This Is Not A Film Review is a new strand at Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second. Adopting a singular title as a starting point for a wider discussion This Is Not A Film Review fuses critique, thought piece and high-wire theory in an attempt to further explore the relationship with which we hold with the cinema.
The most beautiful fraud in the world.
So said Jean-Luc Godard about cinema (I). That Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great And Powerful closes with a man cursed to live his life as a cinematic projection makes it an unexpected purveyor of Godard’s sloganeering.
On the surface Sam Raimi’s foray in to the world of L. Frank Baum’s Oz may not be much more than a serviceable and relatively enjoyable piece of family entertainment, but underneath the proverbial hood, or rather, to adopt the use of one of the colloquialisms of the filmic universe itself, behind the curtain, there stands a very interesting thesis on the manner in which a filmmaker interacts with his audience, via the medium of cinema.
Oz The Great And Powerful is the latest in a line of blockbusters named for their heroes. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, all place the viewers emphasis on a specific figure before the first frame has even passed through the shutter. They are the relative Gods of their pictures, with the inevitability that comes with the all-seen and all-sold a wholesale package of inevitability. Therefore, the protagonist is idolized and infallible, and imperceptible to any fate that even remotely veers towards the definitive (see the lack of conviction in the perceived death of the protagonist in the latest Sherlock Holmes movie, subtitled A Game Of Shadows, for a great example; Warner Bros. couldn’t even allow their laurels to rest for the bout between movies without providing a resolution). With Oz The Great And Powerful though, the film is named not only for a person, but a place. The fates of the two become intertwined, the world and protagonist are (almost) literally one and the same.
It’s in his use of technique where Raimi’s intentions of deconstruction come through most clearly. The first act of Oz The Great And Powerful is broken by the presumably obligatory tornado sequence, in which both the film and its audience are transplanted from a turn of the last-century Kansas rendered in monophonic sound reproduction and the Academy Ratio to the land named for the films titular protagonist. By his adoption of specific technique during this sequence, Raimi reminds the audience of his own cinematic heritage, of the B-Movie aesthetics of his D.I.Y The Evil Dead, much in the same way that he paid tribute to it in 1990’s Darkman, and in the birth of Doctor Octopus chapter of Spider-Man 2. Strings remain attached and shadow-play is his greatest weapon, as the playful sequence is told using the starkest and crudest effects seen in a $200million blockbuster for some time. Raimi is a champion of the mechanics of the moving image. Breaking that down further, to it’s most literal elements, one might propose that the “moving” of the term ‘moving image’ is the word referring to the craft of the pictures, whilst the ‘image’ is the art. The director’s concern here is clearly with the moving, with Raimi lacking the poeticism of one of those rare purveyors of both craft and creativity, a Scorsese perhaps, or a Miguel Gomes.
Similarly outlandish is the use of computer generated imagery, an act made all the more noticeable thanks to the manner in which said CGI is emphasized by the extension of the film’s canvas to full ‘Scope and the digital equivalent of Technicolor. So unconvincing is the use of CGI that “intentional” is the audience’s assumption. Artificial backdrops designed to look like the matte paintings of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz via Macromedia Flash raise the question of how an audience is supposed to interact with something that is so specifically unreal. The interactivity of that most artificially existent medium, the video-game, has always given that particular form an extra boost when it comes to interacting with the unreal, yet with the cinema, in which the viewer is purely a spectator, the illusion is much more difficult to maintain or place beyond the point of conviction. Funnily enough it’s this idea of the illusion, the created, groomed and reinforced, and the role therein his Oz The Great And Powerful that makes for Raimi’s most explicit comparison towards the act of cinema-going. Just as he is doing so on screen for the viewers of Earth 2013, James Franco’s protagonist is performing within the landscape of the movie itself. Citing real-world influences such as Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, Franco’s Oscar “Oz” Diggs, aka ‘The Wizard’ is a figure of manufacture operating in a number of chasms. It’s also worth remembering that Raimi’s film pays homage primarily to technique over artistry, with the means and the process towards the indention of the illusion the number one priority in his act.
The director’s earlier, packed to the rafters Spider-Man 3, a film which might be labeled an epic, if only for the running time (II) makes for a neat point of comparison to Oz The Great And Powerful, thanks to the manner in which it smartly extends the already thorough examination of the normal-in-the-land-of-the-unfamiliar by placing a further twist on the conditions faced by the film’s protagonist (the initial misplacing of the normal would be the happenings of Spider-Man, while the extra twist offered by Spider-Man 3 is the development of a second, evil identity for the same character). Raimi’s other threequel, the Evil Dead follow-up Army Of Darkness makes for the most relatable feature in Raimi’s oeuvre to Oz The Great And Powerful thanks to the similar plots (klutz hero falls in to a world away from his own, leads a band of people in an uprising against witches), and the employment of pomo-yet-somehow-still-old-fashioned narrative devices in the form of the slapstick and screwball riffing comedy that Raimi so clearly adores. He maintains a connection to, and a respect for an existing mythology in each of these works too, and while it might be argued that within Army Of Darkness he was still honing a mythology of his own invention, this is where it all comes back to this idea of an audience interaction, in so much as that regardless of his own authorial voice that by the time of the production of Army Of Darkness the fandom had already gotten its grip on the series.
So, what does this say about the audience and the relationship between said audience and the film itself? Using the film’s own climactic sequence one can place this in to perspective. As Oz The Great And Powerful comes to a close the battle is won via a gigantic projected image of the man placed in smoke. Fireworks stand in for missiles (no harm must come of anyone, even bad-folk) the overt image of the Wizard makes several declarations of intent, which in turn lead to the evil witches scarpering. Good defeats evil, and yet the good of that equation is a phony, a fraud, and literally and figuratively a projection of a character-type that both audiences (the inhabitants of Oz and Raimi’s own) had come to expect thanks to legend, gossip and misinformation spread by the competing political force (the evil witch). That Raimi is using the blockbuster, the widest platform in all of the arts to make this point draws the two together wholly, with ultimately what Raimi pulling the same tricks on his own audience as the Wizard is his. Resolution is reached via illusion and spectacle, an apt metaphor for the modern mainstream cinema.
(I) The term “is said” is used simply because many statements that have been attributed to the mouth of Godard have been so wrongly. Take, for example, “All you need All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”, which was actually a flippant statement first made by D. W. Griffith.
(II) A film in which a character portrayed by James Franco, the multi-billionaire industrialist-heir Harry Osborne, suffers from a period comatose, one might suggest that his performance here is reflective of a lucid dream, given the emerald green imagery of that figure.