|Pink Floyd: The Wall|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Thursday, 02 December 1999|
The virtues of the strangely-titled 'Pink Floyd the Wall' are inextricably tied to its defects; in fact, sometimes they're the same thing. But even if you're not a fan of the rock band, the movie is fascinating, beautiful to watch, and a real pleasure to hear in this masterfully produced DVD. When it's over, you may still be puzzled about what it was you've just watched, but it's unlikely you'll think you wasted your time.
The project began with Roger Waters, the principal writer for Pink Floyd. He was always troubled by the death of his father, whom he never knew, in World War II, and by his relationship with a mother who seems to have deliberately kept her distance. When Pink Floyd took off as one of the hottest bands of the 1970s, Waters was little different from other stars, getting deeply involved in the usual sex and drugs. But there was always a part of him that was observing what was going on, trying to make sense of it. He was puzzled by his own actions when he spat on an audience member, he was angry when the Los Angeles police department chose to regard Pink Floyd fans, arriving downtown for a concert, as an invading horde. And he was troubled by his own increasing alienation, as well as the descent into schizophrenia of band member Syd Barret.
He turned all of this angst into first a themed concert, taken on tour, then a concept album, and finally this unusual movie, a major cult favorite.
If you're familiar with the album or film, you're way ahead of anyone coming to this movie without any previous knowledge, because the film makes no concessions to its audience -- a courageous, bold but perhaps mistaken approach. Taking the film on its own, it's not easy to grasp more than the broadest ideas, which limits the audience. Furthermore, there were three artists involved in making the movie, Waters himself, director Alan Parker and designer/animator Gerald Scarfe, then as now the pre-eminent political cartoonist of Great Britain. Scarfe and Waters provide a relaxed, sometimes informative commentary track (wisely, one is on the left center speaker, the other on the right), in which they ruefully admit that they often clashed while making the movie. Three guys each used to having his own way could hardly help but clash.
But the effect of the clash is that there are some elements in the movie -- such as the notorious copulating flowers, in fluid, dynamic Scarfe animation (he drew every cell himself, in colored chalk) -- which remain as mysterious to Roger Waters as to us in the audience. This necessarily means that 'Pink Floyd the Wall' isn't a coherent whole, that some parts are almost at war with others. For example, there's a strong sense of misogyny to some of Scarfe's material which is completely absent from the live-action portions of the film.
Broadly speaking, the story we see is of Pink Floyd, a rock star, who sits before a TV screen in a bleak Los Angeles hotel room, remembering his past, indulging in (and being frightened by) intense fantasies. He's built a wall of alienation around him, composed of bricks of fears, painful memories, longings and desires, but which serves to keep the world at bay.
In the stage production, a literal, physical wall was constructed on stage over the course of the concert, finally walling off the band completely (while Scarfe animations played on its surface). One of the odder elements of the movie is that we DO NOT see the wall constructed. We're told that "all in all, it's just another brick in the wall," but we see it for the first time full-blown, thrusting across the landscape like a freight train without tracks. (There are several manifestations of the wall, in fact.)
As the story is strongly autobiographical, we see Pink's father die at Anzio in World War II, and we see the young Pink longing for a father figure. There's a big jump in time, in that we don't see Pink becoming a rock star, because it's the more distant past and what he sees as the grim future that obsess him. He's certain his wife, back in England, is having an affair (as Waters admits his own was doing).
Hammers figure prominently in the film, turning up in many contexts, most impressively as a vast marching army, the emblem of a Nazi Germany-like state, ruled by Pink himself as a charismatic, Hitleroid leader. These scenes are very powerful.
He evidently overdoses, or sinks into catatonia, seeing himself turning into a slimy glob of pink, but there's something like an upbeat ending -- we see children literally emptying Molotov cocktails, a brilliant touch.
Much of 'Pink Floyd the Wall' is indeed brilliant, but some of it is banal, and some only average. Because it is such an interior monologue from Roger Waters (interspersed with dazzling, rude Scarfe animation), it's great in segments, but keeps losing its grip because we cannot fit all the imagery into a coherent whole.
But that's part of the reason that it has remained so popular, such a personal landmark for many people. Almost all of us have felt that being educated at school tended toward grinding us all into the same kind of hamburger; almost all of us worry about our past, and whether we are actually decent people. To a certain degree, the Wall is a blank slate, and people have written their own stories on it. In the 45-minute documentary, made for the video release, Gerald Scarfe mentions that often people have told him how meaningful the movie was to him, while he regarded it primarily as an interesting job. The documentary, overall, is excellent; in addition to Scarfe, Waters, Parker, producer Alan Marshall, cinematographer Peter Biziou and music producer James Guthrie are interviewed. The photography and editing is excellent, but none of the interviewees put 'Pink Floyd the Wall' into any kind of historical perspective, either in terms of movie or music history, or in relation to their own careers.
Technically, the disc is superb; the image is flawless, with precise color control. But aurally, it's magnificent, one of the best-produced DVDs in this regard so far. The 5.1 Dolby sound has been imaginatively mixed, with all of the speakers coming into impressive play; some effects move from left to right, speaker by speaker. The disc even includes an elaborate system test which itself is very impressive. In terms of sound, 'Pink Floyd the Wall' must be one of the most noteworthy discs released so far.
The on-screen menu was carefully designed, too, but is much less successful. You expect to be able to move to a menu choice, then click on it, as with virtually all DVDs released to date, but with 'Pink Floyd the Wall,' if you move to a choice, it launches immediately. The "retrospective" documentary is unaccountably divided into two parts, but part two launches itself as part one finishes. There's also a moderately interesting making-of documentary, produced at the same time as the film. "Hey You," a number from the album, was cut out of the movie before release; most of its visual elements were interspersed through the rest of the film, but the song itself was lost. It's included here in its entirety, in a mostly black and white work print. A video of "Another Brick in the Wall" is of little interest, except to see the giant inflatable figure of Pink's childhood teacher.
An excellent feature is the ability to play the lyrics as subtitles in the black bar below the image. Not all of the lyrics are entirely intelligible (though Parker matched them point by point to the images, both visually and in terms of rhythm); being able to read them is a real plus. (You can even run them as text while listening to the audio commentary.)
'Pink Floyd the Wall' is also a stunning visual experience; the photography by Biziou is superb, beautifully composed, very textured. Naturally, there's a lot of Christ imagery; young men often see themselves as Jesus figures, and Waters was no exception. The violence is strong but not extreme -- the Nazi Rally-like scenes are much more disturbing, as is much of Scarfe's ferociously imaginative animation.
If you're even remotely interested in the subject, this DVD is an outstanding purchase. And even if you're not, take a risk and rent it. There's no other movie quite like this one.