October 21, 2005
The Hanging Munchkin Redux
Seriously, is nothing sacred?
A featurette on Warner's upcoming Three-Disc Collector's Edition of The Wizard of Oz finds the techies behind the film's new digital restoration risking neck injury to fellate themselves for a job well done, and while I have to admit that the scrubbed-penny look of the transfer is suitably impressive, I'm left scratching my head as to how these would-be art forgers can in good conscience toss out watchwords like "fidelity" and "organic" in describing their painstaking efforts after having corrupted what might very well be the key image of the film.
I'm not an obsessive fan of The Wizard of Oz like some, maybe because once you ask yourself why the Wicked Witch of the West keeps saying "I'll get you my pretty!" to a stock-still Dorothy in lieu of actually, y'know, getting Dorothy, you've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. But the bloom will never be completely off the film (just as it will never be off Blade Runner despite the allegory-deflating issue of why Deckard doesn't just stake out Tyrell's place and wait for the replicants to show up), and one of my favourite eureka moments from childhood was when I figured out exactly where The Wizard of Oz makes its impossible transition from b&w (they hadn't yet restored the prologue to its intended sepia in those days) to colour. Now this shot of Dorothy opening the door of her house to a Technicolor Oz-scape--which I've always imagined inspired the indelible beginning of John Ford's The Searchers--has been altered so that it actually is what it seems and not something that relies on the generosity of the subconscious: instead of starting out in colour before Dorothy even opens the door (something we barely notice because the house's interior is a shade of brown and Dorothy is almost in silhouette), the shot has been desaturated in-computer, the colour seeping back in as Oz comes into view. For one thing, it looks like the kind of effect you could create by adjusting the tint on your television; for another, the timing is off: the contrast between Kansas and Oz shouldn't dawn on you, it should smack you upside the head.
Given that a Warner VP claims within the aforementioned featurette that today's viewers are distracted by mono and thus need their old films to be remixed in 5.1 (a practice I find mostly inoffensive so long as the original soundtrack remains on board, as it does here--albeit under "special features"), no surprise that some shmo couldn't resist trying to perfect this famous sleight-of-hand. But aside from the ominous rhetorical question of "what next?", I think it's important that we not blame on "today's viewers" in the same knee-jerk fashion for these acts of sacrilege, because you have to be conditioned to hate the old school, no?