Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remote in Reach: THE WALL (1982)

Believe it or not, there was a time when I despised all stoners. It was 1980-83 in central Jersey; nothing personal to Eisenhower Middle School -- a few evil schoolmasters aside -- and nothing personal to the stoner kids, who were all nice enough in their brusque monosyllabic working class way. Just too loud, too dumb to know how dumb they sounded; too comfortable in their dirty denim and unkempt hair for my 13 year old's new-kid-on-the-block super genius morbid acuteness of the senses shyness. I kept waiting for one of them to bully me, but only one little rat bastard named Matt Muniz ever bothered, and even he only a handful of times and generally only picking on one of my weaker friends while I trembled and debated switching loyalties on the sidelines. But he was on my bus and on the way to school I'd hear him and his buddies in the back singing: "we don't need no education / we don't need no thought control," and I'd whisper to myself "yes you do, Matt Muniz."

Pink Floyd's The Wall album was then -- and maybe still is for all I know -- the unifier of all stoners, dumb or genius; its pen-and-ink cover is their stoner flag. I fantasized about killing them all back then, like a good Republican, and blowing up the school... At the same time, I hated that Matt Muniz and his pals were now singing about doing just that, and I felt uninvited though I certainly wouldn't have joined them if they asked. It was their song and therefore never to be mine, and I hated hearing their fake British accents all through the hallways between classes: "Hey! Teach-ah / leave them kids alone."

A mere five years later in college I loved Floyd like the rest, but The Wall record was still a problem area due to these past associations--that included the film, which I naturally painted in the same contemptuous colors as I painted Matt Muniz. Especially grating was the "We don't need no education" song, which I would skip even if it wasn't my record player, much to my fellow freshmen's consternation.

It's absurd to think I would be dumb enough to waste my time disliking a song because it triggered mental associations with slack-jawed Jersey thugs all long gone, yet the pain, if that's the word, lingered on. I eventually owned every single Floyd album, except The Wall. And of course, I preferred Syd Barrett-era Floyd more than late era, blah blah zzzzzzz.

In 1997, though, the film--directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters--found its way to me via a big VH1 premiere marathon. It was on 24 hours a day and I'd done recently done a voiceover for a Curve Perfume ad ("Curve for men, Curve for women") which VH1 and MTV were playing--also around the clock-- during almost every break, so I watched THE WALL over and over, in a drunken haze of self-satisfaction, taking a heroic swig from my 1.75 Ten High bourbon bottle every time the Curve commercial played. In the process, THE WALL became mine,  associated with my big Curve perfume glory and whiskey exaltation. Matt Muniz, adieu! I never looked back until... now.

And now, long after the Curve has gone, I see it on TV and I understand: THE WALL, for all its midnight cult cache, turns out to be one of the few movies works noticeably better with commercials. Ads and station breaks help metatextualize the film's repetitive jumble. Ads are part of the whole meta thing, man... since a big part of the film is about selling out, and about... watching... TV. And repeating messages over and over... dude, this dude Pink is alienated. And commercial movie about a man alienated by a commercial society and interrupted in his brooding for the new Mitsubishi Gallant to drive right into his local dealership... shit yeah, that's deep.

If this film is psychedelic and stoner-worthy today, it's only because of animated sequences so psychedelic they make YELLOW SUBMARINE look like RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP. This stuff is brilliant yet disturbing, very London working class LSD-spiked political oppression people, as only the Brits can do it. It's real footage --strung together in associative and movement/color-related fashion, stretching and collapsing time and space but stuck in a schizophrenic dissociative thought loop. There's no real arc of a narrative beyond the run of the mill nervous breakdown (perhaps reflecting Syd Barrett's descent to too-much-acid insanity-something that had to be almost as painful to watch as Germans taking your dad away and leaving you stranded). We see avalanches of rioting kids (actually not that many) crashing gates to the stadium, over and over, and the wandering of a laddie this way and that way through the train station envying the kids who's soldier dads do come home, over and over; The grotesque mother looming down on us like a carnival attraction; a vacuum cleaner whirring in the hallway; Pink ignoring his wife then getting furious when she leaves him; a sexy groupie Pink ignores; other people Pink ignores, etc. No one ever laughs or has a good time, unless it's gluttonously, ala the mom having tea and crumpets, or Bob Hoskins as the Cristal-sippin' manager (if this were a musical version of DEMENTIA and it kind of is, Hoskins would be the Bruno Ve Sota --sorry I know that's awfully random).

