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 analytical morass.
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 one symbol.
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).
Two points of view
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.
Pink as we see him
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 phone.
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 Pink contrived.
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 room.
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 the ass?
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 again.
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 details.
“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 Me Now.”
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 up.
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?
No hope at all?
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 enough?
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.
Appendix – Random Q&A
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 hands?
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 calls?
A. We can identify discrete calls by noting what Pink is wearing and where he is. Here are the calls, listed in order:
- 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.
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