Just how much does Roger Waters’ hallucinogenic post-war opus reflect on these modern times?
Forty years ago this past November 30th, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, their eleventh studio album, was released. It was the last gasp of Roger Waters’s artistic contributions to the band, and the most solipsistic record of the Waters era. The Wall remains one of the best-selling records of all time, having sold somewhere between 18 and 30 million copies.
I saw the film adaptation of this album, Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982), before I heard The Wall, or even any of the songs on it. When I did listen to the album, it was impossible to hear without running the film as mental accompaniment. I imagined listeners in late 1979 finding the album in isolation difficult to understand: disjointed, full of strange filler and shouting people, propped up by two masterpieces (“Comfortably Numb” and “Another Brick in the Wall”) and a handful of marvelous songs (“Mother,” “Young Lust,” “Goodbye Blue Sky”), but otherwise a rambling double album with context-free playlets and sound effects.
The film makes the album so much clearer: it progresses from one idea to the next, building the wall, accumulating disturbing imagery as obvious as it is unforgettable. How to receive one without the other?
And what to make of this pair of artistic achievements in the current moment?
The album and the film use fascism as a fantasy for people who feel lost and weak; today, fascism has come roaring dangerously back. World War II is depicted as one of the primary wounds of not just Roger Waters, but of 20th century Britain; the nuances of that war are fast vanishing in living memory.
The extraordinary alienation pervading The Wall has an unfamiliar texture in the internet age, deriving as it does from fame, which is more achievable than ever now. Alienation is still around, as it ever will be, but Waters’s desperation, concealed within cartoon walls, seems overdramatic, maybe even childish.
Further, The Wall has aged less well than Pink Floyd’s other 1970s albums, particularly The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. These two albums feel almost like found objects, so complete and watertight that any context is superfluous. The Wall, meanwhile, is never less than subjective, a record of one man’s wounds and despair. Perhaps it’s this quality, or the more studied story of the album, that makes it require the context of the film so as not to confuse the listener. At least, that’s how I’d recommend it, as a dual experience: film + album, neither without the other.
I watched Pink Floyd — The Wall first as a teenager, likely on VHS in someone’s basement, and was mesmerized, horrified, overwhelmed. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. Shortly thereafter, I went to college and earned a degree in film studies. I watched many, many movies over the course of this education. I watched movies from dozens of nations and artistic traditions, from every decade of the twentieth century, from cheap slashers to Godard, from Kenneth Anger to John Ford.
VIDEO: The Trial from Pink Floyd — The Wall
In preparing this piece, I watched Pink Floyd – The Wall for the first time in many years. Possibly for the first time since earning that degree. And I still think it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
Why Pink Floyd – The Wall isn’t more popular or acknowledged among film scholars I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s because it has no subtext. Every symbol is so glaringly obvious that the whole film is just text. Shoving British schoolchildren into meat grinders; turning RAF planes into flying white crosses; marching hammers; the cringeworthy vagina-flower-penetration animation. I find all of this articulate in communicating Waters’s alienation, and visually unforgettable, but you could hardly write a paper about it. The paper is the film.
There’s still wisdom in it, particularly now. The Wall, personal as it is, denounces systems rather than individuals (schools and war, rather than a single schoolmaster or enemy), a meaningful distinction as our societal systems get continually more entrenched and all-encompassing. It demonstrates how hurt people come to hurt others, how the powerless often seek power by any means necessary—a good reminder in our current political moment. And it potently expresses how hollow fame can be, how connecting to millions of fans ultimately means disconnecting from every living thing in the world. Something I hadn’t understood as a teenager is just how sad the film is, how pitiable Pink is, even at his most hostile and destructive.
Perhaps all of these messages are in the forty-year-old album already, and if I’d listened to it first I would have heard it just fine. But I still consider the film part and parcel of The Wall. It’s the biggest flex of the Waters ego after a decade of being inspired by his wounds, whether those wounds are mortality (The Dark Side of the Moon), Syd Barrett (Wish You Were Here), or any other thing that ever made him miserable (The Wall). Only in the combination of imagery and music do those wounds achieve their fullest creative expression. Only in The Wall can music combine with symbolism to make simple messages seem fresh and profound.
AUDIO: Pink Floyd The Wall (full album)