In June 2014, a guy called Tom Murphy cut the film Star Wars into single word chunks and then arranged each word into alphabetical order. The resulting work is entertaining, hypnotic, and as Murphy freely admits, almost impossible to watch in one sitting, no matter how big a Jedi groupie you happen to be.
As well as captivatingly insane and pleasingly futile, Arst Arsw seemed at the time like a completely original idea. This, however, was not the case, as another madman by the name of Matt Bucy had done exactly the same thing with The Wizard of Oz – or, if you will, Of Oz the Wizard – a full decade earlier. Also, with no disrespect to Mr Murphy, Bucy did a much more thorough job, not only extracting the dialogue, but also the silences around the words. He even painstakingly rehashed the opening credits.
Although Of Oz the Wizard was completed in April 2004, Bucy – who works primarily as a filmmaker and cinematographer – only got round to putting it online a few days ago, where it’s quickly notched up over a quarter of a million Vimeo hits and has amassed an army of awed if slightly baffled fans, who have left comments declaring the film ‘strangely informative’, ‘queerly transformative’ and ‘pleasantly mesmerizing’.
Awed and slightly baffled myself, I got in contact with the filmmaker, who was more than happy to share the story of this unique and singularly wacky piece of work.
It all began in 2001, he explains, when a friend of his claimed, as many have, that there are simply no longer any original ideas. Matt refused to accept this, so his friend demanded that he cough one up.
‘The idea to alphabetise an entire film is what came to mind,’ says Matt, and after having hit upon his original idea, he promptly did nothing about it. Then a couple of years passed, and at the prompting of this same friend, Matt decided to make it happen.
When it came to the question of which film to chop up and reassemble, he says, ‘The Wizard of Oz seemed like the only choice because, to have any meaning, I thought reworking something in its entirely would require people know the original well. It turns out The Wizard of Oz is one of the most viewed and known films in the world.’ Having said that, he adds that ‘at screenings, kids who have never seen the original are transfixed by the re-edit. I’ve had parents ask me for copies!’
For some reason, I’m surprised at the idea that it’s actually been screened. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine inducing mass hysteria in a large audience, like the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
‘It’s been screened in many places,’ he confirms. ‘First locally in Vermont, then I let it wander further. It screened at the Jersey City Museum of Art for a month in 2004 or 2005, at a festival in Pennsylvania around the same time. I’ve screened it at Dartmouth College a few times and given talks about it there. It played at Mix in NYC a couple years ago. I’ve given away DVDs of it since I made it and I’m pretty sure others have screened it, too. I’m probably forgetting some screenings. I’ve been very casual about it.’
I probe him a little more about the evolution of the idea. Why did it appeal so much?
‘I love art and films that apply arbitrary criteria to known or iconic things. The criteria reveal things not otherwise apparent and can produce something genuinely new. The trick is to find criteria that produce interesting results. Most of the time, results aren’t that interesting.’
Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 lipogrammatic novel Gadsby springs to mind – a 50,000-word story that completely omits the letter e. A stunning technical achievement, no doubt, but by all accounts not that gripping a story; not that great a Gadbsy.
‘But, in this case, I think largely because the source is amazing and the criteria very simple’ – each word alphabetised and every instance chronological – ‘fascinating things happened. I was delighted beyond belief when I first watched it. I have produced other films like this, but none that have produced as much interest.’
He’s right. There are many moments of delightful artistry in Of Oz the Wizard, where the cornucopia of weird rhythms and repetitions, made all the more interesting by the presence of the music, become truly transcendent. For example, there are a full six minutes of oh – which is a good place to start if you just want to dip in – offering as it does a perfect, exclamatory microcosm of the entire film.
As does you.
And and isn’t bad either.
Then there’s the whole of w, which is pretty amazing, containing as it does the hauntingly communal ‘we’, the wonderfully diverse ‘well’, the hilarious ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘which’, ‘who’ and ‘why’, and of course, both ‘wicked’ and ‘witch’, and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wizard’.
The project took Matt around a week to complete.
‘I realised early on that doing this project manually would be insane!’ he says, apparently not realising that whichever way he went about it, it’d still be pretty nuts.
‘In fact, I tested the predominant editors at the time to see if they could handle 11,000 edits, and they couldn’t. So, I was on my own. I’d been writing little computer programs to help edit video for other projects where I didn’t want to spend the time to construct things manually. So, I adapted some of them to help disassemble the original film. It took three days to separate all the words. I then sorted them all in a spreadsheet and took that result and used another bit of code I wrote to produce the new edit. The credits were done traditionally in Final Cut Pro. I re-shot the background clouds and composed the text overlays in Photoshop.’
So how did it take so long for it to find its way online?
‘Putting it on Vimeo last weekend was kind of an afterthought. I found a beat up DVD of it in my closet. I popped it in my laptop and it read okay, despite its condition. I ripped the DVD and that’s what got uploaded. I made a post to my Facebook friends and they took it from there. Kind of amazing!’
Amazing indeed. Wonderful in fact. And that may not be the end of it. Hopefully, there is yet more Matt Bucy wizardry to come.
‘I want to do a lightbox installation that uses the database generated by this project,’ he says.
‘As I see it, it’d be about six square feet with around 950 discreet lightboxes – the number of unique words in the film – each with a word from the film screened on a translucent sheet that lies over the lightboxes. The boxes would illuminate according to the timing and duration of each word and in a unique colour that represents the character speaking. It would be silent.’
I can’t wait. And I hope you will join me in saluting and celebrating the brilliantly insane work of Matt Bucy. Why? Because of the wonderful things he does. That’s why.
Do check out Tom Murphy’s Arst Arsw while you’re about it. As well as much, much shorter, it’s also actually a lot more original than The Force Awakens.