Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pink Floyd The Wall

NOTE:  This post is rated R for thematic content and an instance of mild strong language.


Recently, I watched “Pink Floyd The Wall” for the third time (not having seen it in decades).   I came across it in a big box of videos on loan from a friend to entertain me as I recover from a broken leg.  Inside the DVD case I found this little note:

“The Wall” well deserves to be watched multiple times, and has held up well since it came out almost thirty years ago.  Other movies from that year—even top-grossing ones like “E.T.,” “Rocky III,” and “Porkies”—arguably have not.  

In this post I describe my introduction to the band and the movie; discuss the difficulty of getting to see it again; and review the DVD extras you should check out if you rent this movie.  (In an upcoming post, I’ll analyze the movie itself and put forth what I think is an unusual perspective.)

Discovering Pink Floyd

In 1980, when I was ten, my friend David asked, “What’s your favorite band?”  I knew this was just a ploy to get me to ask him about his favorite band, and I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.  He told me anyway:  “Mine’s Pink Floyd.”  He described this amazing album that had just come out, “The Wall.”  I’d never heard of the album, nor the band.  David did a sales job on me, saying, “On one of the songs it goes ‘And the worms ate into his brain!’”  I took a listen, and was immediately absorbed.  We’d listen to the album all afternoon, looking at the album art and the handwritten (and almost indecipherable) lyrics.  I got some attention at school for my rendition of a background exchange from the album, a women crying “Eeek!” and a man yelling back, “Shut up!”

In those days we grasped little of the meaning of the lyrics; singing them, we sounded many of the words out phonetically, like parrots.  One of my friends would sing “no dark sarhasm in the classroom,” not worrying about what “sarhasm” might mean.  I told him it had to be “sarcasm” but he refused to accept this.  For my part, I had no idea what “psychopathic” meant but couldn’t be bothered to look it up.  I remember arguing with my brothers about the little girl’s utterance before “Goodbye Blue Sky”—was it “there’s an airplane up in the sky,” “there’s a snow plane up in the sky,” or “there’s snow playing up in the sky”?

Around 1985, I won an art award and was invited to a ceremony in Denver to collect my prize.  My parents, recently divorced, bickered over who would drive me.  Trapped between them and their two cars, I struggled to decide.  “Come with me,” my mom said, “and you can have Pink Floyd in the car.”  My dad asked her what Pink Floyd was.  Mom, triumphant, replied, “It’s the name of a band he likes.”  Defeated, Dad snorted, “It sounds like the name of a pig.”

The movie at first viewing

My mom really grew her cool-mom cred when she agreed to take my friend John and me to the movie.  This was 1982, a couple years before VHS rentals.  I was only thirteen and it was rated R, so somebody had to take us.  Right away I knew this movie would be far more harrowing than the album.  Even before the horrific animation accompanying “Goodbye Blue Sky” I was terrified—not just by the movie, but by the prospect of my mom dragging my friend and me out of the theater (as my dad would do the following year at “Fanny & Alexander”).  But to my amazement, mere minutes into the film my mom had fallen asleep!  The sound was jacked way up in there (at many theaters the movie’s producers installed subwoofers to enhance the sound), so my mom’s falling asleep was simply bizarre.  Sleep must have been a coping mechanism, or at least an excuse for not making us leave.  I looked over periodically and throughout the movie Mom was practically catatonic in her seat, almost like Pink up on the screen.

Of course that movie completely blew my young mind.  The images were almost unbearable, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.  The first thing that struck me was the battlefield scenes:  none of the glory and excitement of typical war movies, such as what Pink watches on TV, but mostly the grim aftermath of collecting the fallen soldiers.  Of course I’d learned about WWII in history class, but in a sanitized classroom-friendly version, never like this.  And then there was the deeply disturbing animation:  those uncanny humanoid creatures with snouts like gas masks; a guy getting brained; a white cross turning red, blood flowing from it into a drain; and of course the seduction, copulation, and mantis-like devouring of one flower by another.  (Roger Ebert wrote, “This is a flower so gynecological that Georgia O’Keefe might have been appalled.”) 

From “The Wall” I got a crash course in the birds and the bees—from the flowers, from the animated version of Pink’s scorpion-like wife, and from live-action groupies.  Even more disturbing were the scenes of a fascist rally and rioting.  Coming out of the theater, I was speechless.  I don’t remember ever debriefing with my friend about it, but that movie has been drifting around in the back of my mind ever since.  (I will not let my kids watch it until they’re at least seventeen.  Maybe not even then; one imdb bulletin boarder wrote, “Maybe it’s better I waited till age 45, cause if I’d seen this at 17 I’d probably have shaved off my eyebrows or something.”)