Back to the TV commercial analogy, then... There's also that thing with Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). Floyd goes well in mash-up, and THE WALL is a mash-up art waiting to happen. Last night I was flipping the channel to/from THE WALL and World War Two documentary similar (same war at least) to the one Pink's watching within the film itself (THE DAM BUSTERS). Between aged American veterans talking plainly and humbly about the gore and mass slaughter of D-Day at Omaha Beach on the Military Channel, I flipped to THE WALL. These old dudes in this D-Day documentary were just grateful to be alive and to have been spared--and then commercial! For a "catheter that hurts less." So back over to VH1 I flip and there's old Pink smashing the telly because he's too famous and fucked-up and nobody loves him.  I wanted to send the ghost of Winston Churchill to kick him in the bum.

But the animation sequences indicate that, despite the rampant solipsism, the movie kicks it most acidly. As with "true" psychedelic art, the animation captures the way sensory perception, metaphor, dream symbolism, fantasy, and the horror of mortality all collapse into a single unbearably chthonic flower. Medical science might dismiss this kind of close reading of reality as mere hallucination, but it's the other way around. If we can see the apple decaying in the pantry, or bursting with health fresh from the  the tree, see it breathing in the sunlight, are we just stone; if we see flakes of skin and waves of electromagnetic energy rippling around our face and hands, are we 'hallucinating'? Nope. It's just that our blinders are off. We're only seeing what normal people screen out, because it's not necessary for us to survive day-by-day. We see that everything is vibrating energy, rising, decaying, rising again with every breath and death.  It's the sense of "permanence" and completeness--from second to second--that's the illusion. But without it, without being able to just say 'okay, that's an apple in my buddy's hand, do I want an apple, too? no - okay, move on' we'd be just sitting there bug-eyed at the awe of it all, like an infant looking out the window. The blinders help us plow from goal to goal and meal to meal like the mother with her crumpets, and the dimwit groupies with their hair and nails. 

Another thing the film gets definitely right is the whole confusing "warm thrill of confusion / that space cadet glow" that comes from being all fucked-up in a giant sea of fucked-up people at some packed, fucked-up rock show, where you can sense the violence seething in the hormonal ebb and flow of the crowd. One of the very first scenes of THE WALL is a bunch of stampeding, rioting fans plunging into the darkness from a broken chained-up door.

Here's another story of my past:--riots, man it was 1987, before the Curve commercial, after Matt Muniz, right in between there, I witnessed and was almost part of a truly horrible-to-behold-while-on-acid mass stampede of ticketless Grateful Dead fans roaring up the side entrance ramp of a West Virginia amphitheater during spring break. I was in the head of the charge to begin with, one of like twelve us us. "There's only one old lady taking tickets at Gate seven!" noted my friend when he returned from scoping it out. My whole ticketless broke-ass posse took off at once, me following. But as we went from a walk to a run, and everything intensified and became riot strength, I found myself walking off to the side of the herd mere seconds before I would have been trampled.

My heightened fear of violence and general lack of interest in seeing the Dead trumped my fear of being alone so I was able to witness--in full on acid-just-kickin'-in hyper-real lysergic intensity--a huge explosion of violence as the crowd smashed through the gate, security guards and cops chasing and clubbing bloody hippy faces; cops grabbing kids by their tie-dyes; cops grabbing their long dreads in a balled up fist; screaming and yelling by everyone about everything; cops with clubs and the heavy sound of bodies smacking into pavement and then... just as quickly, it was all over and forgotten.

I couldn't believe it. Even the cops with hand-cuffed hippies in tow seemed to just go back to laughing and standing around. One busted kid had a broken nose which was why all the blood was all over his shirt, so no worries, or so some kid explained in passing me as he slunk back down the ramp, just a nose broken --no big deal.

But I was by then super high on a lot of acid, and the violence I'd just witnessed had electrified a part of my brain usually unplugged. It went deep into my psychic tissues and stayed there, twisting like a bloody animated nerve - my hippie flower within was pulled out by an ugly metal flying eagle... Goodbye Blue Sky, and the BLUE SUNSHINE made violent hippy freaks of all who took some.

I imagine old Roger Waters and probably Syd Barrett had plenty of similar altered state traumas while touring with the Floyd, and probably--as I did that day--found his faith in his fellow man forever shattered by seeing riots of fans crashing gates, and was appalled by the animal ugliness of a stadium full of drugged up Matt Munizzes, all willing to stomp all over their fellow man to get closer to the stage, the whole thing taking on the form of a giant sadomasochistic carnival of torture and degradation; moths to the flame of hell, a vortex of evil from beyond the searing red heat of the stage lights, draining the youth and beauty of the throngs in a giant hoover, leaving toothless old junky faux-sages incoherent even in their laughter; they don't need no education and waving their dying lighters. And let's not forget the infamous 1979 Who concert trampling, still fresh no doubt in Roger's mind--as it was in all of ours--during the writing of this film.

