Pink Floyd: The Wall
Directed by Alan Parker—1982—95 minutes
You see this: a political rally with a bellowing, puffed-up party leader and a chanting audience. There’s a primal impulse for all to do the same salute. The leader suggests that his followers can show support for his cause by weeding out minorities and other “undesirables” and he is only too happy to point some out in the crowd. They are promptly roughed up. Is this a Donald Trump event from earlier this year? No, silly—it’s a key scene from Alan Parker’s grim 1982 film version of Pink Floyd’s 1979 sourpuss double album The Wall. But really, what’s the difference? OK, given what we know of frontman Roger Waters’ politics (which includes environmentalism and work for the anti-poverty group Millennium Promise) it’s probably safe to say he’s not supportive of that sort of thing. The problem as I see it is more subtle and complex. We arrive at that scene after the protagonist (a rock star named Pink played by Bob Geldof) has spent about 80 minutes in a state of catatonic self-pity. Despite his success, he is unable to shake off childhood memories of cruel headmasters, a smothering mother and, crucially, a father killed in action in World War II. Though I am not insensitive to that fact (Waters father died in the Anzio campaign), the adult character’s complete unwillingness or inability to see that sacrifice in any other terms than his own lingering pain is bewildering at best. Especially so, when the ensuing mental stress leads to an indulgence in the fascist fantasies described above—in effect, identifying with the same horrible political force that his beloved dad died trying to defeat.
“So you thought you might like to go to the show…” No thanks, I’m good.
I realize that The Wall is only one piece of work but all art matters when added in to the great scheme of things. Roger Waters wrote most of the album and is listed as the screenwriter here, so most of the blame game I am about to play is directed at him. When I recently watched this for the third time since ’82, I found it rather more inane than detestable. But in the context of the times, it now seems even more unsettling. Pink Floyd The Wall is just a little too indicative of the narcissism and low-information grievances that have led to recent political instabilities; in addition it has over the years been a flashpoint for some racist groups that have adopted bits of the film’s visual iconography. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to look at this film as anything but one of rock history’s great moral failings.
A montage set to the hit single made up the 1982 trailer, “The memories, the madness,” indeed.
Please don’t get me wrong: I like Pink Floyd. My musical coming-of-age was in the first half of the Seventies so you know I know. At age 13 I heard them for the first time, lying around after school when my local FM station played “Fearless” from 1971’s Meddle. I was swept up in its atmospheric daydream of a melody bookended by opening and closing sections of a stadium full of people mysteriously chanting and singing. A few years later I was pulled into the lunar orbit of a certain multi-platinum album, headphones clamped on tight, a slowly fading cloud of hashish smoke up near the rec room ceiling as a friend nodded sagely from his seat in a bean bag nearby. Not long after that we were grooving on Wish You Were Here and learning about ill-starred group founder Syd Barrett; we would get into Floyd’s early work in retrospect.
But those of us coming of age in that era, encouraging each other to Question Authority, often didn’t apply that to pedestal-sitting pop icons the way we did to the likes of Richard Nixon. When Pink Floyd’s songwriter, bassist and co-lead singer Roger Waters became disenchanted with the paying plebes in the audience during the group’s 1977 tour, he envisioned how much of an improvement it would be if he could play for them from behind a wall. To me, that kind of bunker mentality would be a clear sign that the artist in question needs to retire—or at least take a few years off to get his priorities straight. Instead, Waters insisted on using this feeling to create a humorless rock opera about a dissolute, navel-gazing rock star whose fame and fortune is negated by painful memories of himself as “the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.” Since this was 1979 and I was well into punk by then, I was only too happy to give The Wall a polite see-you-later after one listen, satisfied that its one undeniably great song (“Comfortably Numb”) would be on steady FM rotation until the end of time.
