Floyd's Filmic Fantasmagoria Alan Parker, director of the screen interpretation of Pink Floyd's super-successful double album says, "Seeing The Wall is like being run over by a train. The film is anarchic, which is very faithful to Roger Water's original idea. All the fears about our society and other issues he dealt with are included, so that once you manage to recover from being hit by the first train, another one comes 'round the bend' and flattens you again."
Parker, whose body of work is small but impressive ("Bugsy Malone", "Midnight Express", "Fame", "Shoot the Moon"), has never pulled his punches, on screen or off. Each of his pictures is very different from the others, and film critics have generally split into opposing camps strongly in favor of him or dead-set against him. But the storm of controversy which will inevitably follow the release of his latest movie will make the bickering that raged over his previous efforts seem like summer breezes. The Wall mixes the surreal with the real, the past with the present, animation with live action, madness with sanity, and dialogue with music in ways that have never been attempted before.
"Certainly there will be comparisons to 'Tommy'", Parker said last June as we discussed The Wall in his offices at Pinewood Studios outside London. "Ken Russell's film was brilliant -- and quite influential in the creation of our picture, but it's still very traditional in style and structure when matched up against the nonlinear nature of The Wall." The two films' origins may be similar, but for The Wall, Parker has borrowed the outrageousness of "Tommy" and developed it into a work of violent art, leaving the simplistic satire of the Russell film behind.
Music has always been a major element in Parker's work. Both "Bugsy Malone" and "Fame" were filled with it, while "Midnight Express" relied heavily on Giorgio Moroder's score for its energy and drive. And the absence of music from "Shoot the Moon" was underscored with heartbreaking pathos when Diane Keaton sat alone in her bathtub singing "If I Fell" a cappella, summing up the end of her marriage by recalling its beginning. But Parker has taken a quantum leap in concept and execution between his previous movies and The Wall.
Unlike Parker's earlier works, The Wall is as much a sociopolitical document as it is an entertainment. Critics have attacked Parker in the past for skirting the issues on which he bases his films (prison reform, drug traffic, education, marital discord), but his new move will undoubtedly draw fire from those who consider it too political for the commercial cinema. "I realize there's a risk here," Parker explained, "but I felt it was important to try and examine the issues which have upset me, and The Wall offered the potential for a truly original way of doing it."
"Pink Floyd's album of The Wall, was released in 1979, and it examined the barriers people put up that make it difficult for them to communicate," Parker said. "It was about alienation, separation, and the fears one has about breaking away from society. I thought that by using the power of rock 'n' roll, interwoven with screen images, I could explore the fears I had about oppression, totalitarianism, and the sort of mindless activity which is very relevant to life in England today. And since England seems to represent, in microcosm, the problems that are affecting the world, I think the picture says something about the general attitude we're taking towards right-wind extremism."
"My generation [Parker was born in 1944] was peddled the promise of the consumer society during the 1960s, but when the British economy proved incapable of providing all those things, the generation after mine was angered by the failure of something they had grown up to expect. So while my working-class background made me lean to the left, with a distinct Socialist bent, the younger generation revolted against the Socialist dream. And what better way to rebel than to turn to the Right? The Wall expresses my fears about where this will go, because these kids seem to find their answer in destruction."
"I read a phrase which stuck in my mind about the way the punks seem to regard themselves," Parker said resignedly. "A boy said, 'I want my head to look like a clenched fist.' That's scary. What kind of society has bred that mentality? I tried to show a bit of the sickness that has overtaken the working-class punks and skinheads who actually appear in The Wall, but as we were shooting the film, I realized that even the most horrifying, outrageous images I shot could actually look seductive to a certain part of the population -- and that's scarier still."
The Wall traces the descent into madness of a rock star called "Pink", played by Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Irish rock group, the Boomtown Rats. Locked away in a posh Los Angeles hotel, Pink relives his youth, mingling real life and fantasy in animation sequences designed by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. And though Parker had dealt with the subject of madness in "Midnight Express", this was quite a different situation. The surreal images in Scarfe's drawings have been translated into sets, costumes, imaginary figures, Nazi-like rallies, even a recreation of the Allied invasion of Anzio -- all inter-cut in an incredibly fast-paced roller-coaster ride through Pink's panic-riddled brain.
"I do ask a lot of the audience," Parker said. "With an average of 60 different images a minute (there are a total of 5,440 cuts in the film, nearly three times as many as in other pictures), "the mind will constantly work to keep up with the eye. It's difficult to juggle all the languages of film which we use in The Wall and still hold an audience. And in a year's time we can say that we were either very brave or very reckless to try. But in my gut, I think the audience will react well to the film."
"Music is the most important single thing in most young people's lives," he said. "Much more important than literature or films or television. That's why I felt compelled to use it as a narrative form -- to try and reach them. I don't think you should ever talk down to an audience, but it's important to find a common language in which to communicate your ideas. In any case, it's the job of the filmmaker to push into different areas. We tend to get very comfortable, because the language of film has been established for generations. The audience will have to struggle through a new dialect in The Wall, but there's no forward movement unless you gamble a bit."
In making The Wall, Parker was gambling on more than form and style. In several sequences he used real London skinheads as extras, containing them through threats, promises, and the notable idea of using their own pecking order to establish control over the largest assembly of extras: the rally sequence. "At one time we had over 600 skinheads on the set for a gigantic Nuremburg-esque meeting," he said. "There was one gang who had been working with us for several weeks by this time, and they were the toughest of the various groups we knew. So we assigned them the task of maintaining order. They acted as a kind of police force while we shot the scene, though we didn't use the word 'police' in dealing with them, because that would have enraged them."
"These are incredibly raw, working-class London kids with very extreme political points of view. They're incredibly naive, too, as proven by the time we shot a scene between a group of them and 20 stunt men we'd dressed up as police. Even though the skinheads had been informed that these weren't real policemen, just actors dressed up to look like police, they either couldn't or wouldn't understand the difference. The fact that these men had policemen's uniforms on meant that they were cops, and therefore, they were to be whacked across the head with lumps of wood."
"Even though we were appalled by their extremism, at the same time we were amused by their natural cockney wit. And this despite the fact that, the night before, they had thrown a Pakistani off a speeding train. After a while, we started feeling responsible for them, but in the back of our minds, there was always the knowledge that this is what it must have been like to make a film with the Nazis."
"These kids looked at the film totally superficially and got a great kick out of throwing tables through windows and getting paid for it. They got fun out of running down alleyways or smashing up a house, because, unfortunately, they weren't invested with an incredible amount of intelligence. And if they did have a question, now and again, they might pause after an evening of total destruction and ask us, 'Ere, are you taking the piss out of us?' We'd say, 'No!' I kept thinking they'd catch on to what we were really trying to say, but they didn't."
Alan Parker's brilliant accomplishment blends several different media into
an exciting entertainment form while sustaining its artistic integrity.
Imaginative, shocking, daring, repugnant, and thrilling, the hallucinatory
imagery of The Wall will haunt your dreams and remain a part of our
cinematic vocabulary for a long time to come.