Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

*. Not Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But Pink Floyd: The Wall. Or, as it appears splattered on the title screen, Pink Floyd The Wall. Because that’s what’s on the album cover.
*. I think to some extent you have to be English to get it. Sort of like you have to be English to get If …., a movie that gives you some idea of where the satire on the education system here is coming from. As a psychobiography of Pink (Roger Waters), it’s very much the story of post-War England, or the England that the Second World War made. I don’t think that’s something an American audience can fully understand.
*. Gerald Scarfe brings this up on the DVD commentary, saying “I always sort of wonder how well this translates into other countries, you know because for us, or for me in particular, growing up in this period of the war it’s all very very reminiscent.” Unfortunately, Waters doesn’t respond to this and the point is dropped. Waters does, however, remark later that the movie Pink is watching on TV, The Dam Busters, means nothing to Americans but was a really big deal for English audiences.
*. Well, I can say that the album was so popular when I was a kid that it basically entered into my bloodstream, if not my DNA. It was a double album (if you remember such things) and I think I knew all the words to all the songs. I saw the movie around the time it came out and the imagery then got fastened to the music in my head.

*. I don’t think I’ve listened to it much since I was a teenager, or seen the movie again. Which is just to say that the story of a middle-aged man looking back on his life and trying to understand what went wrong is something I experience myself watching it for the first time in some twenty or thirty years. It’s not the story of my childhood or life, but it’s the story of the soundtrack to my childhood.
*. When I say I stopped listening to The Wall it’s not because I felt that I’d outgrown it or didn’t still like it, so much as I probably felt it didn’t have anything to say to me any more. Maybe I was wrong. It seems self-absorbed and a bit woolly today, but it still offers up its own magical “spots of time” (Wordsworth’s words for the kind of moments described in “Comfortably Numb”).
*. In short, while I was never a rock star trashing hotel rooms in the ’80s, I feel like I can relate to something here. Come to think of it, Roger Waters never trashed a hotel room either. So there, we do have something in common.

*. It’s an odd film in the sense of being a collaboration between three men — Waters, Scarfe, and director Alan Parker — who made roughly equal contributions. They did not get along well at all. Or at least Parker didn’t get along well with Waters. That seems to have been the main conflict.
*. Such conflict shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It’s hard to get three headstrong creative types all on the same page for a project like this. The surprising thing is that it came together at all.

*. It’s a movie I have a hard time judging today. So much of it seems a part of the past: both my own and a past world.
*. Perhaps the best example is the centrality of the different shots of Pink sitting like a zombie in front of the tube. Forget about relating to post-War England, I wonder if young people today can understand how much life revolved around television in the 1980s. We’re more accustomed to other screens and slightly different forms of autistic behaviour. I know of very few people, young or old, who do this kind of thing.

*. One thing a lot of (young) people were watching in the ’80s was MTV (launched just the year before this movie was released). You could think of The Wall as an extended music video and that wouldn’t be far from the mark. Also, as with some music videos, the images are now wedded to many of the songs. Before I saw the movie I’m sure I never associated “Comfortably Numb” with a kid throwing a dead rat into a canal, but now they can’t be pulled apart.
*. As a visual feast, it’s hard to fault the film’s design and the vitality and strength of its imagery. Scarfe’s animation in particular has really held up well. Even after so many of its types and referents have disappeared his images still have bite.

*. The Wall was a concept album, and I think the movie’s biggest failing is that the concept doesn’t come through all that well. Originally the wall just symbolized the barrier between a performer and his audience. It was a kind of mask, there to protect an artist’s vulnerabilities, but grew to encompass any sort of alienation (the television screen as a wall, isolating us in a cathode-ray cocoon) and finally even political borders.
*. I don’t feel that much of this comes through in the movie, which strikes me as being a thematic muddle. I think there must be a connection between Pink’s loss of his father and his subsequent morphing into an adult Nazi, but I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know why the post-War English should feel that the Nazis actually won in the end, somehow.

*. I also don’t understand Pink’s obsession with his mother. The album makes her out to be a smothering figure, a sort of fleshy wall of her own, but in the film she seems quite remote. You can’t help feeling that something isn’t coming through.
*. The result of much of this is to make Pink, played by Bob Geldof, appear more than a bit precious. Waters complains that the movie is “deeply flawed” because “it doesn’t have any laughs.” I think he may be on to something. A movie like this needed a bit of knowingness, an ability to laugh at itself, to show us that Pink understands how ridiculous, as well as tragic, he has become.

*. If I had to summarize here I’d say I still think it’s a great album, but not one I go back to much, and the movie is a great interpretation of the album but ditto. To borrow the image of the wall again, it seems like a hermetically sealed part of my own past and my memories of the ’80s. Or at least what I didn’t like about myself and didn’t like about the world in the ’80s. Which makes it a real achievement on one level, but it’s a past I don’t want to be reminded of now.
*. Does that mean I’m still building my own wall? Sure. I mean, whatever happened to alienation? It didn’t go away. In fact, I’d say there’s more of it than ever. We’re certainly more absorbed in our screens. But we don’t talk about alienation much any more. Narcissism is the new mantra. Either way, it’s an escape from looking at the real world that’s now taken for granted if not encouraged. Art, in turn, has become even further removed from the human, moving toward greater artificiality, superficiality, and convention. At least that’s my reading of the writing on the wall.

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