Monday, 1 October 2012

An ideal for love… Wonderwall (1968)

Jane Birkin is Penny Lane...
All these years later it would just be so easy to mock the pretentions of the psychedelic era but that would be too lazy and it would be to underestimate what some achieved. You have to try and view these things in the context of the time, respect their references and be sympathetic to their aims. After all, history makes fools of us all as we look back in hindsight and across subsequent cultural-references.

So it is that what I first heard of as an experimental soundtrack from George Harrison that inspired, in name only, a song (Noel Gallagher hadn’t even seen it… he just liked the title…), turned out to be a genuinely interesting movie…

Wonderwall is good – not great – and most of the substance comes from an excellent performance from Jack MacGowran along with the striking contemporary mis-en-scene from set designers The Fool  and cinematography of Harry Waxman, ably marshalled by first time director Joe Massot.

Jack MacGowran and Irene Handl
It also has Jane Birkin and a cameo from Irene Handl… two quintessential women of their time.

The story is a slight one and truly this is more of a mood piece than great drama.

MacGowran does his best Einstein impersonation (shades of The Fearless Vampire Killers…) as a professorial type so absorbed in his work that he needs to read notes to work out the steps from shutting up his lab to soaking his feet at home… He’s absent minded and he’s a professor…

Beginning to see the light...
His flat is decorated in pre-Raphaelite and gothic tones with images of kings and queens and fairy tale poems on the walls… most of this is hidden behind piles and piles of his papers. In a momentary anger he throws a book at his living room wall and it knocks his butterfly collection to the floor and, at the same time, opens a small hole in the wall…

As he sits back in his chair, a light is projected through onto the far wall and this reveals the silhouette of a dancing girl… he follows the light to its source and peers through to spy a lithe female figure posing in the room beyond. Transfixed, he stares at this beautiful vision and is shaken from his dull routine, instantly in love with what he sees.

Jane Birkin ...well red
The girl is gradually revealed to be a model, Penny Lane (see what they did there…), played by Jane Birkin. The Professor begins to switch his attention form his work to the new reality of the world beyond his wall… he picks out new holes and tries to follow as much as he can… This is an oddly platonic voyeurism… suggesting that spiritual enlightenment is more to the point than plain old lust.

And Birkin is perfectly suited to being that object of desire. Incredibly pretty, she has an obtuse alertness that is a match for the naive longings from the room next door.

The Professor is disturbed by his cleaner, Irene Handl, his mother and his work mates but he is onto something here and he knows he won’t find the answer in his books or anything he has known.

Iain Quarrier arrives in style...
A young man (Iain Quarrier) arrives in a green car… he’s hip, vaguely scouse-sounding and has a cardboard cut out of himself… he turns out to be Penny’s boyfriend. He’s accompanied by a photographer pal in what seems a reference to Blow Up (on the surface a similar period piece but a far superior film which also features Jane B.).

The professor watches Penny and her man cavorting and makes more and more holes in his wall, ripping down the tapestry and setting up a ledge from which to watch events more clearly.

Penny models the orange shades and blue lipstick look
He is entranced by Penny’s modelling as she poses in a variety of fab skirts, coloured make up and scuba gear. Penny’s flat (also created by The Fool), is a riot of colour and decked out in more modern iconography… Garbo, Harlow and Mae West are there along with the shots of Penny and the trappings of 1968 fab gear…

Penny begins to invade his dreams and he sees himself duelling with her beau with pen versus sword, lipstick versus cigarettes… it’s amusingly well-crafted if superficially deep. British psychedelia was always more prone to whimsy than its US counter-part but none-the-less creative. That said, you could find Haight-Ashbury in Notting Hill and Camden even if not so much in Carnaby Street and Kings Road.

There’s a party and the Professor gets a visit from Penny’s guy who wants to borrow some ice… the two talk and the young man starts to reveal his dissatisfaction with being tied down… The party is wild and quite shocking for the professor who sees Penny’s growing sadness and her man’s incipient cruelty.

"Heigh ho! Who is there? ...Please come say, how do?"
The dreams intensify and there’s a lovely sequence as Penny, dressed in a diaphanous, neo pagan dress walks up the green steps smiling beatifically over her shoulder: she looks beautiful and the human response of the viewer is to want to follow. We want that look from her as much as the Professor does. But it’s a look of serene compassionate love and not anchored in physical desire… (although, having said that… she is quite lovely).

Jane Birkin
In a series of cartoonish inter-titles the core plot directions are revealed: Penny is pregnant, her boyfriend is sleeping around (a lot) and … he’s about to leave her. Things are coming to a head and sensing this, the Professor climbs through his roof and finally into Penny’s apartment. She returns and he quickly hides away… he emerges to find that she has tried to gas herself and taken an overdose of sleeping pills… He turns of the gas, returns to his flat and calls for help:  he has saved her!

The closing scene sees him return to work basking in the glow of his heroism, a new man infused with confidence. Newspaper headlines reveal that Penny, having been given a second chance, Is intent on starting afresh – it’s a re-birth for both.

Penny Lane saved by Scientist... Mrs Harrison meets Dr Doolittle...
But as the professor peers into his microscope he spots Penny floating amongst the microbes and urging him onwards to more new discoveries… Is she a force of nature, his muse, his obsession or a mythical creature – mermaid.

Clearly any interpretation will do. Wonderwall is more about the potential and possibility of life change than a prescriptive description of cause and affect… It’s a wake up call to…simply wake up and do what you should be doing for the best.

Mermaid in Notting Hill
It’s deliberately vague but then anything more specific might indeed be unbearably pretentious…

Throughout George Harrison’s music underpins the action in suitably psychedelic style and features a good deal of Indian noodling as well as electronic sounds. The “love theme” for Penny is one of the more fully realised songs and works well. Not as good as Macca’s efforts on The Family Way perhaps but still interesting and, for this type of film at this particular time, you could do far worse than get a soundtrack from a Beatle!

Jack MacGowran
Jack MacGowran gives a suitably nuanced performance of humour and mad-cap earnestness.  You can understand why Polanski rates him so well. And, Jane B, getting more screen time than in most other films I seen her in, does exceptionally well not just as an actress but also as an ideal for love. That’s a tough ask even for the best actress.

Wonderwall is available on DVD from a variety of sources. The German edition from 2011 promises the best quality and for such a richly visual film it’s worth getting the best you can.

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