Monday, November 15, 2021

Pink Floyd - The Wall [dir. Alan Parker]

The Wall here refers to the 1982 film adaptation of the phenomenal Pink Floyd album directed by Alan Parker. The script was written by the band's main rudder of that era, Roger Waters, and is partly autobiographical: The lead character, a rock star named Pink (a trans-continental phone call he makes refers to him as Mr. Floyd), who in the midst of a successful career is a drugs and alcohol addled recluse disconnected from the world around him. We go into Pink's past as a lonely child whose father died as a soldier in WW2. Between an over-protective mother and an uncaring educational system (compared here to a meat-grinding machine), Pink grows up so emotionally stunted he cannot hold on to any relationship, and becomes incapable of forming new ones. He seems to spend all his non-working time watching TV, specifically re-runs of the populist British war film The Dambusters (apparently a favorite of Waters)

Waters originally conceived The Wall as a cinematic extension of the album that would incorporate footage from the planned live performances and animation sequences by the brilliant Gerald Scarfe. That idea changed as development moved ahead. Once Alan Parker was attached to direct the project, he convinced the team to drop the idea of using any stage footage of the band, and commit to the reality of the film's setting. Originally Waters was to play the lead himself, but the job went to another musician Bob Geldof, who fully commits to the craziness of the part without any sympathetic concessions (apparently one of Waters' bugbears with the film, and at least partly responsible for a very acrimonious working relationship between him and Parker).

Going back and forth in time, and slipping fluidly between reality and dream, The Wall is like an feature-length music video (long before concept-oriented music videos were a thing). There are astounding juxtapositions of live action with Scarfe's nightmarish animated drawings; the most startling one is when a woman's shadow on the wall morphs into a monster that terrorizes Pink. It may be remembered here that this was long before CG was used to any meaningful effect in films, and achieved purely by a mix of practical and optical techniques.

Watching the film and hearing its soundtrack so many years after the last time I played the album, I once again came to appreciate the brilliance of The Wall as a work of art. The album's ubiquitous popularity has of course led to a bunch of people calling it overrated, and I won't deny getting a little sick of the number of times Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2 played on MTV, but once you've allowed a little distance, the emotional charge of Waters' lyrics and the band's fantastic musical sensibilities hit you right in the chest. Several critics have complained that the film is just a sensory showcase with little depth, but I felt that the emotional sub-text comes across well enough. I am not entirely sure of Pink's fascist fantasy in the last act of the film, but I did not find that a serious drawback, and between the lead acting (even Klaus Kinski would have had a pause at Geldof's crazy turn) and the constantly inventive chutzpah on display, the film remains interesting up to the end.

PS: The Wall is an interesting comparison to Tommy, another rock opera by a talented egoistic artist: Pink Floyd's album is more consistently brilliant, especially because it knows when to draw its curtains. Similarly, Parker's film adaptation of The Wall makes for a far more watchable and engaging experience than Ken Russell's "Let's fling all manner of shit and see what sticks" approach to the film of Tommy.

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