But a few years later I was compelled by a roommate and a couple of his friends to hit the local multiplex to view Alan Parker’s film adaptation. As they oh-wowed their way through its grotesque and wrong-headed 90+ minutes, I sat there utterly appalled. This gut-level reaction has been reinforced many times over when you really look between the lines of even the most user-friendly scenes. Take “Another Brick in the Wall.” Please. Sure, it’s a catchy number with the children’s chorus and David Gilmour’s funky guitar riff but “we don’t need no education”? That’s fine, because I can match you up with a demagogue candidate who “loves the poorly educated.” I know it’s not pleasant to get whacked on the knuckles in class. But in the parochial school I went to, where we ate “dark sarcasm” for breakfast, the nuns could be cruel but you moved on and later saw it as a lesson in intestinal fortitude, not as a vision of you and your classmates walking off a ledge into a meat grinder. The sequences between the boy Pink and his overweight and overprotective mum also is clunky in its overstatement. The queasy Oedipal undertones in the song “Mother” are unintentionally telling as well. “Mother, should I build the wall/Mother, should I run for President?” Yes, you go right ahead, Donald—-er, I mean Pink.
Maybe it’s not too late to transfer to a Montessori school.
One would have to give credit for Alan Parker for the expertly lensed WW2-era scenes and the animation sequences, such as the famous goose-stepping crossed hammers. These segments are vivid if consistently downbeat. Worst is the scene where the British population is depicted as a cretinous coward in the face of the Nazi bombing of England, a merciless 8-month campaign that instead of breaking the country’s will, dealt Hitler his first strategic setback of the war. Details, details. By the end, the dictator is revealed to be not Pink but a pathological imposter (a prank not all would appreciate) yet our troubled hero is promptly put on trial. Many would argue for leniency (say, mental health counseling and a suspended sentence) but by that point I’d wish for the lot of them—defendant, judge and witnesses—to be packed into a rocket and blasted off for a permanent vacation on the dark side of the moon.
The stoic solidarity of the English citizenry during The Blitz helped plant the seed that Nazi Germany was not invincible, despite this ill-considered scene.
Oh, I know—it’s just a movie. Or is it? There are many different factors that make up the universal public dialogue and within that Pink Floyd: The Wall is more of a black hole than a shining star. It advances a notion that a perfunctory look inside one’s own psyche permits that person to position themselves at the center of the world. This in turn excuses a profound inability to be stoical or to relate in any meaningful way to the general population. When the citizens’ isolated impatience with global challenges and dangers, even incipient anger with incremental and imperfect democracies, turns into the politics of mutual hostility and extremism, then we’re all in trouble. No, the wall on the Mexican border is not going to solve your problems and neither will millionaire rock stars pandering to the worst sort of baby boomer self-centeredness, becoming the sort of thing we first set out to oppose.
Sure, Pink Floyd: The Wall was successful in a conventional way. Parker’s visuals were a good bet to lure stoned audiences who liked the #1 album, whether it was the trippy animation or its “cool” rock-star trappings: the smashed-up hotel rooms, the groupies, the uptight manager, the suicidal singer floating in a pool, etc. It continues to benefit from notable grade inflation from die-hard fans. Just listen to these glowing reviews from Rotten Tomatoes: “whiny, pretentious, muddled” (four stars), “uneven, hard to understand” (three and a half stars). But it carried its own sort of bad karma with it. The falling-out of Waters and Gilmour started with the film and the next year’s The Final Cut, essentially sides five and six of The Wall. That was the last LP with the two of them together as this concept ended up running Pink Floyd into the ground. Waters would go on to an undistinguished solo stint before taking The Wall on the road every few years in different and ever-bigger stage shows, while thankfully shifting the focus to an anti-tyranny theme and less of a bias towards “poor little Roger” (Waters’ own words). So people continue to pay good money to see it and, I’m certain, to sing or nod along to it’s curiously defeatist stanzas. Sorry, Roger, but I’m not another dumb-ass brick in the wall, so I’ll take a pass. Instead, I’ll think back to the first time I ever heard your old band and was lifted up by the rather more thoughtful strains of “Fearless.” Twenty years later, when I developed an interest in international soccer, I finally found out that the mysterious stadium chanting at the intro and outro of the song were fans of Liverpool F.C. singing the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which would become the official team song. I’ll sing along to that anytime, especially when the modern-world alternative seems to be walking around in isolation while carrying a chip on the shoulder the size of the wall of our own making.
My new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be released in Sept. 2016