I somehow doubt that Liam Gallagher ever sat through Wonderwall. Most likely, he’d have put his foot through the telly ten minutes in. Even “intellect” of the family Noel would probably have struggled with it. But then, their song was inspired by George Harrison’s album of music – no way would Theodor Adorno want credit for that one – rather than Joe Massiot’s oddball hippy dream/nightmare project (his only fiction feature, unless you count an ’80s Barry Sheen escapade). It’s perhaps a shame Massiot didn’t make more movies, as while Wonderwall is in no way a good one, it is definitely visually accomplished.
Professor Collins: No, I don’t like songs. Music is just organised noise. And noise is poison to the mind. That’s what’s the matter with her. Too much noise.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante later wrote counter-culture classic Vanishing Point, but aside from a certain era sensibility (Vanishing Point is more jaundiced, but also more genuine to the human spirit), there’s little to compare the two. Wonderwall is wafer thin in premise – I suppose as is Vanishing Point – so enabling Massot to render a succession of almost pop promo vignettes. Professor Collins (Jack MacGowran, also playing eccentrics during that period in The Fearless Vampire Killers and The Avengers’ “Ee-Urp!” Professor Poole) works for the water board analysing microbiotics. He’s your archetypal dotty, absent-minded professor, mixing up the names of his staff (including the inimitable Richard Wattis) and requiring instructions to remove his socks before placing his feet in a soothing foot bath. Essentially, he’s a painfully self-consciously eccentric, which means there’s little wit to the character.
Collins is first alerted to goings-on next door when some irksomely experimental Indian music pipes up every time he looks into his microscope. There is soon a further manifestation, as the silhouette of a cavorting nude appears in his room. She has been projected on his wall, he deduces, via the process of camera obscura. The cavorter is none other than fab ’60s icon Jane Birkin at her most winsomely objectified. She – no typecasting at all – is a model, in a relationship with the Liverpudlian twanged Iain Quarrier (who also appeared in Vampire Killers; this was his last film performance, and his subsequent life proved far from lustrous). The professor is duly transfixed by the kaleidoscope of exotic delights unfolding on the other side of his flat’s wall; he is, effectively, a less than sleeping beauty awoken (Tennyson’s The Daydream rather unsubtly adorns his domicile).
Professor Collins: To eat or not to eat. Both are ephemeral distractions.
Rather than a pervy sex pest, I assumed we’re supposed to find his behaviour endearing: innocent, Brazil-esque flights of fantasy as his imagination is finally unleashed. And it’s true that quite a few of the older generation were to be found in “free love” movement movies of the period. Not so many appeared in such overt masturbation fantasies, however. Collins is soon all but tearing down the wall to get to the object of his lust. When he’s not away with the fairies, indulging dream sequences of duels and over-sized product placement (most obviously a packet of Player’s No.6), he’s seeing mermaids in his microbes. Finally, Collins can contain himself no longer, taking to the roof and gaining access to Penny’s apartment. Luckily for both, she’s unable to accuse him of trespass or would-be assault or worse as she has just overdosed.
One might read the voyeurism angle in several respects: the “wonderwall” represents a TV set, enabling the mad professor to indulge some vicarious jollies. In that sense, he is the excluded average normie, aroused but bewildered by a movement that doesn’t want him for a member and which seems explicitly engineered – because it is – to throw off the shackles of previous eras, on the pretext of inviting a bright new dawn.
If the movie moralises that this is just a façade, as much as the science Collins is examining in his petri dishes (well, it doesn’t say as much), it does so rather vacantly, and the moral is a rather empty one; after all, if the prof hadn’t been such a perv, he wouldn’t have saved the girl to resulting acclaim (there’s almost a Taxi Driver thing going on there). Penny has had too much of the empty model scene – the one that embodied so much of the era’s grooviness – “It’s driving her crazy”.
Professor Collins: This is a new microbe. Highly contagious. You are not even allowed to talk to me.
From a current perspective, it’s certainly curious to see these two allied or vying societal impetuses together, both as fabricated as the other. The counter-culture movement, designed to break down taboos, to an ultimately transhumanist end, and the square one, serving up the petri dishes of entirely suspect mainstream science; after all, one only needs the credentials to talk guff, and its entirely believed by the masses (per the quote above, in which the professor, intent on more peeping, turns Wattis’ Perkins away from his door by claiming he has a new kind of measles. Perhaps not the Double-German strain cited in Séance on a Wet Afternoon). In connection with such juxtapositions, at Penny is seen in an oxygen mask during one of her photoshoots.
Other elements of note: Irene Handl is on hand to complain about the washing up and have her hoovering interrupted, and she and Wattis are both very welcome. There’s an odd shot of a policeman giving CPR made to look like an extended smooch. The score is alternately insufferably experimental and actually quite good. Well, it is George Harrison MBE (as the titles inform us), isn’t it? Whatever you do, avoid his experimental electronica. At one point, Collins’ butterfly collection turns into animated Disney specimens.* Indeed, there’s a wealth of visual inventiveness here, but it isn’t enough. Perhaps if you’re in a purple haze, Wonderwall might do the trick. Even then, I’m doubtful.
All that said, Massot’s use of the frame is precise, clear and defined. He knows what he wants in each shot and he and cinematographer Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Wicker Man), in tandem with Assheton Gordon’s production design, know precisely how to make Wonderwall‘s images pop. After the borderline ham-fisted execution of Duffy, that’s a blessed relief.
*Addendum 14/08/22: Which came first, the butterflies or the MKUltra?