Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Paul Nathanson, Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Paul Nathanson, Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America

Jeffrey A. Brown
University of Toronto
Nathanson, Paul. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth ofAmerica. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991. 432 pp., 10 illus. Paper $39.25, ISBN 0-8357-1899-9.

1 Nathanson begins his exploration of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz with what appears to be a simple question: "Why is this movie so massively and enduringly popular?" The cinematic version of Frank L. Baum's children's story has indeed become a cultural phenomenon worthy of serious consideration. For over 50 years The Wizard has captured the imagination of audiences regardless of age, sex, race, class or religion. While acknowledging the film as a superbly crafted musical extravaganza, Nathanson goes beyond the superficial to investigate the underlying themes that contribute to the film's lasting popularity and its particularly American resonance.

2 Being that it is not the film in question but our fascination with it, one would be hard pressed to consider this book as a contribution to film studies alone. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America is an intricate analysis of American values woven around the study of a particular film as a "secular myth." Nathanson suggests that The Wizard is popular because it acts as a wish-fulfilling dream for the entire nation. It is a collective fantasy in which Dorothy, our proxy, enacts the themes of "growing up" and "going home." Nathanson argues that these themes, tied as they are to American ideals, such as Dorothy's pastoral origins and her "pluckiness," reveal that The Wizard both reflects and affirms a deep-seated cultural myth for a country that is officially secular but still fundamentally religious.

3 Nathanson draws heavily (perhaps too heavily at times) on past scholarship from fields as diverse as psychoanalysis and architecture to construct his argument. Some readers will be disturbed by the detail with which Nathanson recounts the work of others. At times it is appropriate and engaging, but often the excessive representation is simply repetitive leaving the reader to wonder where Nathanson's own contribution lies. When he does present his own ideas, in his own words, they are clear and insightful. Unfortunately there are times when we go for whole chapters only hearing Nathanson as an editorial link between other scholars. This matter of style aside, Over the Rainbow presents a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to a classic movie and the society that created and sustains it.

4 The first half of the book involves deconstructing the formal properties of the film to open it to psychoanalytic dream analysis. Nathanson carefully outlines three distinct stages of The Wizard as "Kansas Prologue," "Oz" and "Kansas Epilogue" by their variation in such cinematic conventions as sound, colour, dramatis personae and mise en scène. Based on the fantastical features that set the "Oz" stage apart from the more realistic "Kansas" episodes, Nathanson argues that Dorothy's journey through Oz constitutes a dream-state ideal for psychoanalytic interpretation. Thus he recounts in detail several Freudian articles that have analyzed Dorothy's psychosexual maturation as it is played out in the symbolic landscape of the film. And finally we are given a Jungian interpretation that most universalizes The Wizard's story and links Dorothy's quest to the great American collective unconscious.

5 The second half of the book works to uncover the connection between Dorothy's adventures in Oz and their appeal to the national psyche. Jungian analysis has revealed that The Wizard is about "growing up," which is specifically associated with "going home." Nathanson argues that the film supports Americans' beliefs about their own landscape and their development within it. America has moved from a perceived garden paradise to an urban industrial nation and The Wizard plays out the collective feeling that "for Americans to 'grow up' as a nation (to realize their ultimate destiny as a garden paradise) they must also 'go home' (recapture their innocence in the original garden paradise)" (p. 173).

6 Nathanson relates this American belief in "growing up" and "going home" to universal religious patterns. He associates the American pastoral ideal with mythical and religious conceptions of Eden-like states, with the film as a modernized appeal to timeless, universal beliefs of both social and personal development. The Wizard thus acts as a secular myth reflecting and defining a collective dream with the power of a religious doctrine. In an era where popular culture is often criticized for secularizing religion, Nathanson goes a great distance to show the other side of the coin. He carefully explains how a film like The Wizard can be read as a sacred text of a secular society. Nations are as much quasi-religions as they are political constructs, and like a religion they need their own myths to unite the masses.

7 Throughout Over the Rainbow one is aware that this landmark film is being used as a conduit to American culture itself. Along the way Nathanson contributes an in-depth study of the interrelation of popular film, religion and cultural myths. His reliance on recapitulating the work of previous scholars may prove daunting to the reader, but the end result is an exhaustively detailed consideration of The Wizard as a powerful reflection of fundamental American values and beliefs. Nathanson's interdisciplinary approach is an admirable model for further work in film and cultural studies.