A good piece of writing on film, produced by a major literary figure, is as rare as a successful film adaptation of a major literary work. The fear and condescension felt towards the medium by most writers do not encourage clear thinking or relaxed appreciation. There is, of course, extensive commerce between the cultures of film and the word: many successful Hollywood writers, whose lifestyles are the envy of literary people, were formerly novelists in fact or intention; many serious novelists eagerly adapt their work for the screen.
In The Wizard of Oz, a long essay on the famous film, Salman Rushdie has produced his finest piece of writing since his withdrawal from everyday life. It is more vigorously expressed than his essays on fiction and political freedom, and more pertinent to his situation, in touching as it does on themes of confinement and release, than the too demonstrative allegory of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It would be wrong to see Rushdie as having been condemned to public comment on his novels by the threat to his person: he has always engaged in it. More than most writers, he loves to write about his work and how he came to produce it. In 1982, in an essay on imagination and national identity, he wrote: ‘In Midnight’s Children, my narrator Saleem uses, at one point, the metaphor of a cinema screen ... The movement towards the cinema screen is a metaphor for the narrative’s movement through time towards the present, and the book itself, as it nears contemporary events, quite deliberately loses deep perspective, becomes more “partial”.’ In 1992, he writes of The Wizard of Oz: ‘So striking were these colour effects that, soon after seeing the film as a child, I began to dream of green-skinned witches; years afterwards, I gave these dreams to the narrator of my novel Midnight’s Children, having completely forgotten the source. “No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is black ... the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is black as black,” begins the stream-of-consciousness dream sequence, in which the nightmare of Indira Gandhi is fused with the equally nightmarish figure of Margaret Hamilton; a coming-together of the Wicked Witches of the East and of the West.’
There are other examples of Rushdie’s criticism of the film passing into criticism and advocacy of his own work: ‘But of all movies, the one that helped me most as I tried to find the right voice for Haroun was The Wizard of Oz.’ This is faintly pressuring, although less than bullying. He says that watching The Wizard of Oz at ten ‘made a writer of me’. It is impossible to tell if this assumes that any writer’s development is interesting, or his above others’. Rushdie is fortunate, in a sense, that his story, unlike most people’s, has become more interesting after each telling. He spends much time indoors, in fear of his life. He has been studying The Wizard of Oz on video: this is natural, since most of us have seen it, repeatedly, only on television.
Rushdie’s central argument is that the film betrays its own message by concluding with a homily on the consolations of home life, after showing the attractions of risk and adventure. ‘Are we to believe that Dorothy has learned no more on her journey than that she didn’t need to make such a journey in the first place? Must we accept that she now accepts the limitations of her home life, and agrees that the things she doesn’t have there are no loss to her?’ Regrettably, his final statement of the argument, when he discusses Dorothy’s return to Oz in L. Frank Baum’s later books, is contradictory and indefinite: ‘So Oz finally became home ... there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began.’ Rushdie implies that the alternative to a demystified Oz, a world of wonders manipulated by pulleys and levers, is not humble roots but another bright, possibly fraudulent, fantasy world. This position seems hard-hearted and neglectful of emotional facts. In truth, the film ends ambiguously. Judy Garland, showing early signs of the flamboyant masochism of her maturity, makes Dorothy yearn for Kansas: but when she wakes up in Kansas she speaks longingly of the colour and excitement of Oz. Rushdie misses an important aspect of the story’s melancholy: Dorothy does not have parents. In Kansas, as in Oz, which is Kansas in a dream, home is incomplete.
The essay aims to toughen the viewing of the film. Rushdie, it must be emphasised, is anti-Toto. Americans can be indifferent to dogs, in representation or in the street – not the English. ‘Toto: that little yapping hairpiece of a creature, that meddlesome rug!’ He doesn’t like Glinda, the Good Witch, either; the Wicked Witch of the West receives his appreciative notice. This is the old, perhaps oldest, story: that of Satan attracting greater interest than God.
