With Lockdown No. 4 restrictions easing, I went to the Astor Theatre to revisit the movie that scarred my childhood.
It didn’t take much to scare me as a kid; I remember how I could only handle watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day by standing in the doorway of the living room and watching the reflection of the TV in the glass cupboard doors, ready to bolt at any moment. But the nightmarish animated sequences in The Wall were something else, if only for the lasting impact they had left on my imagination, rivalled only by Twin Peaks TV series maybe. Though I haven’t watched the film in over twenty five years, its demented imagery remained vivid and disturbing in my memory, no doubt helped by the fact that I never stopped listening to The Wall the album (forever fixed somewhere in my personal Top 5 favourite albums).
I find it impossible to imagine what it would be like to experience this movie without any familiarity with Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, but it’s a bizarre experience regardless. It’s partly an experimental film, partly a very long music video that faithfully follows the album’s lyrics and story about the mental disintegration of Pink, a burnt-out drugged-out rock star (played by Bob Geldof), who in the course of his life builds a metaphorical wall between himself and the world. The dark and surreal trip through Pink’s memories touch on his feelings of abandonment as a child, losing his father in World War II, being humiliated by a cruel teacher at school, messed up relationships with women in his life, his debauched rock star lifestyle… all before he starts hallucinating about being a modern-day fascist dictator commanding his adoring fans, complete with his own scary red-and-black iconography.
Even if the movie is as grim and gloomy as you’d imagine from the above summary, I had a blast watching it on the big screen and getting enveloped in the complete sensory overload of amazing music and visuals. I was also struck by how thoroughly British it felt, especially during the scenes of Pink’s post-war childhood. Another Brick in the Wall, the album’s most famous song, still boasts the best live-action set piece in the movie, which imagines the old-school English educational system as a conveyor belt carrying blank-faced students into a literal meat grinder.
The hand-drawn animated sequences however are still the most striking parts of the movie, full of hellish war-inspired imagery, grotesque characters, and disquieting transformations that freaked me out so badly when I watched the movie as a child. Those damn marching hammers scarred me for life!
By all accounts the film was a miserable experience for the three chief cooks, director Alan Parker, Pink Floyd’s songwriting mastermind Roger Waters and animator Gerald Scarfe (as Parker’s later summary puts it, Three megalomaniacs in a room, it’s amazing we achieved anything). Looking at it through the grown-up eyes I’m not entirely sure whether it all hangs together, but even if the creative process was a torture and discord for everyone involved, they can at least congratulate themselves on creating something truly unique and special.