Nihilistic retreat from the bad won’t change anything or help anyone.
We all crave it. When times are bad, we long for something to take our minds off of things. Society makes it easy to prolong this liberation for the whole of a person’s life and to avoid facing one’s own faults. But the escape is not real. You won’t get away no matter how hard you try to hide.
Pink (Bob Geldof) is a great example of this. As the protagonist of Pink Floyd: The Wall, Pink is a musician who gradually retreats from the world in increasingly disturbing ways. His father died fighting the Nazis, leaving an emptiness at Pink’s core that he does not address in a constructive manner. Instead, Pink digs himself into an ever-darker hole, one that allows him to leave behind desires like love and connection and conversation—the mostly mute Pink is barely human. By the film’s end, Pink is every bit the fascist that killed his father, except he’s a little more stylish than the Führer.
That arc, from shy little boy in wool short pants at the end of World War II to an eyebrow-less neo-Nazi at the dawn of Thatcher’s United Kingdom, doesn’t always track. But when director Alan Parker packages Pink’s not-always-believable journey of mental deterioration with menacing animated sequences and a liberal dose of German expressionism, one begins to feel the film’s intended despair for modern humanity, especially for the ways that the human race seems intent on numbing themselves and avoiding their darkest impulses with bland entertainment.
There are extended sequences in The Wall when televisual imagery streams across Pink’s expressionless (or is it stupefied?) face. It’s a symbiotic exchange. The TV needs eyeballs and Pink needs to waste time before death because interacting with people is not an option for him. Thus, they enter into an unspoken contract, one in which the TV can continue to exist in perpetuity while Pink avoids thinking or feeling anything that may cause him discomfort. In these moments, Parker is critical of both parties, but he always defaults to blaming the larger party (society via the TV) for forcing the smaller party (Pink) to submit.
Genuine emotion is something everyone avoids in Parker’s dystopic vision of Western culture, where people sit in colossal, undecorated rooms to gawk at screens, drooling all the while. They do this probably because when they reveal their true feelings, they are monstrous and their violence seemingly knows no limit. People in this society, disfigured by war, have no redeeming qualities. It is pain, sadism and selfishness all the way down.
And that’s the way Parker’s version of humanity likes it. People build institutions to solidify this remarkable ugliness from cradle to grave. The British education system exists merely to prop up this detachment and submission to the void. Pink, “reminiscing” about his youth at a stodgy grade school, recalls a manic, bug-eyed teacher castigating him for the poetry he wrote during class. The teacher, reading it aloud, belittles Pink, trying like mad to get him to forgo his artistic pursuits to become another miserable automaton like everyone else. Soon, to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” Pink’s memory twists itself into a nightmare that recalls the most suffocating factory settings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in which children (wearing identical plaster masks that look like a line of the holiday season’s worst-selling dolls) ride a conveyor belt on the way to a meat grinder. “We don’t need no education,” Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters (who also wrote the film) disdainfully drones on the vocal track, unwilling to see that education may lead to things other than enslavement and being turned into grillable meats.
“They” will destroy you, Parker and Waters scream with every expressionistic scene, with stark camera angles victimizing Pink and depicting authority figures as grotesque monsters that have it out for society for, well, the reasons aren’t very clear. To Parker and Waters, none of this is ever the individual’s fault. Martyrdom is there when Pink crawls into his enormous rich-person pool, which he fills with his own blood before floating in a Jesus Christ pose. It pops up again when he destroys everything in his living room in a Citizen Kane-inspired fit of rage. Young women that want to sleep with Pink are devious tricksters who use their feminine wiles to sneak into the backstage area without having passes. Age-appropriate women, like his neglected wife, “deserve” to be punished for the sin of falling out of love with an uncaring husk. He wants to destroy everything, or at least ignore them so he can watch his flickering screen in order to abdicate his responsibility to handle his own problems.
None of this is to say that there are not thousands of reasons to be mad at society. Malicious actors truly are out to exploit the vulnerable and despair is bubbling in every corner. In 2017, with a political atmosphere as choking as anything Pink can conjure in his selfish, shattered mindscape, perhaps viewers should not look to Pink Floyd: The Wall for answers. It doesn’t offer you constructive advice on how to navigate the world, unless you read it as a warning against what happens to Pink in the end; that’s up for debate. Nihilistic retreat from the bad won’t change anything or help anyone. Talk to people and engage in activities. Go to school and listen to your instructors instead of glumly writing song lyrics in your notebook and maybe, just maybe they won’t turn you into hamburgers.