NOTE: This post is
rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.
As I described in my previous post, I recently watched
“Pink Floyd The Wall,” having last seen it as a teenager. Viewing it from my adult perspective, I realize
that it’s far more coherent than the chaotic, nightmarish extended rock video I
had originally taken it to be.
The movie has countless narrative threads, not nicely woven
but often tangled and knotted: the death
of Pink’s father, his overprotective mother, his miserable school experience,
his failing marriage, and his drug problem.
These are represented in part through an endless array—actually, more
like a disarray—of symbols: hammers, flowers, conveyer belts, airplanes,
worms, and others. Trying to follow
every thread and analyze every symbol could be an endless undertaking—an
This essay focuses on Pink’s wife, because—as I shall argue—she
is by far the most important “brick” in Pink’s wall. To make this case, I will concentrate on just
The first thing we notice about this movie is that the
chronology is all jumbled up—instead of a straightforward account of Pink’s
life, we get his current situation combined with a mess of flashbacks. The jumbled order creates the overall effect
the moviemakers desired, but arranging the events chronologically can help tell
us how Pink got here.
At first it seems like a straightforward exercise to put the
movie’s events in order, starting with Pink’s dad being killed in WWII and
ending with children cleaning up after Pink’s wall comes down. But right away we run into trouble: the scene of children cleaning up isn’t an
actual event in Pink’s life—it’s a figment of his imagination, just like the
animated sequences in the movie. (No,
strange humanoid creatures with snouts like gas masks didn’t really lumber away to safety under a
freeway overpass.) Pink’s flashbacks are
a mix of actual memories (e.g., Pink being chewed out by a schoolmaster, Pink caring
for a dying rat), and his flights of fancy (e.g., students trashing their
school, Pink wandering through a battlefield looking at corpses).
There are two narrative points of view in this movie. We have the objective perspective showing
what is “really” happening to Pink “now” as he sits locked away in his hotel
room. The second perspective is Pink’s inner
world: his memories and his delirious
visions, which engulf his mind as he molders away in his chair. Neither point of view can give us the full
story. On the one hand, the objective
perspective is limited to the present, which shows us a lot about the result of
Pink’s problems but not so much about how he got here. On the other hand, peering into Pink’s mind
is problematic because he’s what we English majors like to call an “unreliable
narrator”—he cannot give a clear and satisfying account because he’s a flawed
character to begin with, not to mention being drugged-out and on the verge of
complete mental collapse.
To examine the central question of the movie—what is Pink’s
problem, really?—it’s useful to look at both perspectives. I will start by recounting what is seen from
the objective point of view: the
real-time events leading to Pink’s final collapse. Then I will mine his memories and visions to
shed light on the trajectory of his sad case.
Here is what actually transpires in “real time” during “The
Wall.” Pink sits in his chair and
watches TV. He soaks in his private pool. He tries four times to phone his wife (three
times from his room, once from a pay phone in an alley). He picks up a groupie, terrorizes her by
chasing her around the room throwing things, and completely trashes the place. He soaks some more in the pool. He smashes his TV. He arranges the detritus in his room into a
highly organized pattern. He shaves off his
chest hair and eyebrows. He makes one
more unsuccessful call to his wife. Then
he settles back into his chair and becomes catatonic. Finally, his manager, along with some hotel
staff and paramedics, break down the door to his room and revive him. He is dragged to his concert in a limo. He ends up sitting out the concert in a restroom
stall. The End.
As we watch Pink in his room, his expression is largely
vacant, but (even beyond his sudden rage when he trashes the place), we do get
plenty of clues about his inner turmoil:
he smashes a glass with his foot; he goes through the TV channels faster
and faster, punching angrily at the remote; a tear slides down his cheek. Every time he uses the phone, we quickly see
him go from placid to despondent. He
drops the handset instead of hanging it up.
He rips the cord out of the wall.
He slides down the wall by the pay phone as if his legs will no longer
hold him. He smashes a wine glass into
The first instance of a phone in this movie is very
telling. The phone appears in one of
Pink’s first flashbacks—not a memory, exactly, since it was something that
happened before he was born. It’s his
father’s dying moment, during a WWII battle.
