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 Frank L. 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, and this must be his mouth. What’s this? Why, it’s his… tongue!”
Dr. Worley thinks his ECT machine is alive… so much so that he is destined to die trying to save it from his burning hospital. Of course, he also thinks the human brain is just an electrical machine, functioning entirely by way of switches and currents. And though he is an ephemeral figure, only appearing for a few minutes, his confusion seems to preside over this whole story, the dramatic and mind-bending return of Dorothy Gale to the land of Oz.
Dorothy follows a path of waking dreams and resonant artifacts to get back to the land of Oz, her hallucinogenic ancestral home. Months after her first journey to Oz, Dorothy became an obsessed insomniac, seeing visions of a place nobody else believed in. She was taken to Dr. Worley so that he could use his psychiatric devices to cleanse her of her melancholy. The implied objective: to make Dorothy forget about Oz, so that it no longer keeps her awake at night. If the ECT machine is truly alive, then it’s a monster that eats memories.
Making a machine of the mind entails a paradox, and Dr. Worley falls squarely into it. In trying to give Dorothy back the gift of an everyday life, he is denying her the desires and interiors that make her who she is. It is a fundamentally dehumanizing process, turning her into a sort of a tool and an ornament for her parents, who just want her to be useful around the farm, and “normal” in her behavioral patterns.
This meddling in Dorothy’s brain certainly doesn’t purge Oz from her thoughts. In fact, at the moment she is supposed to undergo treatment, she actually goes back, returning to her dreamscape by way of a confused and desperate escape attempt. Whether the ECT machine itself induces the journey, or whether it’s simply a significant landmark on the way, is irrelevant. The implication is that, through the misguided treatment of a patronizing, dehumanizing old doctor, Dorothy makes her inevitable Return to Oz.
Oz is a world where everything in Dorothy’s life is reflected in a great mirror of non sequitur. The translations are often revealing: people with pernicious influence in Dorothy’s waking world are reframed as melodramatic villains, and people (and animals) endeared to Dorothy become her supporters and companions. Dr. Worley, however gentle and well-meaning he seems to be in the real world, is transformed into a despotic tyrant, a sentient mountain with the manner of a self-important bully. He is the Nome King, through whose malicious influence the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road have been destroyed, and the heroes and citizens of Oz have been imprisoned in stone.
As Dr. Worley’s counterpart, the Nome King also has an agenda of control, and this agenda also uses amnesia as a weapon. When Dorothy goes off to browse his ornaments, he says something telling: “Soon there’ll be no one left who remembers Oz… and I will be completely human.” This enigmatic mechanism is never mentioned anywhere else in the dialog, but to the Nome King, it’s been the key pillar of his strategem– turn everyone who knows about Oz into stone or ornaments, thus eliminating the memory of Oz from the world.
The room where the Nome King’s guessing game takes place is a sterile gallery of ornaments, presumably representing his hundreds of victims. Dorothy enters through a morphing cave wall of rock, and the contrast between the stone chamber and the soft white gallery is striking, bringing to mind an earlier, more highbrow interior scene: the ascendance of Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Nome King’s gallery has the same stylized flatness, the same shrill sense of dead space, as David’s cosmic bedroom. Both settings are liminal spaces for mind and identity, sites where the boundaries of consciousness are crossed; and both stories struggle with the man/machine dichotomy. The most important difference is that in the Nome King’s gallery, humanity is being stolen, rather than transcended.
Dehumanizing and aestheticizing, sealing people inside objects, in order to become human himself… a sinister, fascistic agenda, the exaggerated projection of Dr. Worley’s desire to treat the mind as an electrical machine, thus downgrading it from the animate to the inanimate.
There is another player in the ecosystem of Oz who insists on downgrading the organic into the inanimate. Her name is Queen Mombi, and even as she saps the life out of her henchmen and herself, she also holds her own antithesis – the Magic Powder – in her hands.
II. The Magic Powder
Queen Mombi is a hellish character, both sadistic and tortured, so powerless in the face of the Nome King that she turns her aggressive instinct back upon herself. Aside from the Nome King, she is the only actor in the ruined Oz who makes an active attempt to backtrack along the ladder of consciousness, turning herself from an autonomous individual into an empty terminal for the interchange of identities.
Mombi’s thing is that she has stolen the heads from dozens of citizens of Oz, and she keeps them in a living trophy hall, gazing back at her whenever she passes through to take stock of them. These heads apparently have their own personalities, as they can talk, even when detached from Mombi’s body. Her original head is kept locked away in a protective encasement at the end of the corridor, along with the Magic Powder, one of the powerful artifacts that the lazy, self-absorbed queen has apparently been assigned to guard.
