1st Blog: "Oz the Great and Powerful or, Rise of the Patriarch"

Although I was a fantasy fan from an early age, there were a few well-wrought fantasy worlds that significantly captured my imagination: Middle-earth, land of comfort-loving hobbits, inscrutable elves, and meddling vagabond wizards; Eternia, where He-Man and his allies defended Castle Grayskull's sacred mysteries from Skeletor's machinations; Endor, forest home of the much-maligned but under-appreciated Ewoks; and Oz, where girl power ruled, peace and generosity were the dominant values, and quirkiness was a gift, not a cause for ridicule. (Later I would discover Dungeons & Dragons and its various campaign worlds like Krynn and Ravenloft, and this fantasy cosmos would shape even more of my imaginative interests until I was old enough to appreciate Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, and other transformational speculative fiction writers.)

Though I enjoyed the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, it was L. Frank Baum's literary Oz that most interested me, and particularly that of the first seven books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), The Marvellous Land of Oz (1904), Ozma of Oz (1907), Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908), The Road to Oz (1909), The Emerald City of Oz (1910), and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). (Later books in the series had elements I enjoyed, but became increasingly erratic and inconsistent with plot points and ideas in earlier volumes.) Through these books I became enamoured with such characters as the pacifist girl-ruler Ozma, the ever-intrepid Scarecrow, Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man, the wise and wandering Shaggy Man, and sweet, befuddled Jack Pumpkinhead. This was a world where being eccentric or even just having interests that were different from others was something that was cherished, or even honoured. It was a world where a boy with ambiguous gender traits could find friendship and acceptance among other gender-bending beings who honoured kindness and cleverness more than brute force or masculine posturing. Like in my own family, women were the moral, social, and spiritual centre of the world, but men and male-identified characters had an honoured place, too, though not the place of arbitrary authority they held in the wider world. I wanted to go to that world, to live among other queer creatures and refugees from the mundane world; Dorothy and her aunt Em and uncle Henry (and Toto, too!) came to live in Oz for good in The Emerald City of Oz, and I wanted to do the same, but to bring my folks and my pugs along, too. Oz was a refuge, a place where I could just be me.

As I grew older and read more, and came to understand more about Oz, its author, and its mythology, the glitter dimmed. The inconsistencies between the books confused and irritated me; something of a consistency purist at the time, I could not understand how it was that some characters died in the early books, but by the end of Baum's fourteen-book run he insisted that no one ever died in Oz. (He had an aversion to frightening children and increasingly wanted Oz to be free from the miseries of our own world.) It made no sense to me that the colour designations of Oz's regions were sometimes referred to as simply the fashion preferences of each county's inhabitants (Munchkins prefer blue, Gillikins like purple, Winkies prefer yellow, and Quadlings wear red, while the Emerald City folk wear green), while at other times colours became associated with the actual landscape, plants, animals, and geology of the region.  Plot, world, and character details shifted from book to book, further nettling my sense of narrative coherence.  Ultimately, these were minor issues that only detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the novels.

More significantly, I came to see that the diversity of Oz was really quite limited. Oz's inhabitants were either "meat" people (Fairies, humans, and animals of various kinds) or constructs (scarecrows, tin men, clockwork automata, etc.). Visitors from our world to Oz were rare and, invariably, white Americans: Dorothy, Henry and Em, Oscar Diggs/The Wizard, Betsy Bobbin (from Oklahoma--maybe some Five Tribes connections?!), Zeb, Cap'n Bill, Trot, Button Bright, the Shaggy Man. Even Polychrome the Rainbow's Daughter, though representing the many colours of the rainbow, is figured as a blonde white woman. Oz was a world of strange, wonderful, and varied characters, but when it comes to visitors from our world, whiteness is a prerequisite for admission. To my great sadness, I learned that Baum's racial attitudes were far less advanced than was his gender perspective: as a newspaper editor in South Dakota, he advocated the extermination of the Lakota Nation; his condescending attitude toward African Americans can be found throughout his nonfiction and his fiction, including Oz, where in The Patchwork Girl of Oz Dorothy and friends encounter the silly and ignorant "Tottenhots," and where Scraps, the title character, evokes the vaudeville minstrelry tradition of the blackface trickster-fool.

