over a century of film logic by tossing one of the classics—stylistically, structurally—in a blender, then fitting each word in a spreadsheet and alphabetizing. In some instances it’s like a supercut of supercuts, outdoing the competition by sheer commitment to sustained madness. Of Oz opts for nothing less than a fundamental reappraisal, like re-teaching the cognition of a language you already speak, filmic or otherwise, that is too ingrained to refurbish. The focus on the alphabet is not some whimsical mischief; it’s a (whimsical) mission statement hacked by Occam’s razor. It’s judicious and playful, complex and infantilizing, like a grammar school lesson of pitiless rigidity and length. It reshuffles a classic film and organizes it alphabetically, sure, that gives it a genre, but more importantly, it incisively scrambles the intuitive process of film viewing. It’s a broken mirror of a film, a masticated masterpiece already swallowed and digested by the internet.
Don’t underestimate the familiarity of the chosen mark; the fact that every inch of The Wizard of Oz is so embedded in the cultural consciousness just adds more layers to it, stoking attempts to fit the countless shards back into a recognizable whole. To a one, these modern works don’t get enough credit for their complicated and often formidable lineage—flagrant displays of bone-deep pop-cultural sublimation. Most recuts in this hypersaturated era of media defilement have a foot in practicality—excising maligned elements, righting post-production wrongs, etc.—this one dices with mathematical precision. It’s not enough to tweak anymore, now outsized and exhaustive slash-and-burn reinvention is all but necessary. The adherence to a replicable formula, an underlying, coherent code makes it a Dadaist piece that crosses Duchamp and Ruttmann. It’s an .xlsx version of The Wizard of Oz, but, because of its Technicolor prey, and potent epilepsy-hazard effect, it ends up the rare work that earns the term kaleidoscopic, creating some irreverent, surreal, psychedelic passages. Both orderly and chaotic, it’s a minimalist work that feels maximalist.
The settings skip, songs are chopped, dialogue delivery is twitchy and unpredictable, resonance is topsy-turvy. Familiar features—and they are, to the last, all familiar in the lexicon at large—are dislodged and defamiliarized. It’s a cypher that initiates in your mind the process of reading and reconfiguring the whole, of putting the pieces together in a logical pattern, trying to identify fleeting fragments and recollect their purpose. The logic we are grasping for and trying to reassemble is the logic of film as we know it, the understood patterns of storytelling as they have been defined over time and across media. It helps that we know the full picture; it’s the only thing that gives us any bearings. In this way, it serves as a missive, a jagged but plaintive herald to embrace a less coherent potential of moving pictures perhaps long-forgotten, craning toward something beyond the suture, where film is an obscured, impenetrable object. Imagine an exercise with no entrance point, a film spliced like this from the outset, editing for editing’s sake, operating outside the code, violating classical dictates, building on a neo-nouvelle vague instead of reiterating modes.
In Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” there are ten characters, all of them designated by their title, all of the titles starting with the letter B. Fitting for an Alice in Wonderland scenario, which Baum clearly aped, language and linguistics and word play and pretzel logic are resurrected and celebrated here, literalized here. What is the effect? Confusion, for sure, also convergence and overlap and alienation and inconsistent experience. Thatched comprehension breeds second-guessing and defective imprinting. Rapid-fire illegibility gives way to wordless passages that remain intact, elevated in-between-moment oases of respite surrounded by psychedelic jibber. Every word spoken and sung reminds that our humiliating age has yet to succeed in winning our respect.
Even in this simple organization, happenstance lifts aleatoric moments of grace, humanity, and levity, when the machine/algorithm belies itself, when unpredictability and chance conspire to create amusing juxtapositions. Onomatopoeias, non-word utterances, prepositions, conjunctions, and embolalia pile up. It becomes a mesmerizing showcase for language building blocks, the filler amplified, providing bewildering traction to continue on. All the recognizable elements of film as a text are aligned along this absurdist premise, fed through the formula. The credits fall into the simple pattern, and an introductory paragraphs turns into E.E. Cummings-esque poetry. Even the company-mandated disclaimer conforms. Then, amid the familiar and formulaic, strange words crop up devoid of circumstance: Brontosaurus? Anemia? What was their original purpose? Surely there was a reasonable context. The outliers show the gaps of holistic thinking as the fragments are hastily reconfigured. Most words flit by and are immediately lost again, completely illegible, swallowed up. The deconstruction of language in this way reminds how we chew sentences and phrases, and how much we communicate without sound.
The controlled chaos is appropriate. We become Dorothy, lost in an unfamiliar, dangerous, off-kilter land. Still, the harsh terrain is uncanny, resembling this familiar touchstone buried deep in our consciousness. Only through a diligent reordering of the familiar are we able to see the patterns of the everyday. The mundane becomes wondrous and strange once again. That’s the point of the non-alphabetical Wizard of Oz, to pull life through the looking glass and make it fantastic. The nature of cinema is more than simply a process of being pulled through then fed back out again; rather, it’s a constantly shifting cognitive reorganization spanning time and space and lives, embedding ever-deeper into evolving notions of perception and reception and media experience, minds primed to seek out rabbit holes at all costs.
Wild at Heart is the clearest correlative to Of Oz the Wizard (maybe The Wiz, too; who can be sure?); the latter an irreverent Dadaist spin to the former’s aggressive surrealism. In a sense, David Lynch has been remaking The Wizard of Oz his whole career—think the doubling and dream logic of Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway, and Inland Empire—he’s said as much to that effect. In its beguiling mass, Of Oz the Wizard parallels Lynch’s high art, circumventing the familiar and intensifying the layered dreamscapes of Victor Fleming’s (and King Vidor’s) vision. When we return to a state of detached alienation, only then can we see our eagerness to be pulled through the prism.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.