Sunday, April 27, 2014

All you need is holes: WONDERWALL (1968) and the Entomological Mystery Tour

Thisbe and Pyramus loved through a hole in a wall, and that made it to Midsummer Night's Dream, so surely there's room for a more one-sided and decidedly creepier (though seemingly not aware of it) 1968 Britpop film called WONDERWALL about one amongst "all the lonely peepers." Prof. Oscar Collins (Jack McGowran), a waterworks entomologist, collects bugs and peeps through a microscope eyepiece-sized hole in the wall at neighbor and fashion model Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). She's got a very trippy pad, a photographer (Brian Walsh) who dresses in Apple Records green, and a two-timing boyfriend (Ian Quarrier, who tries to get her into a menage a trois with Anita Pallenberg) - all things of interest to old man Collins! Problem is: Birkin is so gorgeous and young, with such heavenly legs and crazy fashions--that we want to see her all the time and less--a lot less--of old Collins. We only see her framed in a round hole and, eventually, several holes, like little mod kinetoscope vignettes, intercut with long stretches of Collins' little rat face peering, peering peering.... the round light coming through the hole from Penny's apartment occasionally illuminating one of his round spectacles.

It's creepy, man, a grody PEEPING TOM made creepier because the film thinks he's a Paul McCartney lyric / color-coded cavalier and not a creepy peeping tom who just found something better than amoebas. When Quarrier visits him to borrow ice for a party, it's clear he needs an older man's counsel, but Collins, dressed in a tux as if hoping to be invited over, cannot provide even that, and it's very, very dispiriting. It becomes a helluva slog, this film. It drags and drags as Collins misses, again and again, the chance to actually connect with other human beings. Also, he doesn't see the less glamorous moments at his neighbor's pop art flat, like Penny's shaving her legs or drying her socks in a jar by the door, or visiting the doctor or eating cereal, as if that's supposed to somehow de-ickify his displeasing addiction (as the 80s porn stars used to tease, it's "for educational and scientific purposes only"). We never learn or care: will Quarrier help raise his forthcoming baby? Will the professor ride to the rescue, I mean in some capacity other than cocking his head quizzically as might a beagle unable to decode his master's command?

Whatever the motives, or intentions, the soundtrack is certainly a nonstop feast for the chemically-enhanced ear. It's an entomological freakfest, with George Harrison's psychedelic melange of sitars, guitars, harmonica, tamboura and Indian horns howling, tinkling, and buzzing like an array of electric insects.  The cumulative result of it all (music + a dysfunctional wretch watching pretty people pose) makes WONDERWALL a kind of no-talking Beavis and Butthead if they were just one guy who watched vintage Joi Lansing Scopitones through round holes in a wall instead of Heavy Metal on a TV set. The bug analogy is borderline impressive --only Norma Shearer in RIPTIDE (1934) and Isabella Rossellini in GREEN PORNO (2008) come close (but no spider ala Lansing's "Web of Love" to provide a threat) and Harrison's buzzing tamboura and sitar hovering deep inside the ossicles are like a bee in the ear.


The source story is by GĂ©rard Brach, who wrote REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC and THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who penned VANISHING POINT (1972). One gets the impression of Brach's earlier work that he never meant Professor Collins to be any kind of Monsieur Hulot-Chaplin type whimsy generator but a skeevy older version of Terence Stamp in THE COLLECTOR, saved from needing to abduct pretty young specimens for his killing jar as one lives right next door (and old Collins has drilled plenty of air holes). The idea that Collins loses himself and begins to demolish his apartment to better make a million holes in the wall to peep through is creepy in itself, but doubly so when filmmaker Joe Massot films these actions to a bouncy polka and double projection speed ala Harold Lloyd or Benny Hill. Instead of laughs, what Collins needs a good slashing by Catherine Deneuve's razor, especially once he makes it his business to break into Penny's pad and start nosing around her underwear drawer (imagine if Chaplin did that as the Little Tramp?). Does Massot presume we'd think he was just being irrepressibly, innocently curious?. That's the fundamental problem, or maybe solution, to this film --that young Penny just happens to be trying to snuff it right at the same evening he busts in to 'examine' her privies?  Good old Collins! 

But maybe it's also because this weird pro-scopophile schizodimensional angle that it's ultimately interesting beyond its basic function as a pretty eye-popping light show showcase for Birkin's heavenly gams and shiny straight hair. If you go in expecting it to be a dull story of a dweebish ratfaced peeping tom scientist shuffling around his apartment in his pajamas, a reverse-gendered REPULSION tale of mental disintegration coupled to some old nudie cutie comedy like THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, then the pop art YELLOW SUBMARINER tangents will throw you left afield; if you go in expecting a pop art whimsy-fest, though, prepare to be rather unnerved by the inordinate amount of time we watch Collins watching said fest and cocking his head.

