There’s no film practitioner quite like Alexandre O Phillippe. For almost two decades, the Swiss-born documentary maker has entertainingly explored movies and pop culture. Earthlings delved into the subculture of passionate Klingon speakers; 78/52 invited Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Guillermo del Toro, Karyn Kusama, and Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch to analyse the Psycho shower scene — the title refers to the number of set-ups in the scene and cuts in Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous three-minute sequence.
He’s not, as he’s keen to point out, a film academic. He’s, well, what exactly? A celluloid archaeologist? A pop essayist?
“I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to follow my heart,” he says. “I’ve always kind of followed the stories that I’ve been passionate about. I’m not a film historian. I’m not a trained cinema studies person. I studied dramatic writing at NYU and I used to crash all the cinema studies classes. But mostly, I was a kid who was a massive cinephile and I grew up trying to understand movies and pausing and rewinding on VHS trying to figure out how they worked. I certainly didn’t wake up one day thinking, ‘you know, I said I’m going to make films about films’.”
To date, Phillippe has examined the 21st-century rise of the zombie in Doc of the Dead, deconstructed — that has to be the right word — the chest-bursting scene in Memory: The Origins of Alien, and chronicled the movieverse’s favourite casting out in Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.
“I watched The Exorcist every single day for 30 days,” he recalls. “Just making notes and writing questions. And I think by day 14, I started getting some pretty crazy nightmares. It just sunk in.”
He has no regrets.
“Pop culture is a universal language that manages in all of its seemingly trivial glory to make us dream and smile to connect us across racial, political, and social divides,” said the film-maker in a 2013 TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] Talk. “It is part of our fabric as human beings.”
Speaking from the US via Zoom, he warms to the same theme, almost 10 years on. “I think everyone should take a page from pop culture,” he says. “And what I mean by this is when you go to San Diego Comic-Con and you see all these geeks — and I say geek because I’m one of them — dressed up in various costumes and having fun and making fun of each other; it’s all very convivial. I often stop and wonder, because if these people were talking about politics or religion or social issues, they would start yelling at each other. It makes me profoundly sad that we can’t actually have a civil dialogue about the things that we deem quote, unquote important. But Trekkies can make fun of Star Wars fans and vice versa, and the banter is always friendly. Maybe we could actually apply that model for other things.”
Phillippe’s 10th feature is arguably his most ambitious to date. Lynch/Oz teases out the many connections between the work of David Lynch and The Wizard of Oz. The creator of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is almost maddeningly reticent about meanings and signifiers in his very distinct milieu. Except when it comes to Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road odyssey. Speaking at the 2001 New York Film Festival following an early screening of Mulholland Drive, Lynch claimed: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz”, when asked about that film’s influence.
“The key is exploration,” says Phillippe. “Lynch/Oz is not about solving mysteries. There’s no riddle to solve. It’s about opening more doors on to more mysteries. Fundamentally. It’s a film about the mysteries of influence and inspiration and the creative process. That’s what I’m passionate about exploring. Those are questions for which you will never get definitive answers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there. As David Lowery says in chapter six, the fact that we can have this conversation about David Lynch and the Wizard of Oz is one of the most beautiful things about our media.”
Lynch/Oz brings together various famous Lynch fans, including critic Amy Nicholson, directors David Lowery, and film essayist Rodney Ascher, whose 2012 documentary study of The Shining, Room 237, shares some DNA with Phillippe’s work. Each contributor speaks for 10 to 15 minutes over a lush series of images plucked from Lynch films, Oz, and beyond.
Justin Benson and Thomas Moorhead (The Endless) suggest that Wild at Heart, with its wicked witch motif and ruby slippers, is Lynch’s most obvious homage to The Wizard of Oz; Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama maintains that its Mulholland Drive.
They opened my mind to discovering aspects of Lynch that I hadn’t thought about. That’s honestly the real blessing of what I do— Alexandre O Phillippe
“It was an interesting way to look at it,” says Phillippe. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but she’s made a great argument for it. I think that all the chapters are surprising. They opened my mind to discovering aspects of Lynch that I hadn’t thought about. That’s honestly the real blessing of what I do. I get to pick the brains of people that I respect and admire.”
The great John Waters, another welcome contributor, recalls that Pink Flamingos appeared on a double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead exactly 50 years ago. Waters, too, is open about the impact The Wizard of Oz had on his work, allowing for some lovely archival fun.
“David has gone over the rainbow from the very first film ever,” says Waters. “He lives in a different reality than you or I do. And that’s quite obvious.”
Amy Nicholson’s dreamy opening chapter for Lynch/Oz examines the mysterious use of wind in Lynch’s work and outlines the larger cultural status of Victor Fleming’s film and its place in the collective consciousness. Interestingly, Phillippe was a firm Lynch fan before he encountered The Wizard of Oz.
“I was raised in Switzerland and I never saw The Wizard of Oz on television,” recalls Phillippe. “So I discovered it in my early 20s for the first time. I have a different relationship with it than many people. David Lynch entered my life before The Wizard of Oz. My first theatrical experience with Lynch was Lost Highway. I was already a fan at that point. And I entered that film with just great expectations and it just absolutely blew my mind. I haven’t stopped obsessing since. I think Mulholland Drive — along with Blade Runner and Vertigo — is one of the three films that I’ve seen the most. I’ve seen it at least 70 times at this point.”
I don’t want to offend Star Wars fans. But I think Star Wars has been boring for a very long time— Alexandre O Phillippe
While Phillippe remains one of the great champions of pop culture, he’s not unaware of its dark side. Looking back on The People vs. George Lucas, his 2010 comic documentary concerning the shifting (and increasingly hostile relationship) between fans of the Star Wars franchise and its creator, George Lucas, it’s impossible not to see the film as an eerily prescient study of what is now called “toxic fanship”.
“There is a dark side. I mean, there’s a lot of trolling, and there’s a lot of entitlement. That’s the part of pop culture that I just roll my eyes at. As much as I appreciate the idea, I see all these people who are original Star Wars fans, and who moan about every Star Wars film that comes out. Or they get excited and then they get heartbroken. Or they start going on forums and criticising and doing petitions that the film should be redone. Well, first of all, I’m not a fan of franchises … Because fundamentally the idea of a franchise means that by definition, you have to keep making stuff. They’re not making the next film because of storytelling. It’s an opportunity to make another gazillion dollars.
“That’s the first problem of it and … the second problem is that fans have a franchise. Are so embedded in the franchise that they cannot walk away from it. I don’t want to offend Star Wars fans. But I think Star Wars has been boring for a very long time. Maybe you are a fan of certain films. You can love those films. You can keep them in your heart and maybe go on the Criterion Channel and find something new.”
- Lynch/Oz is available digitally from December 2nd