How did a non-fan, Australian-based artist end up fixated with The Wizard of Oz? Philippe Le Miere - the artist behind 'Over the Rainbow' - has wondered the same thing. In this interview he unpacks his journey to Oz. From the joy of villains, to the enduring power of fairytales, discover the profound, personal and peculiar lying just 'Over the Rainbow'.
Philippe Le Miere 'classic wizard of oz magic shoes ruby wicked witch of east'
You typically cover many subjects in a single series. Why did you decide to focus only on The Wizard of Oz this time?
As a teen, I was mad about film. Seriously, I held secret ambitions to be Hitchcock! By age 17, I had completely watching every Hitchcock film my local Blockbuster Video had in store. Media Studies was my favorite subject at high school, and I briefly set my target on a career in film. It wasn’t until summing up the courage to directly contact a Melbourne film director that, innocently, I discovered the ‘extremely high pressure’ industry members are under. It was very much a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ moment for me!
Focusing in on a single film, just felt like the most natural next step, after feedback from the Block-Buster series. In the end, it was my painting of the Wizard of Oz movie poster that won the most votes - even reproduced as a gift card! So I followed the yellow brick road ...
Are you a fan of the film - why or why not?
Ah, actually no. I’m not. Basically musicals are not my favorite genre. Unlike opera where music is the central focus, I believe film is principally a visual medium. What I loved most about the Wizard of Oz was it’s mythic structure. Many believe the late success of the 1939 film became a blueprint for later Hollywood successes. I enjoy reading those “How to write a successful screenplay” books. Practically everyone of them makes reference to Wizard of Oz - even more than Star Wars! Expressed simply, Wizard of Oz is the literary classic of Hollywood film - it’s what Odysseus was to ancient Greece, or Romeo and Juliet was to Tutor England - a classic!
Philippe Le Miere 'classic wizard of oz magic good witch of the Northern Aryans'
Who’s your favourite character? Do you identify with them?
The character who intrigues me the most is the Wizard. His centrality to the film is in the title. Yet he is the most deceptive character, leading Dorothy on a wild journey of discovering her true self. Without the Wizard there would have been no adventure! What is also intriguing is the contrast of two lands, Emerald City and Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. The Wicked Witch is unambiguously the villain. Yet both the Wizard and Witch preside over kingdoms. Both kingdoms originally feared by Dorothy.
The character I most enjoyed painting was the Wicked Witch of the West! Just as actors often express the joy of playing a villain, the freedom allowed in painting villains was so much fun!
What do you think the story is trying to communicate at its core? Is it successful?
“Trust in yourself” is the story’s core message. A premise so universal, it deserves to be a popular classic. The story starts with Dorothy questioning authority, but when Aunt Ma bites back, it’s clear Dorothy is a hindrance on the farm. Remember, like many fairytales, Dorothy is an orphan - lacking proper parental guidance. Dorothy confronts her fears toward the Wicked Witch, only after learning she might lose Aunt Ma - discovering how much she really loves her. But the story’s biggest resolve, is when Toto pulls back that curtain - revealing the true state of the kingdom. The story’s lesson is in combining Courage, Heart and Brain - three aspects of the Self - are what make up an individual, when faced with society.
Populated with more negative than edifying moments, Over the Rainbow reads almost as a tragedy. Why?
There is a maturing tone to how I’ve interpreted the film’s story. When I look at Charles Blackman’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland I see a tragic twist to the tale, so too the later Disney adaption of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both these artists bring a darker, maturing tone to these stories of childhood innocence. Not unlike the original Brothers Grimm, who allow Wolves to eat little girls, Serpents to cut tongues out of Mermaids or Evil step sisters to cut their toes and heal off. Over the Rainbow repositions the story in its fairytale origins.
Why have you renamed the Wicked Witch, the ‘Wicked Witch of Western Society’? What does she symbolise?
Again, the fun of playing with villains. A common narrative device of fairy tales and Mythology is to relate character’s direction to a compass. Joseph Campbell, the comparative Mythology scholar, demonstrates how Myth is imbedded in early civialisation’s agricultural development. The hero rises in the East, is illuminated in the North, and sets down into the darkness of the Western underworld.
If the Wizard of Oz is a film about discovering the self in the face of phoney authority, is it problematic that this message is produced by Hollywood - an industry that profits from conformity?
The ease of distributing film today can be measured in milliseconds. Film is such a ‘Global Culture’, in part because it is so widely available and accessible. But it’s also the quality of production and storytelling that makes Hollywood so profitable. Few of us question the impact of this culture - it’s a difficult thing to do. I believe art gets its power from contemplation. A painting sits still on your wall, allowing the mind to reflect on our world.
In your opinion, does our adoration for Hollywood-spun myths like the Wizard of Oz make us better or worse people?
I choose ‘better’. While I believe critical thinking of Hollywood produced culture is important, that we live in an era of ‘Global Culture’ is just exciting. Story has historically formed the basis of moral teaching - most famously through the widely distributed bible. Stories will always cast one social group as the villian, and another social group as the victim of this villainy. The challenge of story today is that we all live together on one planet. Telling stories that teach us how to get along better with each other, can only lead to good things.
Why has the film persisted as a classic? What does it speak to?
The economic context within which L. Frank Baum originally wrote in 1900, was during the great Gold Standard debate of an only recently United States of America. It’s suggested that Baum in fact based this story on the abbreviated Oz or ‘ounce of gold’ - the yellow brick road representing the gold standard.
Almost half a century later, the film was released after another major economic challenge - ten years post Great Depression. The New Deal was in place by this stage, but the story’s premise: Look within yourself during times of hardship was clearly relevant.
Successful films often reflect the collective feelings and values of an era. I do wonder if the more recent stage play of the story is reflective of our post Great Recession era. Another modern economic drama. I believe the story might be a classic, simply because it is so reflective of the modern experience.