Chasing “The Wall”

Years after seeing “The Wall” in the theater, I began to want to see it again, with the hope of understanding it better and, frankly, being able to enjoy it more since my mind wouldn’t be so completely blown.  I was torn because though I continued to enjoy the album, I somewhat feared the movie.  I had moved away from home but not yet started college, and my footing in the world was tenuous enough that I sought movies for escape, not so much to get all freaked out or depressed.  Finally, in 1988 I got my roommate to rent it with me, along with a light romantic comedy to bring our spirits back up afterward.

This didn’t go so well.  Unexpectedly, two neighbor girls came over, decided to watch with us, and we ended up passing around a big jug of Carlo Rossi red wine.  Having guests created an awkward dynamic, because one of the girls was gorgeous and my roommate and I both wanted her bad, while the other was, God forgive me, pretty homely.  It might not have mattered if nobody tried to bust a move, but the wine worked its magic and soon my roommate was hitting on the homely girl.  (There wasn’t enough wine in the world to embolden my roommate or me to hit on the hot one.)  To make matters worse, both girls were chain smokers.  Yuck.

I couldn’t focus on the movie.  The girls were talking too much, and the TV had poor, monaural sound, and I was distracted by the spectacle of the homely girl wisely and persistently shutting down my roommate (who’d have had no use for her the next day, it must be said).  The girls bailed on us toward the end, and after the trial scene my roommate and I were depressed and becoming maudlin.  We turned to our second video to cheer ourselves up, only to learn the hard way that “Sid & Nancy” is anything but a light romantic comedy.  The seemingly helpful clerk at the video store clearly had a mischievous streak.

In the intervening years I’ve wanted to rent “The Wall” again, especially after DVDs came out and I bought a large, stereo TV.  (Note to peeping-blog-toms:  it’s not a gas plasma or LCD TV and there’s a rat’s nest of cable going out the back of the entertainment center cabinet and back through, so it would be hard to steal this TV, and you’ll find a much better set at either of our neighbors’ houses.)  But watching “The Wall” would not be a good way to unwind after a workday, and I couldn’t play it loud because of the kids, so it’s never seemed like a good time to rent it.  When I got the loaner DVD, I knew I’d finally get my chance.

(On a side note, this film has developed a reputation as something best watched stoned.  The IMDb bulletin board page for “The Wall” is full of pointless posts to that effect.  Were I interested in such activity, I had a golden opportunity here, with some rock-star-grade prescription pharmaceuticals left over from the most painful days of my convalescence.  But that’s not my style.  I have only ever used painkillers as painkillers, and I want to be able to think—when I’m watching a movie and when I’m not.  Moreover, I wasn’t interested in having this film freak me out again.)


If you’ve only rented “The Wall” on VHS, it’s time to watch it again just for the picture and sound quality.  There’s verbiage on the case about Hi Definition film transfer and digitally remastered Dolby Digital blah blah blah … suffice to say, the DVD looks and sounds great.  The menus have a lot of little gimmicks like Floyd music from other albums, interesting icons, etc. which are fun (though the icons are slow to slide into place and become click-able, which gets a bit tedious).  Note that turning on subtitles doesn’t show you the lyrics, but you can turn the lyrics on separately.  There’s not much dialogue in this movie (Pink has exactly three words), but you should turn subtitles on anyway to catch all the dialogue coming out of Pink’s TV.  You can also tune your sound system through the DVD controls, which is kind of cool.

I’m normally not a big fan of DVD extras—a good movie should speak for itself—and I’m especially wary of musicians talking about their work.  I hated Sting’s 1985 documentary “Bring On the Night,” which a one-star amateur reviewer accurately described as “self indulgent even by Sting’s standards.”  In fact, that movie kind of ruined Sting’s music for me.  This isn’t to say there aren’t great music films out there, like “Metallica:  Some Kind of Monster” and “8 Mile,” but “The Wall” is pretty heavy-handed to begin with and I didn’t want to hear a lot of blather about alienation and metaphorical walls and so forth.

Happily, nobody makes an ass of himself on the documentaries, of which there are two.  One is a documentary of the making of the film, and the other is a fairly recent retrospective.  Both are well worth watching.  There’s quite a story behind this film:  the creator of the album who wrote the screenplay, Roger Waters, fought constantly with the director, Alan Parker, each trying to shape the movie to his liking.  Neither ended up satisfied with the end product; Parker called it “the most expensive student film ever made.”