But Oz is a complicated place. Racially, it is clearly problematic. In class, too, it poses challenges. On one hand, American-style individuality is held up as a great value. Most of the characters are quite literally one-of-a-kind: there is only one self-aware Scarecrow, only one Cowardly Lion, one Hungry Tiger, one Tik-Tok, one Scraps, one Glass Cat, one Woozy, one Sawhorse, one Jack Pumpkinhead. (There are two tin men: Nick Chopper, the Tin Woodman, and Captain Fyter, the Tin Soldier. But they are rare among the exceptional constructs in Oz.) Yet Baum's elevation of individuality is one of personality only, not a broad social value. Oz has no money; there is no pursuit of wealth or property for individual enrichment at the expense of others. There is little if any poverty; prisons are places of comfortable rehabilitation and kindness; with precious gems and metals in abundance, riches are counted in personal qualities, not material possessions. Aside from the Wizard's short interregnum, governance is through benevolent monarchy (Ozma) supported by absolute magical authority (Glinda). (After his arrival, the Wizard overthrew the hereditary monarchy, sent the rightful heir into exile, and challenged the power of the various witches across Oz, retreating to the Emerald City to become the distant autocrat encountered by Dorothy and her motley associates.) The one democratic moment of the novels—when General Jinjur and her girl army overthrow the Scarecrow and take control of the City in The Marvellous Land of Oz—is ended by Glinda's direct military and magical intervention, and Ozma is returned to the throne (after regaining her rightful form, as she had lived most of her life in the body of Tip, a Gillikin boy—lots of interesting gender play throughout Baum's series, not so much in the work of his successors like Ruth Plumly Thompson).

Baum's Oz is thus a complex combination of socialism, monarchism, democratic individualism, and even fascism; it is a land of generosity and xenophobia alike (where only white American foreigners are admitted, and most of those are children); it is a place of difference, and of conformity; a world of sanctuary, but one denied to many who would need it most. As with the best children's literature, it communicates in multiple registers, and its pliability and amorphousness is, in part, what has made it so popular and easily adapted into other works of literary, filmic, visual, and performative art. But not all these revisionings are successful, and not all capture the best of the enchantment, the possibility, and the expansive vision that Baum's flawed but enticing world has to offer.

This is where Sam Raimi's new film, Oz the Great and Powerful, comes in. In some ways it is always unfair to compare one story with another, as each one tries to do something distinctive and imagines its own narrative possibilities. Yet today's Oz retellings depend in various ways on overtly and indirectly invoking not only Baum's original story but often its sequels, the classic 1939 film, and subsequent popular culture. For that reason, it is fair to ask whether or not the various elements of the retelling offer something distinctive and coherent that responds to its predecessors while making a compelling contribution of its own to the mythology of Oz.

In this regard, the movie stumbles. Visually, it is extraordinary: the special effects are first-rate, and some scenes, particularly those of the opening title sequence and the climactic battle between the Glinda and the Wizard against the Wicked Witches, are dizzying and delightful. Yet for all its grandeur and hyper-saturated colour and atmosphere, the movie is largely soulless, in both the shadow and the light. One example: the flying baboons are vicious and bloodthirsty, and they are rendered in exquisite detail, but they are nowhere near as nightmare inducing as Margaret Hamilton's hooting costumed monkeys in the MGM film.  There's just something missing.  The denizens of Raimi's Oz are a more diverse crowd than would be found in other versions, but the diversity seems more tokenistic than representative or substantive—there is no sense of real cultural distinctiveness among the Quadlings, Munchkins, Winkies, and "Tinkers" (no Gillikins?) aside from height and predilection for nonsense verse. (The one exception is Bill Cobbs's fine if brief turn as the Master Tinker. Cobbs is one of the best yet most under-appreciated character actors in the business, and his time on screen, while minimal, is always a pleasure.)

Aside from the significant political regression (discussed below), where the film really falls short for me as a story is in the world-building and the writing. This land of Oz is just a series of backgrounds for action or extended discussion—we have little idea of what the world is or who the people are who inhabit it. It is beautiful, but almost entirely empty of presence. (The Emerald City and its surrounding poppy field are the primary exceptions, but here, too, they offer little that lingers aside from the actions of the characters—really, this film could have taken place in any fantasy world.  There is really nothing very Oz-ish about it.) The dialogue is too knowing and trying too hard to be clever. Some of the actors are quite good: Michelle Williams is a solid and even interesting Glinda, whose goodness is just shy of being cloying, and whose generosity is moderated by keen insight and a will of steel. (I'm far less thrilled with her recent photo shoot in Native redface, but that is a discussion for another time.) Certainly she is more appropriate in the role than the utterly miscast Billie Burke in the 1939 film, though even here Glinda could and perhaps should have been an actor with more gravitas. Rachel Weisz's imbues the treacherous Evanora with enthusiastic sadism, and her screen appearances are always fun, but she remains largely one-dimensional, and her motivations are unclear. Mila Kunis does the best she can with the very underwritten role of Theodora; some critics have trashed her performance, but she is a fine actor who had little to work with—frankly, the explanation for Theodora's transformation is entirely vacuous and unconvincing, but Kunis can hardly be held responsible for that problem.

