Sunday, February 4, 2007
I had wanted to see Wonderwall pretty much since becoming a Beatles fan (in high school), since the soundtrack counts as one of the very first George Harrison solo albums, only preceded by an Apple release of experimental mellotron noodlings. Since those days of fandom, my obsession with the shortly-lived psychedelic heydey of 1966-1968 had placed the film even higher on my must-see list, but a certain wary reservation let me turn down the offer, from Rhino's exclusive Handmade line of limited-edition releases, to purchase the film on DVD with assorted collectibles. After all, this had every likelihood to be a head film of the pretentious variety (is there any other kind?).
There are unintentional head films (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey), and then films in which the filmmakers actually desired the audience to drop acid to enhance the viewing experience (i.e. El Topo). The best head film, aside from Kubrick's, is George Dunning's Yellow Submarine. The Beatles distanced themselves from the animated film, not even supplying their own voices, because they assumed it would be on par with the Beatles cartoon show--aimed squarely at children--and only agreed to the project because it would help complete their contract to make a certain number of films. But the finished result is at least on par with A Hard Day's Night, and far more artistically successful than the film directed by the Beatles (or at least Paul McCartney), Magical Mystery Tour, and Let it Be, which completed their film contract with a depressing fizzle. Yellow Submarine was a kaleidoscopic fantasy inspired by Beatles lyrics but calling to mind Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, and perfectly in tune with the childlike surrealism of John Lennon. Plus, since the filmmakers were able to hand-pick Beatles tunes (apart from the handful of "new" throwaways handed them by the band), the soundtrack, finally released in its entirety in the late 90's, is stunning, highlighted by a rendering of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that represents the height of artfully used rotoscoped animation--after the sequence there was applause in the theater, at a revival showing in Seattle. I would imagine that if you were going to drop acid while watching a film, Yellow Submarine would provide a very pleasant trip.
McCartney and Lennon both had interests in avant-garde film. McCartney, while a Beatle, also provided a score for a now-obscure British film; but it must have been unexpected when Harrison put a film score under his belt. In retrospect, for a Beatle who would later score eclectic projects such as the Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise and the IMAX film Everest, and co-found Handmade Films for the benefit of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, his first choice doesn’t seem so unusual after all.
Wonderwall is of the “head film” genre, but at the same time it’s very, very British in its sensibility; it’s one of the strangest head films you’ll see. It stars not a hippie hero but the aged Jack MacGowran, hired because of his role as Professor Abronsius in Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (so IMDB tells me now, but while I was watching Wonderwall I was constantly reminded of the doddering vampire-hunting professor). Playing Professor Collins, he spends his day peering through a microscope, and by night peering through the hole in the wall of his apartment, spying upon the neighbor girl, a hippie model. The discovery of the hole is given great import. The professor, living amidst piles of papers and shelves of books, tosses something angrily at the wall because of the racket—Harrison’s sitar music—playing loudly next door. His butterfly collection drops to the floor, shattering glass, and in the dark he can see a cross of light beaming from the tiny hole (a lovely use of lens filter). Through it, he sees the beautiful young woman reclining in red light while listening to the sitar play. As he looks back at his butterfly collection, the butterflies, now animated (in every sense of the term), flutter before his eyes and fly into the ether. The next time he spies through the hole, the girl and her friends are presumably in a fashion shoot; she’s skiing in falling snow, bizarre poses are struck, all to Harrison’s mixture of traditional Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll. And they are in a fashion shoot. After the animated-butterflies sequence, all scenes in the film have a rational explanation. No surprise a scientist is the main character—this is scientific, mathematic surrealism, which only lets the butterfly scene slip by because someone forgot to carry the one. Nevertheless, there is a long, somewhat irritating dream sequence midway through the film, which features backwards-playing notes as the professor envisions himself battling the girl’s rakish boyfriend, who’s wearing a superhero suit with “LSD” on the chest. One of the film’s most striking images, and its best stab at surrealism tempered by reality, depicts the professor madly digging peepholes between the bricks of the wall, so the multicolored lights of the psychedelic room on the other side shine through like a Christmas tree. Less satisfyingly, the following scene has our voyeur using every one of the holes to spy on his neighbor making love, the camera undercranked.
That scene, like the rest of the film, has a thin line to walk. It has to be charming, funny, and fascinating and not, well, creepy and disturbing. It almost works—but, unsurprisingly, does not. This is a film about a sheltered, lonely elderly man who becomes aroused—I’m sorry, “turned on”—to the carefree world of the younger generation, primarily through the act of obsessively spying. How could that work? And could this film have been made in any other year than 1968? I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, the Peter Sellers comedy, attempted something similar, and the results were either more or less successful, depending on whether you’d rather be watching this story unfold as a broad comedy (as Toklas did) or as a semi-serious fable (as Wonderwall is). Either way, it’s hard to take it too seriously in the twenty-first century. Sure, there’s some ostensible human interest when the girl’s boyfriend occasionally visits the professor (they almost become friends), or when the professor rescues the girl from a suicide attempt. These moments seem out of place in a “head film.” In fact, the film seems to be well on its way to a quaint, minor-key ending with the professor returning to his lab and his microscope, but as he looks through his favorite peephole, he sees a fantastic vision of his neighbor drifting away from him and becoming one with the cosmos. Frankly, the film could have used more of that sort of naïveté, but as it stands, Wonderwall tries to please both the trippers and the middle-brows.
The film would have fallen completely into irrelevance if not for the producers’ smart decision to hire George Harrison for the score, and his soundtrack album, which stayed in print when the film did not, is a feast of mind-expanding explorations anchored by the dreamy sitar. So much of what should be intolerable in this film is elevated by his accompaniment. The opening title sequence is a particularly remarkable blend of Harrison music with otherworldly visuals (the professor’s microscope slides). If any of this film sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend seeking it out, despite its flaws. But this is for psychedelic historians only.