Before Pink Floyd – The Wall is anything else, it’s Psych 101 on an epic scale. Spanning decades with the caprice of a remote control, the narrative flips back and forth — a hotel room, where the rock-star protagonist “Pink” (Bob Geldof) sits, slowly going mad; Pink’s boyhood with an overprotective mum and an absent dad (a casualty of World War II); Pink’s empty marriage to a woman who grows tired of his dead-zone demeanor and falls into bed with an anti-nuke activist. Much of this comes whole and bleeding from the life of Roger Waters, who devised Pink Floyd’s big-hit 1979 double album of the same name, and it all began at a 1977 Montreal concert where, Waters says, his disdain for his fans moved him to spit on one of them in the front row. Waters had enough sense to step back and be repulsed by the event, and the album is fuelled by an overpowering disgust, as is the 1982 film directed by Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Angel Heart).
I’m a Floyd listener from way back, though I’ve always felt they peaked with The Dark Side of the Moon, which seemed a grand, space-shot summing-up of everything they were getting at. (Their subsequent albums before The Wall — Wish You Were Here and Animals — offered gorgeous moments but felt like lesser efforts.) The Wall is ingeniously worked out — musically, thematically — but I find it more admirable than listenable (certainly not lovable), weighed down with a manic-depressive self-regard. Always neurotically aware of its own ambition, The Wall is explicit enough for generations of stoned, sullen teenagers to comprehend; it works better as jaundiced portraiture than as the vaulting commentary it strains to be. Essentially it’s a rock star’s prolonged primal scream, manifested in the Munch-like screaming head, designed by artist-animator Gerald Scarfe, that has become (along with the marching hammers) this multimedia work’s default icon. The film takes the album with utmost seriousness; a hermetic visual tribute, and quite likely the most successful long-form rock video ever attempted, it never indicates any consciousness outside the album’s tangled psyche. Indeed, except for brief sequences dealing with various figures in the protagonist’s life — the death of his father, the adultery of his wife, the frustrations of his manager (played in typical irascible fashion by Bob Hoskins) — the film scarcely moves outside Pink’s skull (or his Wall) at all.
It should be noted that Parker’s account of Pink’s agony is considerably fairer — even gentler — than Waters’ album, which often sounds as though he were still spitting on his fans. The movie retains the album’s tremendously misogynistic woman-as-destroyer/devourer motif, especially in Scarfe’s animation carried over from the stage show, wherein Pink’s ex is depicted as a poisonous scorpion cunt — sorry, there’s really no politer way to put it — and his mother literally morphs into the Wall cutting little Pink off from human contact. But Parker had just finished making one of his best films, the intense, small-scale divorce drama Shoot the Moon, and that experience must’ve stayed with him, because — presumably with the consent of a calmer Waters — he fleshes out at least two of the women, and even suggests that Pink’s mum, who has already lost a husband in the war, might understandably be concerned with keeping her only son “healthy and clean.”
The biggest addition to the album, in terms of giving women their due, is a sequence in which Pink’s wife tries and fails to break through the Wall and get through to him; at one point she takes her top off and joins him in bed, and the solipsistic creep moves his head because she’s blocking the TV! So she happens to meet a handsome guy at a demonstration, and he’s intelligent, passionate, committed, emotionally and sexually present — everything Pink isn’t. I can go along with Pink’s bitter, grieving, cunt-monster vision of his wife without agreeing with it; he walled her off from him — what does he expect? (Perhaps someone who would wait patiently for him to come home from his own “war,” someone like dear old Mum.)