The British are being shot to pieces and Pink’s father races into a
bunker to phone for help. As he
desperately cranks the handle on the wind-up field telephone, a German plane drops
a bomb on the bunker. The last we see of
Pink’s father is his bloodied hand slipping off the end of the phone receiver,
which dangles from its cord.
What’s curious about this scene is that we, the viewers,
cannot take it as fact. The whole bunker
has been blown up, so nobody who witnessed Pink’s father’s death would have
survived. Meanwhile, the phone call he
died trying to make never went through.
The entire scene is Pink’s conjecture about his father’s final
moments. The phone itself is a detail
There can be no question that the death of Pink’s father
marked the beginning of Pink’s troubles.
But unlike Pink’s other problems—his overbearing mother, his cruel
schoolmasters, his unfaithful wife—the lack of a father is not a brick in his
wall. A lack is not something you can
wall yourself off from. Pink’s father
does not show up to testify against Pink in the trial sequence of the movie. As we shall see, he serves a different role.
The next phone in the movie is one we hear before we see
it. As it rings we’re looking at a Polaroid
snapshot on a bedside table: Pink and
his wife, the happy couple. The camera
pans over to the ringing phone, also on the table. The scene switches to Pink’s hotel room,
where he’s just placed the call. The
song “Mother” begins. What we see during
this song is the most important sequence in the movie in terms of explaining
Pink’s plight as he sits locked in his hotel room. We shall give it a close inspection.
As the phone rings and rings, Pink blows his nose (he has a
cold), checks his watch, figures the time zone difference (from the alarm clock
behind the bed we see that it’s just after 6 o’clock in Los Angeles, so it’s about
2 a.m. at home). There is no
answer. Pink slowly hangs up the phone,
has a memory or vision of he and his wife kissing, and then suddenly rips the
phone cord out of the wall. Eyes welling
up, he hugs his pillow and remembers when, as a sick child having feverish
visions, he had climbed into his mother’s bed and snuggled against her.
Now, before you get all Freudian on me, remember that Freud
was full of crap, as the movie’s creator, Roger Waters, was sure to have recognized. The expression on grown-up Pink’s face in
this scene tells of despair; young Pink’s expression in the flashback shows fear. Neither condition is anything close to
desire. Have you ever, in moments of
futility or despondency, thought, “I want my mom!”? That’s what’s going on here in Pink’s hotel
By this point in the movie, the rock songs and their
accompanying scenes have established that war is hell (“Goodbye Blue Sky”); so
is its aftermath (“When the Tigers Broke Free,” “The Thin Ice,” and “Another
Brick in the Wall, Part 1”); and that Pink’s schoolmasters were dicks (“The
Happiest Days of Our Lives,” “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”) Presumably, “Mother,” and the visions and
memories that go with it, will establish how overprotective and stifling Pink’s
mother is. But that’s not what we
see. In fact, what we do see of the
mother tells an almost opposite tale.
She doesn’t take Pink into her bed when he’s sick—she gestures to him to
stay in bed, and closes his door as she leaves.
She’s not smothering him; he’s seeking her out.
Pink runs through two versions of this memory. In the first, he creeps slowly down the
stairs and into his mother’s room. In
the second, he’s running to her room, and when he gets there he sees himself in
bed next to her—sort of. This time,
instead of young Pink in the bed with his mother, it’s a decomposing
corpse. The point is this: Pink isn’t repelled by an overprotective
mother—he’s terrified of becoming a mama’s boy, of trying to snuggle with her
all the way to his grave. (It’s not hard
to see how an insecure, fatherless boy could have this fear.) In this light, the lyrics of the song—“Momma’s
gonna keep you right here under her wing,” “Momma’s gonna keep baby cozy and
warm”—aren’t necessarily something she ever said. They could easily be the kind of taunts young
Pink inflicts upon himself.
