The Collegian
Thursday, December 01, 2022

Cinema in Retrospect | 'Pink Floyd: The Wall'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.  

I would like to reestablish what I intend to focus on in this column. I am not interested in using this platform to weigh in on whether – or how – any elements of the discussed films are to my fancy. I believe that there exists a space for that. Nevertheless, my intention here is to take the films I discuss precisely as they are conceived. As best I can, I am interested in examining the content within each film, as if it were exactly as it was creatively envisioned, evaluating each film based on what is present versus what could have been present. 

Given that almost every film is created with a message in mind, the goal of this column is to look at what select, perhaps lesser-known, films might be saying – especially regarding identity. That said, I would now like to turn my focus towards the 1982 film "Pink Floyd: The Wall," directed by Alan Parker.

"Pink Floyd: The Wall" is a musical psychological drama adapted from the 1979 Pink Floyd album, "The Wall." The film follows the fictional main character, Pink, throughout two concurrent timelines – intercutting between his seminal and traumatizing post-war childhood and his isolated present-day adulthood.

As a child, his father died fighting in the trenches during WWII, so he was raised by his single mother. Following his father’s absence, the obligation of school loomed over Pink in the guise of a hostile specter. Instead of education, it was a ground for humiliation, the most repeated instance of which involved one of Pink's teachers castigating him for reading poetry. 

As an adult, Pink is a rock star. Despite his occupation’s ostensible glamor, his every waking hour ends up being siphoned away by endless tours and the jerking pulls of his managers. During one such moment away from home, he discovers that his wife has left him for another man and descends into a violent fit of depression.

Across both timelines, Pink uses fantasy and imagination to narrativize the world around him. Filmically, these moments are represented by sequences of amorphous and fluctuating hand-drawn animations wherein objects and people flow into each other at a constant and indifferently rhythmic pace. 

For example, a fluttering white dove might morph into an industrial bird of prey, which might then transform into a land-scarring bomber plane. During his adolescence, Pink envisions that the British school system is secretly a sinister industrial meat factory, relying on the procedural conscription of faceless children to stock their inventory. Within such a fantasy, his teachers’ harsh actions are attributed to the beatings they receive at home. Thus, their belligerence at school is only a passing of the torch. It is through the duress evoked by this very fantasy that the eponymous “wall” is formed. Each of his perceived antagonisms materializes into mental bricks, at which point they are slowly masoned together into an ever-expanding isolationistic force. The wall is built with the promise of protecting Pink, cutting out and reshaping the obstacles of the past into a bastion of solitude.

In his adulthood, the wall reaches its insulating completion. Upon finally being alone and “safe” within himself, Pink imagines that he is an authoritarian dictator. In his mind’s eye, his concerts become virulent fascist rallies and his performative prowess is potent enough to bend his goose-stepping fans to his every whim. However, in completing the wall and distancing himself from everything, he inadvertently distanced himself from himself. Via "bricking up" his personal history, Pink wound up estranged from the very factors which fueled his isolationist narrative. 

Specifically, this is shown in the film by a moment of cross-temporal convergence. In a dreamscape, child Pink stumbles upon his adult counterpart’s newly reforged image. However, upon seeing the shriveling husk of a skinhead that he is to become, the adolescent Pink reels back in a terrified flight. Perhaps most importantly, is that their point of contact is in the same muddied trench that fatally housed Pink’s father’s abandonment. Thus, Pink is construed to be both the ultimate victim and the totalitarian perpetrator of his mental immolation.

Beyond strict plot and expositional purposes, the film’s narrative construction – the alternating timelines interspersed with animation – serves as a cornerstone example of one of its central objects of inquiry. That being, in what ways do personal and global history interact with one another? How much weight does, or should, one global milestone play in one’s perceptions of self? How much should “objective” history be placed over or under personal dramatics?

The impact of WWII plays an undeniably significant role in the film. CreatingPink’s fatherlessness and systems of peace filled with an air of oppression. In one of the film’s repeated moments, an adolescent Pink plays around with some of his father’s surplus bullets, setting them off in a train tunnel. Through this benign gesture, the juvenile antics of youth become forged around the available surplus of violence left in the footprint of the world war. Even if the violence that was stockpiled during WWII was rendered nominally useless after the war’s end, the violence’s residual aftermath had nowhere to run off to. Instead, it was forced to bubble up gradually and incessantly into every stratum of life. Paternal absences and loose bullets don’t evaporate over time. WWII — and moments of global history in general — crater the world by redefining the baseline of material conditions and usurping the order of available equipment for tackling them.

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Similarly, the film suggests that one’s internal conceptions of self are framed around moments of cataclysm. It is likely no coincidence that Pink projects upon himself the visage of a Nazi-esque leader, given his own proximity with failed fatherhood. Whereas Hitler rose to power under the promise of becoming a burgeoning father figure for Germany, Pink’s fascistic framework of paternity serves to pacify both his own internal lack and to nourish the further-reaching maws of modernity. 

In such instances, his capacities for conceptualizing his life and the surrounding world are precisely limited by the terms provided to him. Despite the ecstasy and languor of his imaginations, their vivacity is still limited by his breadth of experience. Pink processes things in terms of bricks, violence and WWII iconography because that is what is most familiar to him. Therefore, when he reaches for terms to explain and process his own being, he recycles the same vein of authoritarian iconography that he grew up surrounded by.

For Pink, his childhood and Britain’s period of post-war recuperation were effectively synonymous endeavors because they occupied overlapping real estate within his personal history. The struggles of his home life and the oppression of the classroom were codependent. History may be further and more enveloping than any singular person, but the exact tiny slice of it that an individual occupies serves as the inescapable scaffolding from which they construct their own personal history. It is through the compounding of an entire generation’s narratives of identity and relationships that history is born.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at henry.skalbeck@richmond.edu.

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