Friday, May 14, 2010

Resisting the Trip in Pink Floyd: The Wall

The Wall. I had somehow lived through a full thirty years without having to view it. Until last Saturday, that is, when my husband pulled the film musical from his amazingly eclectic DVD collection and popped it into the Blu-Ray, stating that he hadn’t seen it since high school and was sure that he couldn’t have possibly “gotten it” back then and that it therefore deserved re-watching. The film—based on the experiences and personal anxieties of Pink Floyd founding member Roger Waters, first envisioned by Waters as a companion piece to the 1979 album of the same name, and produced in 1982 by award-winning director Alan Parker—is, of course, legendary among Pink Floyd fans. I find it, however, more than a little masturbatory and am frankly disturbed not only by its superfluously surreal scenes, like the one in which Pink, the main character, takes a nighttime swim in a pool of blood, but also by its blatant sexism, which has apparently passed for nearly three decades as a reasonable depiction of some vague sense of a universally-felt post-WWII angst. Is it me, or does this film project written, directed, and produced by a bunch of middle-aged, male British rockers and movie artists posit Roger Waters’s mother herself as the root of all institutional and national evil?

After a similar experience to mine—watching the film as an adult equipped to handle its insidious self-centeredness instead of a teenager enthralled with Waters’s countercultural overtures—fellow blogger Sarah Foss concludes, “There’s something insular and myopic about it, as if Waters lacked the introspection to sort through his unhappiness and anger and create a work that actually had something to say about the world” (par. 6). Indeed. Pink, a rocker representative of Waters himself, is ultimately portrayed as shaped—through a childhood dominated by an alternately neglectful and overbearing mother, an education at the hands of repressed schoolmasters, and marriage to a sexual devouring fem fatale—into a murderous fascist leader. While Waters classifies The Wall in Retrospective, a documentary of the film’s making, as a study in human disconnection characteristic of the post-modernist period, I argue that it situates the mother as the impetus behind not only fascism and WWII but also conformity, death, and hatred in general.

Pink’s father dies in service to his country during WWII, his death depicted in a sequence that cuts from the bombing of his bunker in continental Europe directly to the grotesque image of his overweight wife—Pink’s mother—napping in a beautiful British garden, snoring through not only her husband’s death in a foreign land but also the crying of her infant son in his baby carriage a few feet away. The implication, of course, is that the father died to protect the orderly life of this monstrously selfish woman who refuses to even adequately meet the needs of her own child. Pink’s mother is further portrayed as a cold and neurotic woman, in a later scene when she refuses to allow her son to care for an injured animal, a rat that therefore dies of its wounds, and in a repeating flashback of Pink as a skeleton lying snuggled against her grotesque body—again, open-mouthed and snoring. Pink’s isolation from humanity is thus rooted in the lack of nurturance—but also the suffocating maternal attention—that he receives from his mother.

In Pink’s experience, in fact, all women are controlling and punitive matriarchs. His schoolteacher raps young Pink’s knuckles with a ruler in a misdirected expression of his own anger at his—again overlarge—wife who is portrayed as keeping him on the proverbial short leash, even going so far as to spank him in a recurring cartoonish depiction of their relationship. Adult Pink is used sexually by his wife, a woman who then leaves Pink and goes on to ignore his collect call which threatens to interrupt her tryst with another man. Indeed, this film bothers not with subtlety in its representation of women as the root of all evil, repeatedly depicting a fleshy pink flower as morphing into a vagina dentate and then swallowing a phallic-shaped rose bud in a recurring animated portrayal of the hopelessness of withstanding the treachery of female sexual and social control.

Given the misogyny that infiltrates The Wall, it is difficult to see the ending rape scene—on a surface level representative of the evil intrinsic to human disconnection—as anything more than the fulfillment of the fantasies of its creators. In Retrospective, Parker points out that the men who performed in the rape scene—of the only black female character who appears in the entire movie, mind you—were “real skin heads” and that the shooting of the scene was uncomfortable because it blurred the line between art and reality. I can’t help but to wonder why was it necessary to use “real skin heads” for this scene if not to further realize some sort of disturbing rape fantasy that would duly discipline the women responsible for the sad state of post-modernist mankind.

