Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NYFF: 'Oz' Speaks to Us All These Years Later

Image courtesy of fanpop.com

BERT Lahr was a Leo, said the daughter of the actor who played the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” His birthday was 13 Aug., and the film premiered 15 Aug (1939), Jane Lahr told the audience yesterday morning at “Approaching The Wizard: Flying Monkeys, Ruby Slippers and Yellow Brick Roads in American Cinema and Culture,” a panel discussion about the impact of the film, seventy years later.

BL did not attend the preview and would not see it until near the end of his life, JL said. “He watched it alone and liked his performance but thought Jack Haley was a bit of a show-off," she said, referring to Tin Man.

While a fan of “TWOO,” Yours Truly had never thought much about the film beyond its entertainment value. But I learned soon enough from the panelists about its enduring messages and power to inspire, not just Americans but people the world over.

Ned Price from the Warner Brothers restoration division pointed to the film’s message of optimism, stating that “Over the Rainbow” was an anthem of hope during WWII.”

John Fricke recalled the story of Winston Churchill remarking that when Australian troops marched against the Italian army in North Africa they sang, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.” And for many years, “TWOO” was the only American film allowed to be shown in Russia, said Fricke, co-author of the 70th anniversary book, "The Wizard of Oz: An illustrated Companion to the Timeless Movie Classic."

One questioner – recalling that at Saturday’s premiere several children were stuck by some of the film’s more sinister and scary scenes – asked the panel their thoughts on why the scenes would be remarkable to today’s young people who are fed a steady diet of violent, disturbing fare in our media-saturated environment.

Robert Sklar, author of "Movie Made America" theorized that it is because they care about Dorothy. “We believe and feel what Dorothy is feeling," he said. “She makes it seem real,” causing audiences to relate to and root for her. On the contrary he said, audiences don’t relate to characters in many of today’s scary films because the violent is gratuitous, creating a disconnect.

Price puts it down to the power of a strong narrative. “First, it’s good. And it’s a simple story, not that it’s not smart, but that it’s easy to relate to. Everybody knows what it feels like to be worried about a loved one. Or to want to protect a pet.”

Things turned political when JL reminded the audience about one of the film's messages that has just as much resonance today as it did in the late 30s: “Beware of the man behind the curtain. But the enemies are more difficult to discern today” than they were during WWII when the film was released, she said, citing various scenes that referecned the war, including the one featuring the flying monkeys as Hitler’s German warplanes. “The man behind the curtain is not the president but may be corporations,” posited JL.

On a lighter note, she said the film’s relevance 70 years later is its overarching message: “know thyself. The Lion realized he had courage. Dorothy realized she could get home without the ruby red slippers.”

The newly restored version of “The Wizard of Oz” will be released tomorrow on Blu-Ray and DVD. Also tomorrow evening starting at 7:30 are a free concert and screening of the film at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. For directions and more information, visit http://www.netflix.com/wizardofoz/liveEvent.html

In One Human Heart, A Great Love
AFTER the “Approaching the Wizard” discussion, Yours Truly approached an older gentleman standing outside of the Walter Reade Theater and asked him, very sincerely, why he was there.

“We’re a fan of the movie. We’re from Wisconsin. We kind of follow the munchkins around. This is our sixth “Oz”-related festival this year,” explained Fred Redtke who dedicates two to three months of travel a year to such business.

Fred and his wife of 30 years, Cindy, journeyed to New York City when they were able to confirm that the newly-restored version of the classic film would premiere Saturday (26 Sept.) at the 47th New York Film Festival.

What he saw made his trip: “It’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said a f/man who has seen it every year on TV and every format in which it has been created to date. “It’s fantastic! The detail …,” he exclaimed. “At the very beginning there is a stain on Dorothy’s dress. I noticed that right away. I’ve never noticed that in any other copy of it. It’s not very long, but there’s a stain there. It was very visible. Everything just shows up so much more. The detail was just unreal. Seeing it on the big screen, too, was a great thrill.”

His infatuation with a 70-year-old film is simple enough. “The idea that everything is gonna be OK. If it’s not OK now, it will be OK. You can go home.” And in the late 1960s when a teenage FR first saw the film, the idea of home had major resonance. “We had moved a couple of times in the same town – it was a small town – but we’d moved a few times. My parents did sell their business, started a new one. There was some stress in that there.”

Folks, FR is a serious “TWOO” fan and has the marks to prove it. On his left arm is a tattoo of the yellow brick road leading up to the Emerald City. Tattooed underneath is “OZ.” On his right arm is a tattoo of a publicity shot of Dorothy and the guys from the movie. In the ponytail that extends to the center of his back are rainbow-colored extensions. He’s wearing a T-shirt that he picked up at a 70th anniversary “TWOO” festival a couple of weeks ago in upstate New York.

The neighborhood kids who saw the film with him would eventually stop recreating scenes and mimicking various voices as jokes. But not FR, who “never grew out of it.”

By 1980, he’d started collecting memorabilia on the DL. “I was what I call a closet collector,” FR recalled. “I would buy a few things – plates and that type of ordinary stuff.” From there he ramped up to clothes and now he pals around with/chaperones some of the surviving munchkins. Incidentally, he has all of their autographs. His Wisconsin house is a shrine. Understand, the house is a “TWOO” shrine, not a single room in the house –the whole house.

FR is thinking about founding a museum, which may be the next logical step considering his latest purchase: a life-size porcelain figurine of “The Wicked Witch.” He keeps it in the garage because there is no space for it in the house. Cost: $2,000. His annual habit: RF says $5K to $10K; Cindy says $20K ... Hmm, the power of "Oz."

For a complete list of 2009 New York Film Festival entries and ticket/general information, visit: http://www.filmlinc.com

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