By Jack Hirschfeld
For more than five years I’ve been working on and off on an essay I call The World of Tomorrow. It’s about how movies that project the future influence the way we think about the future. The essay gets its title from a film made in 1984 by Lance Bird and Tom Johnson, which focuses on the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40.
Recently I’ve been thinking more about that film than about my essay. The filmmakers take 1939 as a watershed moment and they use images and history of the World’s Fair to disclose both the wonder and the fakery that go into our hopes and dreams of the future. The film is narrated by Jason Robards Jr in the voice of an adult looking back to the experience of the Fair in his childhood. He remembers 1939 as the year the “world went from black and white to color.”
This idea references the actual transition from black and white to Technicolor that took place in 1939 in the movie The Wizard of Oz. Clips from that film appear in The World of Tomorrow and through this connection I am led to some subtle messages, intended or otherwise, that inform The Wizard of Oz. In The Wizard the ”real world” is portrayed in black and white, and the Kansas of the film is gray and full of foreboding, eventually swept by a powerful tornado. The protagonist, Dorothy (a child/teen/young adult) encounters several characters who will appear in a transformed state when the tornado carries her off to the land of Oz.
Oz glows in Technicolor, and Dorothy lands in Munchkinland, a community of little people. In that day ordinary folks were referred to as “the average Joe” or “the little guy”. Maybe this notion implies more symbolism than the filmmakers – or L. Frank Baum, author of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – intended; but both the book and film have been subjected to ”interpretation” many times, and so I think I’m entitled to a go. So I see Munchkinland as the Oz equivalent of “the Heartland” where ordinary folks live. A different kind of life exists far away, up the yellow brick road, in the great and wonderful Emerald City where the wonderful Wizard resides. Is it really a stretch to see this as the urban centers from which “progress” and “sophistication” emanate? The visual impression of the Emerald City is of a modernist version of a storybook kingdom, splendid and exuding wealth and largesse.
There is this storyline of obstacles and challenges that Dorothy, and the friends she makes during her journey to see the Wizard which is also rich with metaphor, but I focus on journey’s end, when Dorothy is rebuffed by the Wizard and fears she will never be able to return home. Her little dog Toto pulls back a curtain that reveals the Wizard to be a humbug, and the dazzling image of the Wizard is nothing more than fakery, evidently designed to inspire awe and fear in all who approach him. The “wisdom” of the Wizard consists of bestowing courage, intelligence and compassion with tawdry substitutes. Is there an analogue here to the current state of our culture?
All of this comes to mind because we celebrate this year another anniversary for The Wizard of Oz. For an innocent child in 1939, the world transitioned from black and white to color. But in 1939 the world was actually about to descend into a darkness imposed by fascist states. So, when we celebrate the 80thanniversary of The Wizard of Oz we need also to remember that it’s the 80thanniversary of the German army crossing the Polish border, precipitating World War 2.
Who could have known then what the world we live in now would look like? Some visions from the World’s Fair took hold, and we can see their fruits in today’s world. Other aspects of the current age were totally beyond the imagination of the creators of “The World of Tomorrow”. The people of 1939 may have supposed that they had already achieved all the social justice possible and therefore the lingering injustice might not have entered their thoughts. But surely nobody envisioned the current environmental crisis, nor the obstinate reliance on the man behind the curtain and his chicanery.
Since it’s an anniversary year, there will be many revivals of The Wizard of Oz this year. It will be re-released to theatres, probably a new Blu-ray version will be made available,
Turner Movie Classics will likely make a fuss. It’s been around a long time, but most people today have only seen it on television.
Here in Havre de Grace where I live, we will be showing the film in March as part of our children’s series at the Cultural Center at the Opera House. The movie retains its charm and beauty and is worth seeing again, especially on the big screen. If you decide to watch it again, look to see if what I have written here makes any sense to you.
Meanwhile, the Technicolor world we live in is a manufactured illusion, and the manipulating Wizards just as phony as they ever were. The world of tomorrow is – as it always has been – an unknown, but whatever it looks like, the steps we take today will shape it, whether or not we adhere to the yellow brick road.