On May 23, 1982, at the Cannes Film Festival, the lights rose after the world premiere screening of Pink Floyd: The Wall and director Alan Parker saw Steven Spielberg mouth the words, “What the fuck was that?”
Forty years on, that’s pretty much my reaction to Parker’s Wagnerian collage of nightmare imagery and assaultive sound, a film I feel almost troubled to admit I’ve seen countless times since first experiencing it in high school. How to reckon with my fascination with such an oppressively unpleasant film? Why am I, a person who rolled his eyes through Todd Phillips’ Joker, so inexorably drawn to this tale of a toxic male sliding into fascism, told in a style that’s as full-throated, “We live in a society” pretentious as it gets?
Surely, much of the pull must be the music, transferred nearly whole-cloth from one of the most successful concept albums of all time. The Wall is catnip for any self-serious high school boy, a long, unwieldy piece of rock ‘n’ roll nihilism overflowing with earworms and ideas. But even a listen by older, more discerning ears can’t deny the work’s raw power, nor the masterful alchemy of its top-notch songwriting, wild experimentation, and the push-and-pull auditory war of David Gilmour’s serene mellifluousness and Roger Waters’ poison jackhammer vocals. Even just sonically, cranked up on your speakers, this thing feels like a primal scream set to music.
It’s bizarre, and a bit sadistic then, that Parker would wish to double down on that unfiltered pain by setting it to visuals. His previous credits included films as diverse as Fame, Midnight Express, and Bugsy Malone, nothing to warn of the depressive, surreal Pandora’s Box he was about to open with this film. At the time, EMI Records didn’t even understand what making a movie of the album would entail, which makes sense! Even Ken Russell’s 1975 film of Tommy, the closest analogue in terms of rock opera-to-film trajectory, plays more like a conventional movie musical, with onscreen characters expressing their inner thoughts by singing the album’s songs.
But The Wall, released only one year after the birth of MTV, plays much more like an extended music video. With the exception of a few re-records, the soundtrack is a remastered version of the original album, interrupted by very little dialogue and played over what’s effectively a silent film by Parker. There’s a bit of plot in here, about a rock star named Pink (played by future Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof), who has loaded up on drugs and booze and isolated himself in a hotel. There are flashbacks to the traumas of his youth: the death of his father in World War II, the smothering oppressiveness of his overprotective mother, the humiliation of himself and his young peers at the hands of the school system, and the infidelity of his wife. All of these wounds manifest themselves as “bricks” in his metaphorical wall, dividing him from society and transforming him into a moody, unwashed nihilist. Fun stuff!
Mostly, though, the film is a parade of surrealistic imagery, most of which is photographed by cinematographer Peter Biziou, whose compositions unnerve whether with the close-up detail of a cigarette smoked down to its end or with the widescreen German Expressionism of faceless school children marching into a meat grinder while singing “We don’t need no education.”
But the film’s most powerful sequences are the ones turned over to animation director Gerald Scarfe. There’s an argument to be made that Scarfe’s work here is the most striking, gorgeous, and haunting use of animation ever used in a film, a consistent source of jaw-dropping beauty that simultaneously creates a sensation of stomach-churning dread. In “Goodbye Blue Sky,” Roger Waters’ elegy about the Blitz, a dark expansive Nazi eagle spreads its wings over London, clawing into the ground and ripping out blood-spewing patches of earth, while feral naked creatures wearing gas masks hide below. Later in the film, a fully-constructed wall zooms across the earth, dividing everything in its wake. As it passes, flowers transform into barbed wire; a church is split into two exploding halves; a cherubic baby grows in the blink of an eye into a wolf, then a uniformed skinhead who bashes another man’s skull in with a baton.
Scarfe’s sequences portray an oppressive hellscape where even the most conventional characterizations (a judge, a mother, and a schoolmaster in the film’s penultimate “Trial” sequence) can wind up morphing into grotesque pieces of nightmare fuel. A sea of hammers becomes a fascistic army goose-stepping across a barren landscape, The Law becomes a literal ass which sings of “the urge to defecate,” and two flowers seamlessly transmogrify into a phallus and vagina, engaging in a session of coitus whose unsettling pairing of sensuality and violence embodies the combination of captivating allure and under-your-skin queasiness that is The Wall.
That sequence also epitomizes some of the film’s more troubling aspects. In the midst of this floral carnal embrace, the female morphs into a sort of gynecological butterfly, now larger and more powerful than her partner, which lures the male into her grasp and then chomps him up and swallows him whole. That image, of a glowing seductive vagina seducing and devouring a weak and helpless man, repeats itself twice more over the course of the film, a fairly glaring bit of visual misogyny in a film whose peripheral female characters serve only to traumatize, oppress, and destroy the central male figure.
That’s a tough pill to swallow in 2022, particularly when Pink now resembles so many lone white men claiming victimhood, isolated behind their own walls with misogynistic, castrated thoughts and “me against society” viewpoints. Are Waters, Parker, and Scarfe telling a “woe is me” story about a sadboi who got fucked over by the women in his life? Or are they trying to get at a greater point about how society manufactures these kinds of incel white men?
The film’s third act, in which Pink becomes a full-on fascist, seems to point to the latter. In Parker’s staging of the hit single “Comfortably Numb,” Pink emerges from a Cronenberg-esque cocoon in a full-on gestapo uniform. His isolation has served as a kind of gestation period, Parker seems to claim, and it’s now birthed a Nazi. In the next moment, he’s leading a rally of skinheads, asking “Are there any queers in the theater tonight?” and commanding his followers to “Get ‘em up against the wall.” The frenzied fanaticism stoked by his rhetoric soon gives way to brutal montages of sexual assault, and hate crimes against Black and Jewish individuals. It’s a disgustingly chilling sequence made even more chilling now; we’ve seen all too well and all too recently what can happen when an angry, isolated man is given a crowd and a microphone.
Still, even something as nakedly anti-Nazi as that scene has been misinterpreted dangerously with real-life consequences. Pink’s fascist iconography of two criss-crossing red hammers on a white and black background was co-opted by a white supremacist group in Dallas in 1988.
Is that the movie’s fault? No. Does the film vividly present a primal depiction of male anger and disenfranchisement in a visually hypnotic way that sticks in your brain like a waking nightmare? Yes. Is that irresponsible? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the film chooses to end not only with the destruction of Pink’s self-imposed wall, but with a sequence of children cleaning up a pile of debris. As one child finds a Molotov cocktail lying on the ground, he picks it up and empties it, a bizarrely hopeful final image in such an uncompromisingly nihilistic film as this, and one that seems to point to Parker’s film being one about the breaking of a cycle of white male rage, about the disbanding of that which divides us, and about the hope of a future where young boys can simply grow into men and not monsters.
Pink Floyd: The Wall was released by MGM on September 17, 1982.