Mombi’s sins closely resemble the Nome King’s: she aestheticizes the organic, treating identities as accessories and imprisoning personalities in decapitated heads which she puts on display. Not so different from capturing humans and keeping them as ornaments… the biggest difference is the ambition. Mombi has no real interest in taking over Oz, nor in becoming human (conquering the plateau of the ladder of consciousness). She is outright lazy, lingering and sleeping, sedated by her opulent surroundings and army of servants. Her menagerie of human heads gives her more than enough variety without having to conquer some foreign territory.
Mombi’s henchmen, the Wheelers, are her complimentary inferiors. They are human/mechanical hybrids, humans merged with automobiles: wheels for hands and feet, communicating in car noises. They are also deranged and irrational and cowardly, easily dominated by Mombi.
Both Mombi and the Wheelers are deconstructed human types, but it’s worth noting the difference in their strategies. The Wheelers are mechanical constructs, almost steampunk in their primitive morphology. Mombi, on the other hand, is cybernetic. She is a highly adaptive system with interchangeable identities, wearing faces and demeanors like it’s a matter of fashion. She is more dynamic than the Wheelers, but also more fragmented, with seams and couplings that penetrate right into her soul.
In what seems like somebody’s terrible delegation decision, Mombi has been placed in charge of guarding some very important things. One of them is a substance called Magic Powder, fairy dust gathered into a vial, that gives life to anything it’s applied to. She keeps this powder locked up with her original head; why she has it, why she values it, and what she might ever do with it are all mysteries that won’t be answered by this narrative. In no time at all, Dorothy will steal it and use it to animate a new companion (the Gump). Though it doesn’t have much more of a role to play, the powder is a symbolic cornerstone within the text. Honestly, Oz might as well be made of the stuff.
Like the ECT machine, the Magic Powder is an artifact of boundary-crossing, able to turn the inanimate into the animate, and giving the resulting creature a full personality and range of cognitive tools. This concept – the permeability of boundaries between object, animal, and man – is built into this story at an atomic level, spread so pervasively that it becomes sort of invisible. It may seem strange for a moment that Bellina suddenly learns to talk, but when we meet the Wheelers, and the Royal Army, and see the headless statues of the citizens of Emerald City, it becomes clear that this narrative is a sandbox of identity and ontological status.
This is what you might call a panthropomorphic world, fertilized at the intersection of surrealism and vitalism. Vitalism is the theory, regarded as highly scientific until around the 17th century, that all creatures possess some sort of principle, above and beyond the mere matter of which they are made, that allows them to move, and as a by-product, to form goals, make decisions, have desires, and generally perform actions within the world. It’s largely associated with theorists like Galen and Aristotle, and with the theory of the Four Humors. The Magic Powder, more than anything else in the story, embodies the animating principle behind living things – the vital force. Its power to place a spark within dead or inert objects, to make them capable of motion and thought, makes it seem almost redundant in this exotic land of Oz, where that sort of transgression is a prerogative, rather than an aberration.
In her return to Oz, Dorothy encounters three totems of vitalism. The first two are the ECT Machine and the Magic Powder. The third – both a reproductive symbol and a deadly weapon against the inert – is the Egg.
III. The Egg
Dorothy doesn’t realize that she has the most powerful weapon in Oz, right from the moment she arrives. This weapon is the egg that Billina the chicken is able to lay, apparently when she’s terrified of being eaten. The Egg is a potent symbol of matter becoming life, an object that can become a living creature, and its vital power is too much for the Nome King to bear. Why? It’s hard to say, either on a biological or a symbolic level; there’s lots of space for speculation, but how exactly the egg works its deadly magic is never answered by this narrative.
More interesting is the host itself, the adventurers that unwittingly bear the egg to the mountain palace. This host is composed entirely of boundary-crossing rogues, gathered around Dorothy herself, who began the journey by crossing the boundary from the real world into the magical land of Oz. This appears to be the only threshold the rest of them can’t cross, as Dorothy is destined to eventually return to Earth alone.
The first of Dorothy’s new wards is Tik-Tok, the Royal Army of Oz, a proud machine with all the capacities of a human, but who refuses to acknowledge that he is alive. Returning to 2001, he seems to be the steampunk second coming of HAL, happy to be free of the shortcomings of living creatures. Though he is not alive (a fact that he resolutely emphasizes), he has all the outward projections of life – thought, speech, and motion – which Jewish mysticism calls the “garments of the soul.” Once he is “empowered” by Dorothy, he is a relentless warrior, an easy match for the hordes of Wheelers, and a cunning strategist within the Nome King’s gallery.