In the other sequence, a groupie (soft-featured Jenny Wright) finagles her way backstage and into Pink’s room. On the album, the groupie’s voice sounds hard, nasal, calculating; when she notices Pink’s large tub and says “Wanna take a baaaath?” the come-on drips with such crude sexual aggression it would probably wilt the erection of a teenage boy. But Jenny Wright makes it a gentle invitation to bubbly fun, and in general her groupie appears touched by Pink’s solitude. When she asks “You feeling okay?” it sounds genuine, unlike the album’s groupie, who inflects the question with an unhelpful let’s-get-with-the-program-and-fuck impatience. Pink’s subsequent explosion — it begins with a single teardrop, which Bob Geldof has said was real — is therefore all the more saddening; rather than being driven round the bend by the entreaties of a demanding slut (as seems apparent on the album), he can’t even respond to tenderness. He just goes apeshit, trashing his hotel room, driving the girl away in horror, putting up another section of his Wall.
Parker’s mastery of his form is everywhere evident here; the narrative may be spiky and splintered, but it flows with an even stroke. Aided by cinematographer Peter Biziou (who took an Oscar for his work on Parker’s later Mississippi Burning) and editor Gerry Hambling, Parker stitches all the elements — riots, battlefields, sex, worms, fire, animation — into a brilliant crazyquilt of fear and loathing. This director, though, has always been a bit too enamored with scenes of enraged people smashing shit up, and we probably get too much of it here. Visualizing the album’s signature number — the halfway-disco “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” with its famous lead-in “We don’t need no education” that scandalized teachers who heard it out of context — Parker has the students, in Pink’s fantasy, revolting and burning the school to the ground. Then there are the repeated images of property damage at the hands of Pink’s skinhead hordes. It’s as if the movie couldn’t wait to tear down the Wall, and settled for knocking down whatever it could in the meantime.
For about ten minutes near the end, the film plays with fascist imagery, and I always wish it wouldn’t. It’s disturbing in the wrong way; it evokes the Nazi terror without much to back it up except the alienation of a rich rock star. Yet thematically and psychologically it makes sense — Pink, hardening himself against his childhood anguish, literally peels off the drug-induced layers of emotional guck and emerges as a steely demagogue. The crowd mindlessly aping Pink’s gestures is not so different from any fist-pumping rock-concert audience. One can’t help realizing, too, that Pink is allying himself ideologically with the killers of his father — textbook Freud. It’s just that the literal-minded visual of Pink’s “hammer brigade” pillaging and raping knocks the narrative, for us, out of metaphor and into a temporary complicity with atrocities rooted in real, ghastly history. Partly this is a problem that goes back to the album, but the movie’s kinetic enjoyment of the Nazi carnage — the energy that goes into staging and editing the violence — is unmistakable and regrettable, though true to Pink’s tortured psyche at the time.
The Wall is also one of the most painful movies of all time — physically as well as emotionally. The sequence in which Pink bloodily shaves his chest (nicking a nipple) and eyebrows is always good for a wince, and Geldof cut his hand while shooting the hotel-trashing scene, eerily echoed at its climax when Pink gashes his palm on the jagged glass of the window he’s just launched his TV through. And Gerald Scarfe’s work in the film often stings you in soft, sore places, not only in its gorier moments (there are many) but in its sheer overriding ugliness (my favorite is the flower that twists itself into barbed wire). But only the dead of heart could fail to be moved when the fatherless Pink as a boy attaches himself to a father at a park and is brushed off, or when he befriends an ailing field rat only to discover it dead later. These moments both soften the story’s overall harsh scheme and make it harsher: We know Pink will emerge from these defeats to become the comfortably numb recluse who gives himself over, far too easily if only briefly, to daydreams of genocide.
Then again, all the fascist stuff could be a sensitive person’s cry of despair at what he feels the world is trying to twist him into. The recurring worm imagery is linked to the visual of students in the classroom ground into sausage — automatons being readied for conformity. Pink builds his Wall to block out the pain, but ends up fashioning his own prison. Bob Geldof, who had never acted before and, to my knowledge, hasn’t since, communicates a deep, wordless anguish at his mental surroundings, and it’s a shock to see him looking cheerful and presentable — and downright expressive — when he’s all Nazied up. Forget all the introspection and trauma, and embrace your inner dictator. (Watching the film now, with our knowledge that Geldof in real life was knighted for his work in organizing Live Aid, makes it a little difficult to accept him as a narcissistic wreck.) From some angles, Geldof resembles a sullen, elongated Jerry Seinfeld, and both have a certain repressed hostility in common. Other times, he’s clearly meant to evoke Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s founder/muse/ghost, the crazy diamond who burned out too soon to share in Floyd’s most elaborate successes. Parker uses Geldof as a kind of eloquent cipher — the music often lets us in on what Pink is feeling even when Geldof is just sitting expressionlessly in front of the TV. (And he does that a lot. Sometimes, I imagine, Parker sighed on the set and muttered “Okay, another scene with Bob watching TV — how shall we make this interesting?”)