And that's the rub, for by far the most interesting aspect of the non-animated stuff in THE WALL is the whole bit of mixing lysergic 'horror' rock stadium mentality with Nazi-meets-Communist (two hammers, no sickle) pageantry. It's interesting in that respect that the only time Pink isn't a total asshole--the only time he seems at peace--is when he starts leading his little rock-and-roll Nazi rally, lifting children and kissing mums on the forehead and singling out various inferior races and orientations for persecution from his lofty podium. Smiling, hugging, saluting his gathered throngs and otherwise firing up the engine of mobilized violence, he's finally happy. Hey, Teacher! Dig those KKK witch hats!

Perhaps THE WALL then is acid cinema for those to whom acid means being a bug-eyed witness to the ugly souls of men. Compare Munch's "The Scream" with the the agonized face on the WALL poster, each a howling witness to the massive cruelty that is every day on Earth as we munch and crunch each other into bland extinction. If you're an acid dealer you need to avoid falling into this zone because it's your job to guide people on dosage when you sell it to them.  But no one maybe tells you--the dealer--how much to take when you initially test its strength so sometimes you end up taking more than you should is a noble cause, you're doing it for your customer's sanity... am I the only one who sees these giant insect ghost cops crawling on my leg? Even after all these years?

 If you can make it through something like that, the big Pink Munch scream overload without Thorazine or Benzos, or screaming to be rushed to the hospital or the chill-out tent like a little bitch, then when you finally come down, or up, you have the thousand yard stare. And only then do Buddha and Jesus write your name down in 'the ones who know' section of their date planners.

THE WALL is only acid cinema, then, for those who know the pain of having taken far too much of it.  Those of us who might still find themselves longing for the "comfortably numb" feeling of being left alone to watch old war movies on TV all night, in the dark, fumbling for one's half-empty bottle on the ashtray-and-empties-covered table, unable to ever fully dim the sensory overload that's sending you into madness without killing yourself just a bit in the process - taking gladly the bargain of long-term damage for temporary relief.

On that level, whatever else you want to call it --insipid, self-pitying, grandiose, gloomy--THE WALL is an undeniably effective work of both psychedelic art and agenda-less propaganda. In uniting the doom-bent punks, posers and metalheads with the hippies and acid lovers, Waters probably could have mobilized them all into an army--what Craig Finn calls a 'unified scene'--and incited the Matt Muniz's of the world to rise up and kill their teachers and burn their math books, this time for real.

Roger didn't do that of course. Instead he bickered with the rest of the band and finally left the Floyd altogether. Nowadays, instead of inciting riots, the big rock bands all organize grassroots efforts to "keep it green." Nice thought, but has anyone asked the animals of the forest and the fish of the sea whether or not they're tired of killing and eating each other and being eaten over and over again in an endless chain of masticated violence? If animals could talk, maybe they'd beg for an end. Maybe they like the antidepressants we piss out in their ocean, and perhaps THE WALL's secret is that it alone addresses the possibility of that existentially fucked-up request, the animal and plant kingdom's suicide note. The choosing of slow permanent death to endless living in a world where you have to go to school and fight the Mat Muniz system, day to day like grinding cogs, man. In its rocking apathy, THE WALL applauds every stoner's decision to stay under the influence, in the dark, watching old movies on TV and coming down or drinkin' up, forever, no matter how a nice a day it is outside. If you don't like THE WALL, maybe it's not because it reminds you of Matt Muniz or your past rock glory and boozy drift into oblivion; maybe it just reminds you that remoteness is just another pose. A remote in reach is an oxymoron. You might flip between rock concerts and war documentaries, but no remote reaches far enough to flip from that fat old sun in the sky / that's falling / right down on your shaved-ass head.


  1. Awesome essay - though Comfortably Numb is one of my favorite songs, there's something about the whole Wall project which seemed kind of sordid and put me off, despite liking so many other albums/periods in Pink Floyd's oeuvre. Can't put my finger on it exactly. Haven't seen the film.

    Btw, there apparently is a Dark Side of Oz-type exercise with The Wall, though it seems kind of a pale imitation at a glance (never tried it): synced up with Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Some enterprising folks on You Tube have attempted it, though god knows how long The Rat will let them keep it up...

  2. Beautiful Piece. I have a soft spot for it as I saw it at the perfect age to be blown away by its primal images, and yet let its pretensions sail right over me.

    In turn I've hit you with image meme. Ever so Sorry.