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THE THREE FETISHES: TRANSFORMATION AND ETHICAL ENGAGEMENT IN WALTER MURCH’S RETURN TO OZ (1985)

Guest essay by Jesse Miksic. Warning: this analysis contains spoilers for Return to Oz (1985).

The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985)

There is a vast mythology out there, deeper and wider than Middle Earth or Hogwarts, and yet more intimate, more rooted in the flights of fancy and weirdness that writhe in the dirt of our collective childhood. This is the mythology of Oz, created by L. Frank Baum and articulated in his fourteen novels about Dorothy and her various companions. For over 100 years, it’s been dormant, waiting patiently to be mined for spectacles and narratives; unfortunately, most of us only know it by a single film, the celebrated 1939 adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The whole thing is tragic case of untapped potential.

There was one other notable film drawn from this mythology, however, and it vibrates with richness and rabid weirdness. This is director Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz, a film sentenced by the cruel hand of circumstance to obscurity and cult status. Murch was a first-time director, and the film was generally considered too harsh and frightening for the children that would presumably make up its primary audience. It’s a sad outcome, because locked within this Labyrinthian orgy of a pseudo-children’s horror moviemare some mind-bending subtexts, glimpses of some interesting ideas about transformation, childhood, and ethical agency.

In this essay, I’ll be breaking some of those ideas down. Using three potent symbols – the ECT machine, the Magic Powder, and the egg – as guideposts, I’ll unpack some of the paradoxes and explorations of identity and transformation that underlie the film’s pixie-dust grotesqueries. I’ll show how these subtexts connect with ideas of ethics and responsibility, allowing humble little Dorothy to be the savior of a whole imaginary universe. Don’t expect too much… the film resolutely refuses to make sense, or behave in any linear or predictable way… but as with any genuinely eccentric film, this shouldn’t stop us from looking for the deeper ideas locked away within all the weirdness.

And so, without further ado – the first of the three fetishes of Oz:

I. The Electrotherapy Machine

“Now this fellow here has a face. Do you see it? There are his eyes, and this must be his nose, Continue reading THE THREE FETISHES: TRANSFORMATION AND ETHICAL ENGAGEMENT IN WALTER MURCH’S RETURN TO OZ (1985)