The music, indeed, seems to depend on the movie far more than the movie depends on the music. Pink Floyd’s music is often amorphous at best — and at its best when amorphous — so, except for the stills I’d seen of Scarfe’s animation for the stage show, I had no particular image of The Wall in my head, no visual grain for the film to rub against. Some of the songs were reworked for the movie, mostly to their benefit (I much prefer the film’s more ominous “Mother,” for instance, or the extended “Empty Spaces”). For reasons of time, “Hey You,” the album’s one nod to the possibility of connection and redemption (only to be revoked, of course: “But it was only fantasy/The Wall was too high, as you can see,” etc.), was left out of the finished film but can be seen in rough form as a deleted scene on the DVD. Having viewed it, I don’t really miss it; the visuals are uninspired, with yet more footage of skinheads chucking Molotov cocktails. On the other hand, the movie contains one “new” song, “When the Tigers Broke Free,” originally intended for the album but rejected by Waters’ bandmates on the grounds that the lyrics were too specifically about him (or, rather, his father’s death in the war). But it fits well in the movie, where we see enough of Waters’ demons literally visualized to know that it’s all pretty much autobiographical anyway.
After Pink flirts with fascism and then expels it (“I wanna go home/Take off this uniform and leave the show”), we settle in for “The Trial,” the one section of the film that plays out almost exactly as I’d imagined it. Pink is visited one last time, Scrooge-like, by the phantasms of his past, his “bricks in the Wall” — those he feels brought him to this alienated state, his teacher, his wife, and last but not least, his mum. I read this whole anguished sequence as coming about as close to a cathartic happy ending as the astringent Waters is ever likely to get. The prosecutor figure oddly accuses Pink of “showing feelings of an almost human nature,” and the Judge sentences Pink — rather redundantly, since Waters has just spent 90 minutes doing this very thing to himself — “to be exposed before your peers.” Waters/Pink is his own judge and jury here, pushing himself to “tear down the Wall” between himself and his audience. It’s safe to say he succeeded; there’s a definite line of demarcation between the spacey, often impersonal, outward-extended material Waters wrote for Floyd after Syd Barrett left, and the more confessional material he worked with after The Wall, starting with The Final Cut — sometimes described as essentially a Waters solo album with the other Floyd members as session players — and continuing through his post-Floyd career. Painfully and explosively, and out of the deepest necessity, the Wall comes down, and a self-therapized Waters blinks the dust out of his eyes and faces a new, perhaps scarier, but also probably healthier world.
Alan Parker ends the movie on a rather mystifying note: various children are seen picking up bits of the Wall (to get a head-start on building their own?), and one boy sniffs a leftover Molotov cocktail, then pours it out, caught in freeze-frame. Now, a movie as laden with potent, portentous imagery as The Wall must fixate on this detail for a reason; my own thought is that the boy, in emptying the bottle, is both a warning against keeping things “bottled up” (the more literal-minded reading) and a symbol of hope — a rejection of hatred and destruction (the Molotov cocktails had earlier been associated with the film’s Kristallnacht “Run Like Hell” sequence). The boy presumably goes off to make practical, peaceful use of the bottle, though there’s always the possibility that he will later fill it with combustible rage, just like Pink (who during his hotel-room trashing hurled a wine bottle at the groupie) or his skinheads. Ultimately, the choice is up to him — and us.