James Franco does a serviceable job as Oscar Diggs, but this is a character that needs its performer to be all in, and Franco seems to be unsure what to really do with him. Again, as in the case with Kunis's newly emerged Wicked Witch of the West, the problem lies in the story. Fundamentally, how can a thoughtful audience really be expected to buy his moral transformation (or the utterly laughable, gratuitous romance with Glinda at the end), when the entire film has argued for his lack of moral fibre? He is a huckster, a manipulator, a thief, and a betrayer. (It is worth remembering Diggs's coup in the novels, and the surrender of baby Ozma to a life of slavery with the witch Mombi.  This is not a nice man, either in the books or the film.)  Diggs brings his slight-of-hand skills to bear in the fight against the Witches, but ultimately, these are not the actions of a virtuous hero—they are the machinations of a narcissistic coward who eventually gets the riches and the girl.  What is the lesson here?

And this brings us to Glinda's actions at the end of the film, and demonstrates one more way in which Raimi's story betrays the world of female power that was Baum's Oz. (For more extensive commentary on the role of gender in the novels and gender critiques of the film, go to the insightful reviews by Elisabeth Rappe, Natalie WilsonMari Ness, and Scott Mendelson.  Surely Baum was ambivalent in some ways about women's power, and his women are all a bit too much sweetness and light, but there is no question that his Oz was a place where women defined their own strengths and their own lives and took responsibility for the care and protection of their world.) The plot holes in the film are telling, and what they gesture to is a deeply troubling disdain for women's power. Something of a synthesis of Ozma and Glinda from the books, the film's Glinda regains her lost throne as rightful ruler of Oz through an alliance with Oscar, which seems a highly unlikely pairing, but even if we suspend disbelief on this point, it remains a mystery why she does not take the throne herself but instead gives it over to "Oz, the Great and Powerful." (In the books, he is "Oz, the Great and Terrible," though that subtitle might have been a bit too honest for the film.) If she is truly "Glinda the Good," why would she knowingly step away from her leadership responsibilities and commit to manipulating her beloved people into believing that their dead saviour has resurrected into an authoritarian, wish-granting disembodied giant head that claims absolute power over the land of Oz? The subtext is not at all subtle here. Is it that Oz is better off with a propagandizing, lying cheat on the throne than the rightful heir who has faced down death and risked her own safety in various ways in defence of her people against murderous enemies? What does this say about the priorities of the people, or of Glinda "the Good" herself? What is "good" here, anyway?  And what does it say that with very little foreshadowing or reasonable development, a woman of such power, self-awareness, and dignity all of a sudden gets weak for Diggs's dubious masculine charms--and in silly heels no less? The shift is unconvincing; worse still, it is insulting, both to the character and to the world to which she belongs.  (And what's with the brunettes being wicked and the blonde being good?  Really?  At least in the books there were brunettes, blondes, and redheads--and they all got to be good.  Indeed, the only "wicked" hair colours in the books are white, fitting for the ageist representation of the wicked witches as old women.)

The gender politics here are demoralizing; it is sad to realize that, for all their problems, Baum's early twentieth-century novels are more expansive in their representation of women's power than a film in 2013 that claims inspiration from those very sources. This is not a prequel that offers something new, encouraging, or transformative; it is the same tired story of patriarchal supremacy that rises through the subjugation of and disdain for women's power. The Oz that Raimi gives us is not a world of possibility; it is a world that replicates the demeaning and diminishing power structures of our own. For all its flaws, Baum's Oz offers us something better, as does a far more compelling and provocative prequel than Raimi's effort: Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and its musical interpretation, Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. Though not without their own problems, both cleverly extrapolate the problematic political subtexts of Baum's works. (I actually prefer the streamlined plot of the musical to that of Maguire's more complex and convoluted novel, though his writing style is one of the book's most appealing features.)

There are reports that a sequel to Oz the Great and Powerful is in the works. Given what we have seen thus far, I think that the likely Oz: Rise of the Patriarch* is not a film I want to see, unless Glinda takes back her power, reclaims her agency, and comes to the Emerald City to kick some Wizard ass. Absent that, I think I will go back to Maguire's book and to a prequel that offers both heart and heartbreak, that deals with the heavy questions of good and evil, and of the harrowing consequences of exclusion and self-righteous bigotry—a more honest and important story, in a time when we really need it.

(*My title suggestion--truth in advertising!)

Tobhi Burrows, the Tetawa Leafspeaker from *The Way of Thorn and Thunder*