There is a certain amount of blather involved in the retrospective, but Waters and Parker are thoughtful, articulate, and frank.  For example, Rogers recounts the creative process without casting himself as some sort of sage:  “Alan Parker would ask me, ‘What’s this fucking song about?’ and I’d say, ‘You know, I’m not really sure,’ and I’d dredge up stuff from my past, or sometimes from other people’s pasts.”  Parker, when asked what the point of the movie is, does make a fairly grandiose speech about the wall as a symbol, etc., but then he seems to catch himself, chuckling, “But you’ll really have to ask Roger, it’s his deal.”

The animator, Gerald Scarfe, offers some insight too and it’s fun to see how dismissive he is of the movie as a whole.  An unexpected highlight for me is Peter Biziou, the cinematographer, who revels in his every memory, with a wide smile and a sparkle in his eye that are perfectly charming, especially given the dour reminisces of Parker and Waters.  I wish I could have Biziou for an uncle.

There’s some fun trivia to be gleaned from the documentaries.  For example, we find out why “What Shall We Do Now?” is in the movie but not on the album, which is something I’d wondered about for thirty years, ever since I first saw the lyrics on the album jacket for this nonexistent song.  (Turns out the song simply wouldn’t fit on the LP, and by the time they decided to cut it, the liner notes had already been done.)  We learn why “Hey You” was cut from the movie (more on this later).  We also get a funny story about the collect call Pink places to his wife, with the befuddled long-distance operator—“It’s a man answering, is there supposed to be someone besides your wife there to answer?”—inadvertently salting Pink’s wounds.  To get that bit of dialogue, they placed an actual call from the U.S. to England and recorded a random, unsuspecting phone operator.

Here’s one more example of the usefulness of the documentary.  I’d gotten confused, this time around, about where the big concert supposedly takes place.  Pink’s hotel room is in L.A., but so much of the movie is hallucination anyway (including the whole fascist rally sequence) that I thought Pink might have shape-shifted to London.  I based this notion on the scene in the stadium bathroom.  The sink there is clearly a British model, having separate spigots for hot and cold.  Even if one of these primitive sinks had found its way to an L.A. stadium, the security guard’s expert technique of swishing up the cold and hot water in one fluid motion clearly shows him to be a Brit:

The mystery is resolved in a single sentence from the documentary: “For the American stadium stuff we had to do, we went to Wembley Football Stadium.”

I’m pretty sure there’s a running commentary you can turn on while you watch the movie.  I didn’t check this out because frankly, this movie can become exhausting and there’s only so much of it I can take at one time.  I’ll save the commentary for next time.

Two more videos

As a kid, I was stoked when the movie included the song “What Shall We Do Now?” that was mysteriously missing from the album.  At the same time, I was bummed that my very favorite song from the album, “Hey You,” was excluded from the movie.  Good news:  you can see “Hey You” on the DVD as an extra, though the resolution isn’t very good, for complicated reasons involving lost footage.

“Hey You” is worth watching for three reasons.  First, it’s a great song.  Second, you can decide for yourself whether this number actually deserved to be cut from the movie.  (My opinion:  like most of the scenes cut from movies, it was cut for good reason.)  Third, the omission of this scene ended up changing the rest of the movie significantly.  After deciding to cut this scene, Parker had the idea to re-use most of its video content elsewhere, and he actually re-cut the entire rest of the movie to graft in the extra footage.  I think this is a major reason the movie seems so disjointed at times, with strange visions (such as the riots) that, to me, have as little to do with the movie as they did with “Hey You.”  We also get those screenfuls of writhing worms that got their original context from this song and don’t make much sense beyond it.  I wish I could see the version of the movie that came just before this odd backfilling of discarded footage.

There’s one last video on the DVD, which is the original rock video for “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”  This video is fricking lame.  It was clearly made on the cheap, with rampant recycling of footage and animation.  (Of course the footage is taken from the movie, but within the rock video the same sequences are shown again and again.)  The song itself is easily the weakest of the entire album, with its disco beat and silly lyrics, and the video takes it to new lows in tedious repetition.  But it’s worth watching, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate how well-made the movie “Pink Floyd The Wall” really is.

‘This Roman Meal bakery thought you’d like to know.’dana albert blog Pink Floyd The Wall

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