Consider what comes right after the vision of the corpse
snuggled in bed with his mother: we go
straight into the scene of Pink’s wedding.
Significantly, his mother is not in attendance. Pink has successfully broken away from his
mother by replacing her with a wife.
Unfortunately, spurning the love he needs seems to become a habit: twice during this song, we see him pulling
away from his wife.
The first time Pink rejects his wife, she’s giving him a
striptease while he’s watching soccer on TV.
She playfully blocks his view; he cranes to see around her. This scene is interposed with young Pink
using binoculars to watch a grown-up neighbor undress in front of her
window. He’s smoking an illicit
cigarette, which he hides along with the binoculars when his mother opens the
door to check in on him. Young Pink’s sexual
awakening, and his cigarette, symbolize his desire to grow up and break away
from his mother. Turning back to the
seduction scene, grown-up Pink rejects his wife’s advances—at the time. Sometime later, when it’s dark in the room,
he reaches for her, but she turns and rolls away.
What is going on here?
Was Pink just really into the televised soccer game? Of course not. He looks bored by it, until his wife starts
trying to seduce him. Then he looks
slightly annoyed, but there’s also the tiniest flicker of a smile playing on
his lips. He’s screwing with her,
testing her. But why? Well, Pink is insecure, and if love is
defined as unconditional positive regard, he’s introducing conditions: will you still love me even if I’m a pain in
Second rejection: Pink
is at home, composing on the piano, and his wife comes in and greets him. He ignores her. “Hello?
Hello? Is there anybody in
there?” she says. Still nothing. She waves her hand in front of his face. Finally he looks up. He’s stoned.
She jokes, “Do you remember me?
I’m the one from the registry office.”
Pink looks back down at the piano.
As his wife leaves the room she looks back over her shoulder, to see if
just maybe he’s going to get up. He
doesn’t, and she closes door behind her.
Again, we must consider the point of view here: this is Pink’s own recollection. That we
see his wife look back means that he sees
her look back. Though he pretends to
ignore her, he isn’t. He’s testing her
Next we catch a glimpse of Pink walking through an airport—a
very recent memory—and we get a scene of his wife sitting in a chair
crying. Then Pink is in his hotel room,
phoning her again. When again she
doesn’t pick up, he smashes a glass with his foot.
As we hear the line “Mother will she tear your little boy
apart?” Pink tells himself the story of his lonely wife being seduced by
another man. She meets this man at an
anti-nuke meeting where he is lecturing.
She catches the man’s eye, and after the meeting, when she gets up to
leave, she looks over her shoulder at him.
Unlike Pink, the anti-nuke lecturer accepts her wordless invitation. In this vision, Pink has worked out the
logical result of the marital stalemate at the piano, replete with self-flagellating
“Mother will she
break my heart?” Of course he’s not
really asking his mother this—she’d be the last person he’d ask, and these are
rhetorical questions. They’re directed
at his mother because once again, Pink is feeling vulnerable, and once again
his vulnerability challenges his manhood.
As we hear “You’ll always be baby to me,” Pink is phoning his wife for
the third time, lying in bed in a fetal position. He drops the phone in despair. (A final note on Pink’s sense of
infantilization: in the movie version of
this song, the musical instruments include a wind-up music box like you would put
in the nursery, that plays a repetitive, cloying tune to help your baby sleep.)
As the song ends, we see Pink’s wife in bed with the
anti-nuke organizer. We get a flash of a
coin being put in a pay phone. We hear a
phone ringing: it’s Pink’s bedside
phone, at home, the same phone as at the beginning of the song. The ringing wakes up his wife. It’s the middle of the night so she knows
it’s Pink calling. She looks over at her
lover, silently authorizing him to answer the phone: a passive-aggressive act of defiance. He picks up:
“Hello?” When he hears that it’s
a “collect call for Mrs. Floyd from Mr. Floyd,” he hangs up. The operator is befuddled: “I wonder why he hung up? Is there supposed to be somebody besides your
wife there to answer?” We flash to an
alley, where the phone booth is. As the
operator tries again, Pink slumps down the wall and drops the phone receiver. It dangles from its cord.