In any case, it turns out that our spontaneous viewing of The Wall was timely, as Roger Waters announced in mid-April that he is planning to revive the music from the 1980 album The Wall during a 35-date tour beginning in Toronto in September of this year. Waters will tour with a full band and perform the album in its entirety at each show. On his website, Waters claims,

. . . it has occurred to me that maybe the story of my fear and loss with it’s [sic] concomitant inevitable residue of ridicule, shame and punishment, provides an allegory for broader concerns: Nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, Whatever! All these issues and ‘isms are driven by the same fears that drove my young life. This new production of The Wall is an attempt to draw some comparisons, to illuminate our current predicament, and is dedicated to all the innocent lost in the intervening years. . . . I believe we have at least a chance to aspire to something better than the dog eat dog ritual slaughter that is our current response to our institutionalized fear of each other. I feel it is my responsibility as an artist to express my, albeit guarded, optimism, and encourage others to do the same. (par. 4-10)

It seems to me that any further idolization of the story told in The Wall—either film or album—is unlikely to lead to the realization of fuller human connection or to bring us any closer to world peace but instead will affirm the insular worldview of a group of spoiled British rock stars and contribute to the continued stereotyping of women as little more than castrating bitches. Certainly, some of the most celebrated lyrics in all of Pink Floyd musical history, from "Another Brick in the Wall" of The Wall album, depict women (and fat women in particular) as the cause of institutional—and therefore national—malevolence:

When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children anyway they could
By pouring their derision upon anything we did
Exposing any weakness however carefully hidden by the kids.
But in the town it was well known
When they got home at night, their fat and psychopathic wives
Would thrash them within inches of their lives!

I’m glad that I finally watched The Wall, but, as I told my husband at its conclusion late Saturday night, perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had seen it while still a teenager like he first had. At least then I probably could have mustered up some vague sense of appreciation for the trippy pool scene and others like it that have gained the film its reputation among Pink Floyd fans. As a 30-year-old mother and feminist scholar, however, I had trouble seeing past the very real social implications of the monstrous snoring mother and devouring vagina flower.

Bibliography Note: See Romero and Cabo a compelling and detailed analysis of the national historical context surrounding both the narrative within and production of The Wall.

Works Cited

Foss, Sarah. "Watching 'Pink Floyd: The Wall.'" [Weblog Entry.] Foss Forward. Dailygazette.com. 12 Apr. 2010 (http://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss/2010/apr/13/watching-pink-floyd-wall/). 2 May 2010.

Pink Floyd: The Wall. Dir. Alan Parker. Perf. Bob Geldof. Goldcrest Films International, 1982. Film.

Retrospective: The Making of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Perf. Alan Parker and Roger Waters. 2005. Documentary.

Romero, Jorge Sacido and Luis Miguel Varela Cabo. “Roger Waters’ Poetry of the Absent Father: British Identity in Pink Floyd’s
The Wall.” Atlantis 28.2 (2006): 45-58.

Waters, Roger. "Why Am I Doing The Wall Again Now?" Official Rogers Waters Site. 2010. 2 May 2010.

9 comments:

  1. Fascism is extreme conservativism, a hallmark of which is sexual repression. That Waters/Parker explored Pink's sexual repression doesn't strike me as an attack on feminist ideology, but works more as a hypothesis for what creates a fascist. This is still a superficial exploration and dimestore psychoanalysis, but it's admirable that in the age of disco, a rock band attempted to confront these issues.

    A quick look at Hitler's early life shows an abusive father and overprotective mother, a confusing situation indeed. Mussolini's father was a socialist, his mother a schoolteacher. More modern examples would include the extreme right of the Taliban and other Middle Eastern cultures' treatment of women. These are just quick looks and by no means conclusive.

    I interpret the film differently. I don't see Waters/Parker making statements against women so much as I see them showing the ghoulish, cartoonish perspective of someone who harbors unreconciled maternal issues. This is "mommy issues" taken to an extreme and given the adoration of strangers.

