Writer Tom Robbins once posited that a roughly-sketched yet fairly accurate litmus test for someone you’ve just met is to ask them “Which member of The Beatles do you like best?” If they say John, they are political; spiritual, if they pick George; affable go the Ringo’s... there is no wrong answer, except “Paul.” None of this really addresses a review of the film Wonderwall, but it’s a much more interesting topic, so I was hoping to spend a little time there, before moving on to the grim task at hand.
The Beatles connection here is that George Harrison scored the film, producing an album far more cohesive and enjoyable, than the film it was to be paired with. Approached by director Joe Massot, George was given both absolute freedom in what he could do, as well as promises that what ever he came up with would be used in the film. To write the music, George watched the film, timed each section, and then wrote for it specifically. Probably not all that stunning to all you professional film scorers, but to me, just the image of George looking a stopwatch and saying “But what is Time to a human soul?” kinda funny. To his credit, George Harrison used this chance to give much of the Western World its first taste of Indian music, along with the more expected rock sounds of other passages in the film. It really is a lovely album on its own, and also enjoys the distinction of being the first solo album by a member of The Beatles. If it seems now that I’d rather talk about the soundtrack album then the movie, that, I confess, is also true.
Wonderwall, the movie stands as proof that the brown acid was around long before Woodstock. Moreover, I suspect that not only would Joe Massot have taken it, he would have sought it out as well. This movie has all the charm of a 1960’s Freak-Out/ Happening. If the loud colors of the Hippy era are you’re kind of thing, then this film is your Sherwin-Williams.
The story, such as it is, concerns a straight-laced scientist, Professor Collins (played with charming disarray by Jack MacGowran, notable for his work in Sam Beckett plays, but mildly famous as the boozing priest in The Exorcist) and his growing obsession with the girl in the apartment next door, a model played by singer-actress Jane Birkin.
As the movie opens, we are introduced to the professor, who runs his day by referring to note cards that tell him when to eat, what to do, etc., etc. He narrates his way through his life. He lives in an apartment that is a textbook example of a hoarder’s den and keeps a pet preying mantis that is as loud as a parrot. Everywhere, one sees piles of newspapers and notes, framed and mounted butterfly collections, kick-knacks, trophies, flotsam and jettison; the miscellania of his cluttered and lonely life. It’s as if the director wants us to see into the cramped and disorderly mind of this modern, logical man. With a big red arrow and capital-ass letters saying, “Please don’t miss the inner meaning here.”
Most of the imagery in the movie is this two-dimensional, and the interchangeability of dream sequences, hallucinations, and modeling sessions grows dreary fast. Unless you like that sort of thing, are old enough to remember this time period, or are just... you know... odd.
The main character’s obsession develops one night while he is at home “doing science” with a microscope. He is continually bothered by the loud music from next door (but it does has a very interesting effect on the single-cell organisms he’s looking at... they go from blue to green and back & forth to the music. Sadly, this is never explored in the film). Later, the professor discovers a peep-hole in the wall between the two apartments and views many modeling sessions in which the girl next door, named Penny Lane (I know, right?) is in the nude as much as in the clothes. And given the fashion of those clothes, she’s better in the nude.
Thus begins the professor’s obsession, which today we would laughingly call “stalking.” It gets so bad that, at different points, he breaks one of his butterfly collections and rips the canvas(?) off the wall between the two apartments so that he can chisel close to a dozen extra peep-holes in the wall (which, oddly, never are noticed by any of the people in the other apartment). Eventually, he is skipping work and tearing out the ceiling and digging up through the roof in his attempt to something something something about the girl.
The movie is both under-reaching and over-stuffed with Freudian-heavy dream-sequences, Jungian hallucinations and post-Summer of Love fashions that include a startlingly large collection of sunglasses so stunning in their garishness, even Bono would say “Oh well, that’s just stupid!” The Dutch fashion duo The Fool is responsible for much of the chromatic and set-design sins of the film. I hope they’re happy with themselves.
The quest-y part of the movie comes when poor Penny, pregnant and recently dumped by her boyfriend, attempts an overdose with pills. But the Professor (who starts off the film looking like a collision of John Hurt and Albert Einstein, but at times transforms into clean-shaven Kurt Vonnegut and pre-sobriety Eric Clapton look-a-likes) comes to her rescue. I won’t give away the ending because, when I was watching it, that’s when the drugs kicked in.
I suppose that under the influence of some pretty good drugs, this movie can be a veritable joy-ride of understated Brit-Humor one-liners and creative visuals. But I don’t like to advocate drug use. Mostly because I don’t want to encourage a lot of people to go out and compete for the same supply as me, but more so because this movie shouldn’t get that kind of easy out. If they were going for the whimsy and social-bite of a early Peter Sellers movie, well... Ok, I changed my mind – I will advocate heavy drug use before watching this film. And, to be medically responsible, the option of heavy drug use after you’ve watched this film.
The Soundtrack however is, as I said earlier, very awesome and well worth the investment; George is a very capable film-scorer (and under-rated Beatle, for what it’s worth). I hope Mystery Science theater 3000 does a reunion series, because this is a movie they could have some fun with. You’re on your own.
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.