19 August 2013

The Wizard of Oz and the Truth about Lies

by Dr Mark McConnell

Oz the Great and the Powerful, released recently on DVD, on the surface has a lot going for it. It’s a “family friendly” movie with a classic story of good versus evil and lessons about friendship and making a difference in the lives of others, as well as the lesson that bitterness will destroy you. It uses the latest movie technology to create an incredible fantasy world rich with colours and fairy tale characters. It is, as one reviewer put it, “eye candy with a soul”. In addition, there is the added element that this is a loose prequel to the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, where we get to discover the origins of the Wizard.

James Franco plays the Wizard, whose real name is Oscar Diggs and whose real world profession is a second-rate circus magician. He is miraculously transported into a colourful and strange new world (which we come to know as Oz) with the aid of a runaway hot-air balloon and tornado. There he meets a variety of characters and finds himself in a battle between two wicked witch sisters (Rachael Weisz and Mila Kunis) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). He also discovers that there is a prophecy of a long awaited Wizard who will overthrow the Wicked Witch. It seems as though everyone wants to believe that Oscar is the Wizard, which is handily confirmed by Oscar’s use of simple circus magic tricks.

In the final battle scene Oscar has to use all of his magician skills to create the illusion of greatness and power, not only in order to defeat and intimidate the two wicked witch sisters, but also to convince the people of the Emerald City that he is indeed the real thing. After faking his own death, he uses primitive technology to appear as a terrifying and invincible resurrected figure. The sisters flee in fear and intimidation and the people of the Emerald City can rest easy in their belief in the great and powerful Oz.

It is not hard to see Oz the Great and the Powerful as veiled attack on religious faith and belief. And with a storyline that includes prophecy, death, resurrection and the final defeat of evil it is not hard to see Oscar as a Christ-figure who is not really divine but does enough to convince the people that he is. But what disturbs me most about this movie is that the message seems to be that faith/belief, in itself, is a good thing even though it might be based on a lie.

For Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, this is also the message in movies such as The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda. For Žižek, in Kung Fu Panda the underlying message is – even though we make fun of the ideology of Buddhism and know it’s not true, “you have to make like you believe in it”. In a similar way, in The Dark Knight the solution comes by Harvey Dent a (false) hero and blaming Batman. The truth is falsified for the sake of moral order. Thus, in a similar vein, society in Oz the Great and Powerful is based on a lie. But that’s ok.

The real issue is that these “religious lies” are found in non-religious society as much as anywhere else – whether Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia or our Western culture of individuality and consumerism. They are powerful and hard to identify, especially when one is part of that society. And for us in the West the constructions of these lies are easier, but yet more difficult to perceive, because of our reliance on technology – which as all of us know, will make us happier and has the potential to defeat evil. And I’m not lying. Honest.

P.S. Here is Slavoj Zizek in action…

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