    In execution, like with most of Waters' work, his ideas overwhelm his message; in trying to make a statement about disconnection with society, he and his band actually attempted to put on a rock tour so big, so complicated, and so expensive, the whole tour fell apart after only a few dates, and the band fell apart only a few years later. In fact, one song from the film, "When The Tigers Broke Free," appears on Pink Floyd's last album, The Final Cut, which is more Waters navelgazing, but a logical next chapter for a songwriter who was exploring issues with his upbringing and losses early in life, most notably his father, who died in the War.

    Waters has managed only three studio albums post-Floyd, one exploring dreams, another exploring technology, and another opposing the Gulf War (and war in general, which gets at his vilification of powerful white men more than anything else).

    That he plans to tour The Wall once more... I have trouble reconciling this. I wonder if his attempt to make his statement again (plus some) will yield the same inept result as in 1980. I'm interested to see this tour, not just as a fan, but out of morbid curiosity.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for the heads up! - John

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  2. John, thank you so much for your comment!!! I appreciate it and will get to a more in-depth reading of your film blog soon!

    I guess that I'm not sure how the film's repeated depiction of a huge, fleshy vagina flower consuming an erect rosebud can be dismissed as a general exploration of sexual repression. This seems like a blatant representation of the stereotypical castrating bitch. There are other examples, too, that seem to clearly point to misogyny and fear of womanhood but I'm wondering if you can read the flower image specifically from your perspective. Ideas?

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  3. I agree that "The Wall" is incredibly sexist. I don't know that any woman can watch it without being offended. Every female in the movie is either a castrating, emasculating bitch or a clueless bimbo.

    In its defense, I think it was meant as an introspective film as opposed to one that portrays a realistic view of modern society. It plumbs the depths of the main character's psychoses and therefore cannot be expected not to distort reality in sometimes very ugly ways. As an inward journey, "The Wall" depicts the slow mental decay of a tortured soul with incredibly personal and vivid detail.

    In support of this claim, the last scene and song (Outside the Wall) is an admission of insanity. The wall explodes from some hidden force within, leaving the innocent to pick up the pieces. The title "Outside the Wall" implies that this song will finally take a more extrospective view on the main character (and indeed the lyrics do just that). Everything up until this point has been "inside the wall."

    On a more personal note, "The Wall" has always struck a chord somewhere deep within my psyche. I guess that's not a good thing, but it does speak to the effectiveness of film.

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  4. It's a rather belated reply, but it occurred to me recently, after doing what your husband did, watching the film (I only did in part, not able to stomach much of it) again, having not seen it since in the theater as a sophomore in college, that the film is misogynistic. Although apologists will state that the film is misanthropic overall, and that accusations of misogny are misplaced, I beg to disagree. Although there are unflattering portrayals of males, the reprentations of females are disproportionately negative, particular the animated ones. Therein women are smothering, emotionally disabling mothers; as wives they are either fat and psychopathic, or initially demure and attention seeking, but morphing into sexually rapacious, manticore-like vindictive harpies, or simple-minded whorish groupies.

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    1. Sorry about the typos, for some reason I was not allowed to properly preview and edit my comment. When I selected preview, it went straight into Publish or perish mode.

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    2. One other point regarding how The Wall treats women is the contrast between that and how Edvard Munch (no stranger himself to familial tragedy suffered as a youth) evoked women in his paintings- nothing maelevolent or negative in general, save "The Murderess" which some have speculated to refer to Tulla Larsen, a lover who married one of Munch's colleagues after he rejected her desire for marriage. But even in this case, the image is done in good taste. Interestingly, the generic masks in "The Wall" seem to resemble the physiognomy of the figure in "The Scream" somewhat. Your thoughts?

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  5. Thank you so much for your thoughts, extantia. I have not given much thought to Munch's _The Scream_ or how it compares to _The Wall_. But, certainly, I can see why you would bring it up. It seems like there could be more to say there about Munch's motivations. And it would be interesting to find out if Waters was a fan. Thanks again!

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    1. As a writer who has a BA in English, it was very good to hear from you. With regard to Munch, I can recommend an excellent biography-- "Edvard Munch: Beyond the Scream" by Sue Prideaux. Although Munch's relationships with women were problematic (save those who were family members), he was in no wise a misogynist.

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    2. Actually it's "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream"

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