On the question of Oz’s authorship one faces a choice. Either Victor Fleming is the nominal director and the film, which had a complex production history, is authorless (Rushdie’s view); or else other directors, King Vidor especially, made important contributions and the film has several authors. Fleming, who went on to make A Guy Named Joe and Adventure, and Gone with the Wind, did not have a strong visual style. He was a producer’s director, assuming a role in the studio era that today is filled by the director-producer. He left Oz before completion of shooting, to take up work on Gone with the Wind, after that film’s original director, George Cukor, who preceded Fleming on Oz, had left. Vidor replaced Fleming. (The first director on Oz was Richard Thorpe.) Rushdie’s argument becomes somewhat confused on the question of auteur credit. He makes much of geometric and other compositional details in the Kansas sequences, neglects to mention that these were directed by Vidor, yet claims the film has no auteur because Fleming left and a case can be made for the contribution of the producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed. Vidor had already demonstrated, in The Stranger returns (1933) and Our Daily Bread (1934), his sensitivity to rural settings.
Rushdie rightly notes the brilliance and sophistication of the film’s design. The opening scenes in Munchkinland are confidently presented, with complete assurance of their reality. The mustachioed Munchkin coroner could have stepped out of Velazquez’s Sebastian de Morra. But if Oz does have the qualities of a great film, that is probably the performers’ achievement. Garland, a brilliant, intuitive actress, conveys the proper degree of wonder at what she sees in Munchkinland and Oz, enough for the viewer to share and not too much. Of the other performances, Rushdie correctly singles out Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion for praise, but he would have done well to explain why it is Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow who provides the emotional anchor.
‘That “Over the Rainbow”,’ Rushdie writes, ‘came close to being cut out of the movie is well known, and proof positive that Hollywood makes its masterpieces by accident, because it simply does not know what it is doing.’ I think it offers a more negative demonstration: that Hollywood nearly destroyed a masterpiece by accident. Hollywood does not know what it is doing now: but it once nurtured people who did. Rushdie, despite a knowledge of film history unusual for a professional novelist, displays some of the old literary prejudices. He speaks of ‘camera techniques’. His view seems to be that film art is a matter of the exploitation of extreme effects in the medium. Of the scene in which Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion go skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, he writes: ‘How strange that the most famous passage of this very filmic film, a film packed with technical wizardry and effects, should be by some distance the least cinematic, the most “stagey” part of the whole. Or perhaps not so strange ... the equally inspired clowning of the Marx Brothers was no less stagily filmed.’ The first sentence is an unintended concession to contemporary Hollywood and its aesthetic of noise and bother. Film is like other art forms in that the best effects are usually the simplest. But Rushdie does hit on the paradox that stagey effects in film can be superb. (Renoir, in his ‘theatrical’ films of the mid-Fifties, addresses this condition of film with great self-irony.) Rushdie also unjustly dismisses the dream source of Dorothy’s Oz: ‘The film, like the TV soap opera Dallas, introduces an element of bad faith when it permits the possibility that everything that follows’ – from Dorothy’s being knocked unconscious during the tornado – ‘is a dream.’ Ugetsu and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms, two films which also presuppose a dream structure, are hardly soap operas.
Rushdie’s prose has occasional soft areas (‘the film is breezily godless,’ ‘Glinda does exude a sort of raddled motherly safeness’), but mainly it is rapid and decisive. The essay is richly and wittily illustrated with stills. The short volume closes with a story, ‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’. The slippers are auctioned in a scene of urban chaos:
Behavourist philosophers and quantum scientists crowd around the magic shoes.
Exiles, displaced persons of all sorts, even homeless tramps have turned up for a glimpse of the impossible, emerging from their subterranean hollows and braving the bazookas, the Uziarmed gangs high on crack or ice, the smugglers, the emptiers of houses.
There is apocalyptic intoning and the now familiar hymn to fiction:
And fictions, as I have come close to suggesting before, are dangerous.
In fiction’s grip we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to have whatever it is we crave. Alternatively, in that miasmal ocean we may simply float away from our heart’s desires, and see them anew, from a distance, so that they seem weightless, trivial.
It is hard, here as elsewhere in his recent work, to understand the point of Rushdie’s fixation on the status of fiction. Prose fiction is under attack from long-term trends in narrative art – the decay of the novel and development of film – that are more merciless than any fundamentalist tribunal.