Why Surrealism Matters Part Two: Pink Floyd: The Wall, By Christian Thomey
To better follow the contents of this review, I recommend watching Pink Floyd: The Wall before you continue reading. Here is the link to the movie: https://vimeo.com/groups/565619/videos/281984569
Pink Floyd: The Wall is a 1982 film adaptation of the 1979 album of the same name. The screenplay was written by Roger Waters, the lead singer and bassist of progressive rock band Pink Floyd. Because the film’s story is told through the songs on the album, I can’t talk about this movie without first talking about the album itself.
The album’s musical composition relies on both instrumental and non-instrumental sounds. For instance, the opening track, “In The Flesh?,” uses the sounds of a baby crying and fighter jets flying overhead to create a more immersive atmosphere. The Wall is one of those rare albums where the sounds of real life compose as much of the identity of the songs as the instruments. The complex use of sounds gives the song a more epic and cinematic feel that engrosses the audience members and draws them into the story.
Furthermore, the album has a clear narrative structure, and the film interprets that narrative through a visual medium. I am very grateful for that, because the album’s heavy metaphor and openness to interpretation make it hard to follow at times. The album achieves narrative continuity by having the final note of a one song begin the next. For example, "In The Flesh?" ends with a baby crying, which follows into the song "The Thin Ice."
Another connecting tissue of the songs is the reference to “the wall” itself. The album doesn’t explain what exactly “the wall” is, but it's a common phrase and concept throughout the album. Some examples include "Another Brick in the Wall" parts 1-3, "In The Flesh," and "The Trial," which all reference “the wall” through various metaphors.
With that said, the album argues that isolation is under the facade of individuality. In an attempt to stand out from a crowd, we alienate ourselves from the rest of the world. With it’s clever sound mixing and creative storytelling, The Wall is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock albums ever produced, and that opinion isn’t without reason.
I mentioned in my previous review that surrealism is an art form that explores the deepest regions of the subconscious and manifests itself as something that transcends conscious imagination. I compared surrealism to a dream. It creates an unconscious reality that bases itself on several of our conscious experiences. Although the contents of a dream don’t always make sense at face value, elements that form a dream come from a real place. This is definitely present in Pink Floyd: The Wall, which was made to pay respect to band’s founder, Syd Barrett, who retired due to complications of his schizophrenia.
However, the movie focuses on surrealism more as a means of metaphor to draw comparisons to real life issues, not as a representation of an individual’s subconscious. This is best exemplified in the first scene in the movie where Pink, the protagonist, sits in the dark, alone in his quiet hotel room. He stares blankly at his TV, and scenes jump between rioters assaulted by police, soldiers fighting on a battlefield, and Pink as a dictator commanding his drooling followers (0:05.00). Each of these scenes point to how people tend to always enact war on themselves, whether the conflict is overseas, in our own backyard, or with ourselves. We are always fighting with ourselves and each other through our desires, beliefs, and selfish inclinations, but no one ever wins. The only option is to keep fighting each other or everybody loses.
The songs in the movie follow the same order they do on the album, which helps keep the narrative consistency of the album while also creating a narrative that matches it. The songs and their context within Pink Floyd’s fame also give the film a more introspective approach. Pink is a former rock star and a depressed drug addict. The movie is mostly shown through his memories and fantasies. The songs allow Pink to tell his story without ever saying a word. “The wall” represents isolation and alienation. It represents the walls Pink puts up to block out his emotions and prevent him from speaking. Instead, the movie is told from his point of view, which is only expressed through music.
Pink is a character that is consumed with self-loathing. He is an unhealthy individualist, almost entirely focused on himself and his flaws. Because of this, we get to know almost nothing about the people outside his personal narrative. He seeks freedom for himself, but he sees the rest of the world as a prison, where people either commit acts of chaos and call it freedom, or where people look to follow anyone they think will solve their problems. He constantly fantasizes about dressing and acting like a fascist dictator, repeatedly commanding his followers to “put them (i.e. queers, Jews, blacks, and anyone else that doesn’t look right to him) up against the wall,” forcing others into their own prison of isolation and alienation. The dictator version of himself represents a deep desire within Pink to stand out among an otherwise conforming crowd.
The imagery constantly switches between scenes of distorted reality and hand-drawn 2D animation. Many scenes in this movie use a wide angle lens to convey an Orwellian, dystopian atmosphere, as well.
In one scene, students walk in a straight line within a vast hall, watched by a schoolmaster standing in the middle of it. The students walk in unison onto a conveyor belt, which drops them into a meat grinder that reshapes them to all have the exact same face (0:24.30.) As the scene returns to Pink as a dictator, his followers are seen to all have the same face as the students, creating a clear line between institutional education and institutional control in Pink’s mind.
This sequence shows how animation can be used as a tool to connect two ideas, helping us understand the real world by separating the narrative from reality. The animation in this film serves to show how Pink views the world around him: a meat grinder that transforms freedom into conformity. For instance, after learning that his ex-wife is sleeping with another man, there is an animated sequence where walls made out of buildings, cars, and other insignificant pleasures overcome the entire world. This demonstrates how Pink’s own world became overcome with indulgent distractions when his life began to fall apart. In the same sequence, we see a shot of a man glaring at a young boy. The boy suddenly morphs into a Nazi soldier and smashes his head in (0:38.00.)
Much like the album, Pink Floyd: The Wall argues that isolation is under the facade of individuality. The film is about one man trying to stand out in a world of conformity. It doesn’t glorify individuality or conformity in any way. Rather, it shows the dark sides to both. Pink wants to break free from the world he knows, as he clings to the belief that the only way to do so is to be the only one who is “free.”
Trying to be free, he ends up isolated from society and from the people he should care about. This leads to absolute, self-absorbed misery. But on the other hand, it also shows the dark side of conformity, with an oppressive society that robs people of their individuality, so that they fall into line with everyone else. Overall, the film's arguments balance between the two to show how falling too far onto either end—conformity or freedom—can lead to both personal and spiritual ruin.