Aside from Billina the chicken and Tik-Tok the wind-up soldier, Dorothy has two other companions, Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump. Despite their absurdist nature, they are two of the saddest cases in Oz, both hand-made assemblages of objects given life by the Magic Powder. Both of them appear to be tragically incomplete… Jack yearns endlessly for his mother, and casts Dorothy as a surrogate, developing a rather unhealthy attachment to her. The Gump is constantly falling apart, losing limbs and large fragments. His personality seems to be resident within his head, a taxidermied trophy from some long-forgotten hunt. At any particular time, he’s lucky to have enough working parts to move around on his own power.
Despite the jankiness of her patchwork companions, Dorothy develops a fast and firm loyalty to them, and this is what ultimately sets her apart from Mombi and the Nome King. Her loyalty to her friends, and her concern for the Emerald City, indicate a strong ethical engagement on Dorothy’s part. This is a key to her character, and it’s also a key to unlocking the theme of transformation that floods this narrative.
In her book The Enchantment of Modern Life, philosopher Jane Bennett argues that despite all of Western culture’s claims of rationalist disillusionment, there still is – and must be – a sense of mystery and enchantment at work in our everyday lives. Further, she claims, this sense of enchantment is necessary for ethical engagement with the world. If we were truly disillusioned materialists, as some modern philosophers claim, we would fall into the ethical traps of nihilism and disinterest, because we feel no guiding hand or spiritual investment to shape our ethical lives.
A large portion of Bennett’s book focuses on boundary-crossers, like Deep Blue the thinking computer, Alex the reasoning parrot, and Rotpeter, Kafka’s ape that transforms himself into an ape-man to escape captivity. She has great affection for these cases of fluid ontology, and she ends their chapter with the following passage:
Inter- and intraspecies crossings might function as one of the sites of enchantment within a high-tech world where God’s presence, while available to many, is vague to others and absent for some. … Crossings can show the world to be capable of inspiring wonder, with room for play and for high spirits. And crossings just might help to induce the kind of magnanimous mood that seems to be crucial to the ethical demands of a society that is increasingly multicultural, multispecied, and multitechnical.
This kind of transformative magic is cranked up to eleven with Oz, the land where all identities and ontological states are fluid; and Dorothy, the visitor who has been adopted as a savior by the kingdom, is a test case for the power of enchantment to engage the moral sensibility.
Dorothy’s ethical engagement is tested by the Nome King in a very direct way. As she is going to play his lethal guessing game, he stops her:
“Dorothy. You don’t have to go down there. I could use the ruby slippers to send you back home. And when you get back, you will never think of Oz again.”
“What about my friends?”
“Forget about them. You can’t help them now. … There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy goes on without even responding to this cynical manipulation. It’s a subtle, but viciously contemptuous response, more effective than any clever quip would have been. She may as well have rolled her eyes and spat in his drink. This is her strength of character – you know that if the Nome King himself were to be faced with such a challenge, he would balk, because he would never risk his own safety for anyone else. Mombi, the cybernetic queen, is equally disengaged; when you first see her lounging in her palace, she is apparently asleep, and until Dorothy steals from her, she seems to be in a stupor, like a well-supplied opium addict.
But Dorothy experiences her world as a wondrous, enchanting place, and she has a great sense of responsibility. She wants to free her old friend the Scarecrow; she risks becoming an ornament to save even her most recent acquaintances; she laments the destruction of the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City, and never dreams (even within this fever-dream) of accepting the status quo.
And at the end of her pilgrimage, it is the Egg that takes down the dictator, its real, physical, organic power of generation blowing open his cynical self-regard. The opposite of forgetting is not remembering, but creating, the spark of life within a talking chicken’s egg. Dorothy had the antidote with her all along, and the challenge isn’t in learning how to use it… it’s simply in resisting, asserting one’s presence as a moral force, so that eventually, that weapon can deploy itself.
And while those thresholds and boundary-crossings are a ubiquitous theme, and Dorothy’s ethical presence is a path to resolution, neither of these closes the narrative. Indeed, its lack of closure, its thematic illegibility, is one of the most wondrous things about this rendition of L. Frank Baum’s mythology. Like a true world of the imagination, it a language with a surplus of symbols, a place of play, possessed by fluid categories, spontaneous and pragmatic in its moral concerns. It is a moral and metaphysical dream, a lateral journey across the landscape of boundaries and differences, and a point of origin for an endless cycle of interpretation and inscription.
In her Return to Oz, Dorothy has rediscovered a place where animals talk, objects resonate with the vital force, and every entity is free to determine itself, as long as it’s willing to accept the responsibilities of ethical engagement that wonder and enchantment entail.