Immediately following this last phone call, we get the most
chilling of Pink’s visions: two animated
flowers which become genitalia, the male thrusting violently into the female,
which—mantis-like—devours the male.
Needless to say, Pink feels misused.
In retaliation for his wife’s infidelity, he brings a groupie back to
his hotel room. Notably, he doesn’t seek
her out, but doesn’t turn her away either:
like his wife, he is passive-aggressive.
But unlike his wife, he cannot go through with adultery. In imagining his wife’s affair, he’s given
her a somewhat suitable lover—at least the guy believes in something—but Pink
himself is with a shameless groupie, who is out to exploit her own sexuality
for access to a star. Instead of hooking
up, he boils over, terrorizing her and destroying his hotel room.
Surely Pink regrets his past coldness toward his wife—it’s
included in his flashbacks, after all—but he also feels like a victim. Following his big eruption, when he’s
returned to watching TV, he has a deranged vision of his wife appearing in the
room as some kind of crazed serpentine vagina
dentata that comes after him. The
irony here is twofold: one, the alarming
vision of this terrifying wife-demon chasing him around the room mirrors his
own behavior toward the groupie just before; and two, the song is “Don’t Leave
Though Pink’s bizarre characterization of his wife is a bit
unfair, he rightly recognizes the trouble he is now in with his marriage failing. We see this during “Another Brick in the Wall,
Part 3” where the previous flashbacks of Pink and his wife, and the visions of
her with her lover, are juxtaposed with scenes of terrible rioting and of WWII
battles. The situation with his wife is
causing violence to his life. The
lyrics—“I don’t need no arms around me”—are disingenuous; by seeming to reject
everyone and everything, Pink is actually acknowledging his need.
Very pointedly, in this sequence we get a vision of his
father’s bloodied hand slipping off the phone as he dies, followed immediately
by a flashback of Pink’s last phone call from the hotel, where he lets the
phone slip from his hand. The song ends
with Pink again slumping down the wall by the pay phone, letting the handset
drop: but now it’s not happening in
real-time; it has become another in his pile of tortured memories. What was his dad doing in his final
moment? Calling out for help—but he was
too late. Pink’s phone calls are also a
call for help—and he fears it may be too late for him, too.
We have seen that, in the “real-time” course of events, the
only constructive actions Pink takes are these phone calls home, four of them
so far. Everything else is either
pointless (watching TV), destructive (trashing his room) or just bizarre
(shaving his chest and eyebrows). It’s
not entirely fair to say he’s walled himself off from everybody: each phone call is an attempt to reconnect
with his wife. Surely his intent is to wall himself off, and make
a fresh start on his own: after “Goodbye
Cruel World” he arranges all the detritus in his room, washes the blood off his
hand (bloodied like his father’s!), shaves himself (a new look!), and gets dressed. But of course he’ll try calling his wife again. She’s all he’s got, if that.
What do you do between attempts to call somebody, when
reaching that person is all you can think about? You wait.
You try to kill time. That’s
exactly what Pink is doing throughout the movie. He’s not watching TV because he enjoys it; he
clearly doesn’t. During “Nobody Home,”
he jumps with increasing impatience from channel to channel, lamenting that
though he has “thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from,” he’ll never
get through to his wife. Eventually we see Pink make his fifth and final phone
call; we see the bedside phone at his home once again. We gather that, once again, she doesn’t pick
Then Pink and his TV are out in a field, with a cold misty
wind blowing through: he’s not at home,
either. He almost doesn’t have one
anymore. Sure, you can say he built a
wall around himself, but in a way he’s been cast out, too. What side of the wall is he really on?
Pink’s restroom stall flight of fancy, “The Trial,” shows
how conflicted he is about his situation.
On the one hand, the witnesses he calls to testify against him—the
schoolmaster, his wife, and his mother—are grossly unfair caricatures. The schoolmaster is a marionette being
flogged by his (the schoolmaster’s) wife (!).