So the big question is, just how did this creepy clueless perv ever get George Harrison on board, as well as the Beatles'/Apple affiliated haberdashers and pop artists The Fool to work on such a vile travesty of countercultural values? The reason should be obvious: Harrison wanted to get more things on record, to promote his Indian music penchants beyond his usual one track per Beatles' album. Wasn't Harrison at all spooked by the thought of recording a score for a film about a sick little man who spends every waking hour spying on his flashy Apple Records-affiliated rock star neighbor's sex and drug life? As perhaps it would also do in India, maybe blissful meditation made George blind to the perv in his midst?  I would think George would have read the script (slid under his door probably, written in creepy Henry Darger longhand) and as been as creeped out as if it had been pictures of him and his wife sleeping in bed.
Then again, there's some evidence he may have just recorded an album with insect-buzzing tamboura and let Massot use it as he wanted, you know, to get rid of him.

In the end Massott comes off as being an incompetent probably with some private funds that afford him the means to make films and hang out with pop stars (he got SONG REMAINS THE SAME by living next to Jimi Page and because Page knew he'd worked with George Harrison). The result is a mix of Polanski/Powell film critique and pop art made by a guy who thinks he's doing a mix if SHERLOCK JR. and WALTER MITTY. His dear old professor Collins is a Mr. Jones / Father McKenzie bowler hat type Brit flouncing around in a student art film, a REAR WINDOW's Jimmy Stewart if he had no friends and didn't even know Grace Kelly, but spied on her and no one else, and we were somehow expected to root for him, a creep too shy to even realize how creepy he's being, one who figures a movie about him watching old Grace Kelly through a hole was enough of a movie subject, especially with his imagining having a big duel with her boyfriend for her hand, using as weapons things like giant oversize pens, lipsticks, and cigarettes while the lime green photographer snaps pictures, all just so she can load his hookah while he stares off into space. Who pictures themselves as an old square duffer trying vainly to look hip? That defeats the whole purpose! Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Collins? Dear Mr. Collins! You should really be in jail, or a nice rest home, chasing butterflies with  a little net.

Now I should preface by saying I adore Michael Powell but I'm too skeeved out by PEEPING TOM to ever see it again, ditto THE COLLECTOR, which my English teacher actually showed us in Middle School, and it depressed me for years. Also, I can't stand Monsieur Hulot and all those damned (in my mind) terrible Jacques Tati comedies. And when it comes to the Beatles I'm more a Harrison-Ringo-John fan, and find some of Paul's songs insufferably cheeky and guileless. Paul was always trying to bring in the lonely old timers and bouncy children along on the picnic, dumbing shit down so they understood, while John and George were about leading the brave young adults into the future (and scaring the shit out of those same children and old folks).

So here, while the score is all alien and strange and Harrison-Lennon,  the colorful psychedelic whirligig is seen at arm's length while the foggy London codgers are front and center, the way, say, the Beatle's MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (below, above left) tried to be cheeky fun for one and all but instead was kind of like the dream of a kid who fell asleep on a dusty couch to his mom's afternoon BBC kitchen sink soaps while home from school with a high fever. Just look at the drab washed out image of the four of them in their animal maskies below - as creepy as the brown bear man in THE SHINING or the citizens of Summer's Isle. It's creepy, is what it is, am I right, Sir? Not at all for children, sir.


It's sad too that Jack MacGowran, the great Irish Beckett interpreter, a titan of the stage capable of great oratory, who was fantastic as the gut-shot bank robber in Polanski's CUL-DE-SAC, is stuck playing a silent observer peeping tom scientist, his mellifluent orating voice for naught. Even happening to be in a position to come to her rescue, he hangs way back and lets the bobby get the glory and the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (meant to resemble making out, all the better to agitate old Professor Collins, my dear). The whole film has the queasy vibe of someone trying to paint a DayGlo PG patina of scientific inquiry on something he knows deep down is prurient, puerile, and pathetic. Penny has to almost die for the prof to have a chance to kiss her without it being creepy (i.e. mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) but even then he just hovers near her and does nothing too scared to remember even how to use a phone for help (beseeching the audience instead). So really the idea a woman lives or dies by the whim of a timid man too wussy to even fantasize outside the tiniest of boxes is almost too sexist and objectifying to bear. If I am drowning I hope my life guard isn't some shy ugly girl with a crush on me who lets me die rather than risk, you know, it being weird or something, by giving me mouth-to-mouth.

For all that, again, WONDERWALL can't be dismissed easily -- it has a lot of British fans like Liam Gallagher at the band Oasis. And I imagine if you discovered the film at four AM on BBC-4 while coming down off LSD in your London hotel after a gig, then well then you might write a song about it, too. And seeing it all swanky with pop art colors exploding off of the screen on the Blu-ray while Harrison's music flows remastered and earthy-ethereal in a gorgeous remix, there can be no doubt it has druggy pop art allure: Both apartments eventually look amazing thanks to set design by The Fool, and Birkin is progressively more and more gorgeous. So on the proper chemicals I imagine and with no expectations I suppose it would be quite the thing, and for the rest of us can certainly provide some help in the old spatchka department.

Then again, me, I can't stand Oasis.

