Quick! What do you think of when I say: The Wizard of Oz
Now close your eyes for a moment and think.
. . .
What came to mind?
For many of you, I suspect the first images to arrive involved vibrant colors - the glistening ruby slippers, golden yellow bricks, the heinous green skin of the witch. Or perhaps your memory drifted to the characters inhabiting this world - the jolly men of straw and tin, the skittish lion, or the chipper little Munchkins. Do you recall the sounds of their voices? Or the songs they sang? Did your mind ring with the gleeful optimism of We're Off to See the Wizard or the triumphant melody of Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead? Or maybe not. Maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about.
If you haven't seen The Wizard of Oz, or forgot it all, here's a refresher:
Dorothy is from Kansas, but after being uprooted by a cyclone, she finds herself in a faraway land called Oz. It's great and all, but she misses home. The only way to get back is by traveling down a fancy yellow road to a fancy green city (Emerald, to be exact). There, she is told, the great Wizard will work his magic and send her back to Kansas. On the way, she picks up a few friends, an enemy, and a newfound appreciation for the place she came from.
This 1939 film is far outside today's cultural zeitgeist. You're not going to see it next to Tiger King on your Netflix homepage, and I'm guessing no Tik Tokkers are out there going viral by dressing up as Munchkins. But still, there's a magical, sticky quality to it - clinging to your memory over the years like gum on a shoe. The Wizard of Oz is one of those films that sits back in your mental archive, waiting patiently for the moment a stray thought comes within its vicinity. Conversations, situations, and other pieces of media - all are potential sites for old memories to pay a visit.
Think of the shivering fright of Dorothy creeping through the ominous forest. Lions, and tigers, and bears... oh my! Getting goosebumps? Maybe not. It's not a scary movie by today's standards (and maybe wasn't then either), because it doesn’t need to be. The film’s real staying power derives from the empathetic responses is draws out of the viewer. The attendant memory triggers - such as colors, characters, music, and so on - are catalysts in the process. The more visceral, the more synesthetic, the better.
The dark forest wasn’t meant to scare viewers, it served to accentuate the surprise when Dorothy realizes the “beast” she discovered in there is nothing but a softie. Trudging through a creepy forest is relatable on one level, but the compassionate reassessment of a person is universal.
At best, a filmic memory acquires new essences with age, like a fine wine (welp, that sounded a lot less clichéd in my head). The elements soak in your neurons, reacting with new experiences to produce deeper associations. Songs become feelings. Characters become friends. Palettes become palates. On this front, The Wizard of Oz offers quite a complex aroma - from the dusty, monochromatic plains of Kansas to technicolor, borderline-gaudy Land of Oz, and back again.
In wine terms, (wine people, I apologize in advance for butchering this) I suppose you'd call this a dry entry, followed by a fruit-forward optimism, and a melancholic finish. The resulting mouthfeel (yep, I said it) is dominated by an overwhelming sense of longing. This longing manifests most lucidly in our protagonist Dorothy, who dreams of an unattainable world beyond her humdrum reality. But then in an aromatic shift, her longing turns on itself; she ends up craving the very thing her dreams blinded her from in the first place.
Well, that was one of my more indulgent metaphors. Now, it’s time for…
POP QUIZ PART 2.
I want you to travel back into your mind, and conjure up your very first memories on the internet. Once again, close your eyes.
. . .
What'd you think of this time? Do you remember the exact device you used? Do you remember sending your first email? Setting your first password? Or maybe you recalled the sounds: like AOL's infamous "you've got mail" voice, or the tele-digital crunching sound of dial-up modems. Many of our most deeply-rooted memories revolve around interactions with people - such as the nervous excitement of IMing a crush, or the affirmation of adding your first digital "friends.” Perhaps it was the thrill of chatting with strangers, or reinventing yourself through a screen name. How did it feel?
Thankfully, I was spared of that excruciating dial-up sound. But I am old enough to have experienced the “glory days” of YouTube. At least what felt like it to me - a time when browsing videos really felt like opening the door into Oz. I watched firsthand (unknowingly) as the viral canon first took form: Charlie bit me, Evolution of Dance, Never Gonna Give You Up, and the OK Go Treadmill video, to name a few. Even beyond YouTube, the entire internet felt like a bundle of gifts - Wikipedia, Google Earth, AddictingGames.com (anyone with me?); and all of it for free! What I remember, above all, was an utter faith that technology would never fail to nourish our culture, empower communication, and maybe even solve some of our global challenges... What happened to that feeling?
This is a breed of nostalgia I'm usually averse to, but I do think there's a grander truth here (which is why I made a video about it). But I'll acknowledge my memory has been warped by all sorts of forces. Nobody enjoyed the dial-up sound. Getting Rickrolled wasn’t fun either. And as glorious as it sounds, emailing your middle school crush wasn't all it's cracked up to be. My biggest blindspot was assuming all the “free” services I enjoyed could exist with no side-affects. Thinking back to it all now is like taking a wine bottle off the cellar rack, popping it open to realize it’s become oxidized and hopelessly stale.
Like Dorothy, we are all subject to the tyranny of imagination. On the other side of the screen, assorted cultural triggers contend for finite shelf space in our long-term memory. The fittest of which traverse into our subconscious - a realm of which we are not in control. Once they’ve anchored, these triggers surface in our inner dialogue, project when our eyes are closed, and occupy our dreams.
Dreams and memory don't play well together. For one, the fleeting window to record a dream after you’ve awoken doesn’t make it easy. If you’re not attentive, it’s lost forever. But even if you manage to capture and store a dream’s essence, it inevitably grows into a caricatured version of itself. Without our knowing, our dreams and memories constantly reorient around our feelings at the present moment. Just like the aging of wine, these processes operate on a molecular level where our intervention is futile. Dreams are just as real as Dorothy’s magical land over the rainbow. BUT, that's not to say they aren't real.
My objective with DREAM was to explore the internet through this perspective - our collective memory of the internet, where our dreams went off the rails, and how they shaped the decisions we have to make today. From the rosy days of 90’s techno-utopianism, down the Yellow Brick Road of unicorn startups and the dot-com bubble, this film recounts the regime-shift from the Witch of Washington to the Witch of Silicon Valley (and how we somehow ended up with both). Most importantly, it's about how we’ve ended up longing for the same things we tried to escape in the first place.
The cyclone rages on to this day, never failing to transplant us in strange new lands. With all uncharted territories come a unique danger, but also the exhilaration of discovery. Today, the lurking perversions of past dreams may haunt us, but they also provide directions back home. This project is a dream journal of sorts - uncovering new dimensions of our experience through a survey of our collective subconscious. And hopefully in the process, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, it’s an invocation as to how we might find our way back home.