Pink’s wife has now become a bizarre cross between a scorpion and a whore. His mother’s arms become a wall as she hugs
him. If he’s crazy, it’s their
fault: “They must have taken my marbles
away!” The undiscerning (and/or stoned)
viewer may take these characterizations at face value, falling for the excuses
Pink has made for himself. Of course we
know better: nothing else in the movie
suggests that his mother really was
overbearing, and even if his schoolmasters were cruel, how was this a unique
problem for Pink among all his classmates?
As for his wife, we have seen that her infidelity is a symptom of
marital strife, not its root cause.
On the other hand, the judge in this sequence—who is
literally a big asshole—represents Pink’s determination to finally hold himself
accountable for his mistakes. Can he see
his own faults clearly enough to accept responsibility? Possibly the most encouraging line in the
song—if we can take it neat, without irony—is the judge (i.e., himself) declaring,
“The way you made them suffer/ Your
exquisite wife and mother/ Fills me with
the urge to defecate!” The judge’s
(i.e., Pink’s) ultimate decision—that the wall must be torn down—seems like the
right one. The question is, will that be
What will become of real-world Pink, who is left hiding in
the restroom stall? If nothing else, the
lonely purgatory of his concert tour ends here.
When his manager found Pink catatonic in his chair, he yelled, “You
vicious bastard!” He has no concern for
Pink—only for getting Pink to the concert, which we see now he’s failed to do. Perhaps Pink can slink home, tail between his
legs—the big rock star brought low—and make a fresh start with his wife. I wish him the best.
Q. Could it be that
Pink’s wife didn’t really cheat on him?
Could the very notion of her infidelity be a fiction, like the details
of the story Pink tells himself?
A. No. The four unanswered calls are not Pink’s
recollections, but real events we see for ourselves. The one time there is an answer, it’s a man’s
voice saying “Hello?” Pink doesn’t imagine
this voice—we have the telephone operator saying, in surprise, “It’s a man answering!” So: a
man answers Pink’s home phone in the middle of the night … you do the math.
Q. We know that Roger
Waters’ father died in WWII. Is the
failing marriage theme also autobiographical?
A. Maybe. Waters divorced his first wife in 1975. Perhaps more noteworthy is that during the
creation of the Wall album, band member Richard Wright fought with the others,
and ultimately quit the band, in part because his time away from home was causing
his marriage to founder.
Q. Why do we have this
scene of a security guard in the stadium restroom fastidiously washing his
A. It establishes
that the restroom stall episode isn’t another of Pink’s delusions. The hand washing is an activity occurring in
real-time outside of Pink’s awareness—we are
seeing it, not Pink. By extension, Pink really
is sitting beside the toilet in the stall, unable to perform.
Q. How do you
differentiate between actual phone calls and memories of phone calls? In other words, how do you count five phone
A. We can identify
discrete calls by noting what Pink is wearing and where he is. Here are the calls, listed in order:
Q. How can you
dismiss the impact of Pink’s miserable school days?
- In bed, clothed (beginning of “Mother”);
- Sitting at edge of bed, shirtless;
- Lying in bed, just in boxers;
- From phone booth (end of “Mother”);
- Clothed, smashing glass into phone (during “Nobody Home”).
A. In the scene where
the schoolmaster mocks him for his poetry, Pink doesn’t look that upset; his
expression says, “Yeah, bugger off.” And
given the poetry itself—lyrics to “Money,” which will be a huge hit one
day—Pink’s nascent triumph over the schoolmaster is built right into the scene.
Q. Why does Pink
break the razor blade in half before shaving off his eyebrows?
A. It’s a
double-edged razor blade. He breaks it
in half so he’ll have a non-razor-sharp edge to hold. Perhaps he’s not as drugged-out here as we
might have thought.
Q. Couldn’t there be
a lot simpler explanation for Pink’s final unraveling?
A. Indeed, it may be
that the hideous green carpet in his hotel room finally got to him. Such carpet could unhinge just about anyone.
dana albert blog pink
floyd the wall