But this guy Prof. Oscar Collins is half the show and that's 100% the trouble. If we come to the Blu-ray, we come for a psychedelic plasmatic gorgeous pop art happening, presumably, not a sad lonely ratfaced entomologist, and that we do end up with just such a one addresses the lingering need of British counterculture to address the problem of the judgmental old duffer in their midst, his bowler hat and imperious chin and jutting umbrella as he waits for the morning train, the type Peter Sellers loved to freak out in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN but Paul McCartney would bring on tour, citing just how clean he is. We just shush them away now, but in swinging London there was only the BBC and the cinema, and British cinema has always been a mixed collar bag, with a socialist streak, a hard-lost sense of labor/whig dichotomy, stodgy propriety and a penchant for turning nearly ever genre of film as dishwater grey as an English sky. And if an older fella really wanted to know what was going on in the swinging bird's pad, he risked the chance of letting his 'no sex please--we're British' bourgeois prurience get him in a stiff upper liplock. He might feel he has a right to move in and arrest them all if things look suspiciously salacious through the keyhole (and he can't admit to himself he too wanted to smoke hash with a naked Marianne Faithful on a bearskin rug or that he shouldn't have been peeping in the first place - he saved that girl, whether she thinks so or not!)

For all his criminal faults, an American filmmaker like Woody Allen at least understood that basic truth of viewer psychology. Woody's going after girls young enough to actually be his daughters isn't something he feels we'd root for, yet he at least is honest about how its his repressed incestuous longing that's the very core of his comedic art, an elaborate disguise for something too twisted to convey any other way. In real life, Polanski is on the run, but Allen strides free, and WONDERWALL is somehow convinced it's Allen when it's Polanski, the way Michael Jackson was convinced he was Peter Pan instead of Captain Hook; each believing that their artistic drive is coming from somewhere other than the drive to create enough distracting noises to cover up the hideous heartbeat of their buried desire. Allen's years of analysis have given him enough awareness to understand that it is the beating of his own hideous heart, his guilty conscience, and so his distracting noises are conveyed as self-aware comedy. And Polanski's awareness comes from feeling the need to film the tell-tale heart directly, that the heart is all he can see and so forgive him if he doesn't even deign to make distracting noises. But Joe Massot's WONDERWALL is so distracted by his own distracting noises it forgets all about the heart, and so mistakes its beating as the sound of butterfly wings, and so it is Massot never asks himself the tough sordid Flannery O'Connor question: isn't every butterfly collector more liable to sniff through his prey's old cocoon drawer than save her from self-immolating? And isn't chloroform handy for both abducting girls and killing insects... painlessly?

By the end of the film we more or less resolve this sad salacious episode in Collins' life, but for the rest of us we can't help but feel like Woody Allen trapped on that sad sack train at the start of STARDUST MEMORIES, if the entire movie was spent with him stuck in his Kafka-esque hell car watching Sharon Stone blow kisses through a window. 

But hey - it was 1968! The director, Joe Massot, had one more trick up his sleeve. In 1976, he was hired to make Led Zeppelin's SONG REMAINS THE SAME. He was Page's neighbor and had been pestering him and manager Peter Grant about it and they'd all knew WONDERWALL, his only other film, had Beatles mystique behind it (and they hadn't seen it, though I imagine it would have been a dealbreaker if they ever did). And so they hired him work unseen for SONG (and then fired him halfway through). I first saw SONG for the first time on TV after a wild party, with no expectations, and a bunch of friends of some girl I was halfway hooked up with (a tale for a different post-here!), and tripping on too much acid to find fault with it, and I loved it. So set and setting are everything, but most importantly, no Professor Collins, no Monsieur Hulot, in SONG, just the crazy, violent, talented, dangerous, beautiful young adults of the Zeppelin. And while WONDERWALL is a tolerabe curio for Beatles fans and Britpop lovers, I'd rather not be reminded how long ago that wild party was -and that I too am just a peeper now, a spy in the house of love, a fool on on the hill. So take your concern for the bowler hat chaps and shove it where no one comes near. All the lonely people hate looking at images of lonely people looking at images of pretty young people--it reminds them of their loneliness which is like taking an aspirin to enhance your pain. Cut out the middle man, the mediary who'd pin Jane Birkin's wings to the wall so you can pay him for a glimpse, and free her with thine own electric eyes! If she never comes back, you never really saw her to begin with, and so, Monsieur Collins, adieu! J'snooze!

from top: Song Remains the Same,
Stardust Memories, Wonderwall


  1. This review is dumb. The reviewer acts like Massot's portrayal of Oscar as a creepy perv is supporting that kind of lifestyle, rather than an indictment of it, when it's obvious that it's the latter. And yet he also seems upset that we see more of Oscar than of Penny--proving that all the reviewer wanted to do all along, was have more of a "peep" at Penny! I thought the film was great.

  2. Joe Massot, is that you? At any rate, I hope you finally get yr seats, and I'm glad someone stuck up for it, even if you got it all backwards, poor Mr. Seats. Accuse me of peeping, eh? Mr. Seats, you cut me to the quick!

  3. I do recommend the George Harrison album. The newest remaster includes seesion outtakes for THe Inner Light.

  4. I saw a George Harrison documentary and there's a segment towards the end where Jeff Beck and Harrison and Eric Clapton are doing a 3 way jam. Glitter is falling down...what film is that from???

    1. could that be the 'Concert for Bangladesh'?


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