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Revisiting “The Wall”, not only with a more mature understanding of life but with a precise purpose in mind, is both an aesthetic experience and a mighty challenge to perform. Driven by the cultural legacy left behind by the iconic album cover from “The Dark Side of the Moon” designed by Storm Thorgerson, we decided to pay some attention to the visual conflations present in this musical film. This is not a rigorous analysis, but more of a freestyle conversation between this film and our deep passion for the visual culture surrounding our human species nowadays.
Historically, we’ve built a link with the act of capturing light, and beyond that, we’ve also made it a vital practice in our everyday lives. Creating images is fundamental for our memories to be available for us and other fellow beings in a reiterative way. Through the wonders of physics and chemistry, we’ve captured light and transformed it to build existential support that scopes beyond our retentive capabilities.
Indeed, such achievement wasn’t the main goal the fathers of photography were trying to achieve. But in simple terms, photography is capable of capturing light into an object that somehow offers resistance to the omnipresent nature of time. But, they knew that they wanted to fix in some way what they observed and thus make objects of the experiences of daily life. Painting, sculpture, and other visual representations sought to represent observable reality in some way, and the early photographers wanted to accelerate that process. Photography is the beloved sweet child of modern human times. Scientists and inventors alike captured light and transformed it into a language written in a time-based code that enjoys the benefits of any other material artifact.
In case you haven’t seen the film, or might need a mental refresh about it, here is what we have to say about the overall plot from this masterpiece.
Roger Waters’ social concerns are extremely evident across the movie. And through the discursive possibilities given by cinematography, he complains about how ordinary circumstances are capable of driving a single individual into the winding gears of the superstructures above authoritarianism and fascism. He doesn’t limit the visual content to motion and music from the homonymous album. He makes the message both complex and direct by conflating the story with an exquisite dosage of both live-action and animated content.
Portrayed by Bob Geldof (who happens to be a crucial figure for the Live Aid concert of 1985) Pink is a conflicted rock star who constantly appears “comfortably numb” while remembering his father. He imagines a crowd of fans entering one of his concerts while receiving them in a fascist alter ego, a flashback reveals how his father was killed defending the Anzio beachhead during World War II.
The plot thickens amidst the flashback, where he places a bullet on the track of an oncoming train within a tunnel. Children with facial reminiscences flooding the boxcars make him remember how he was once caught writing poems during class and furtherly humiliated by the teacher. Subsequently, we are presented with the teacher’s story and how his unhappy marriage was the main cause of his bad treatment towards the children in his charge.
Pink starts fantasizing about the children rising in rebellion and burning down the school while throwing the teacher onto a bonfire. As an adult now, Pink remembers his overprotective mother, and when he got married. After a phone call, Pink discovers that his wife is cheating on him, and another animation shows that every traumatic experience he has had constitutes a brick in the metaphorical wall he builds around him for protection against society. Eventually, he recognizes the need of tearing down the wall as the quintessential event for his life to heal once and for all.
Towards the Visual Lessons Buried within the Bricks on the Wall
The movie starts with some noises that quickly suggest to us something about the hand-action of writing. The sound of a pencil vigorously thinned towards paper is hard to ignore. And then, the camera takes us into another scene of a hand lighting an oil lamp. Sound leads us towards the light, both physical properties share the same movement behaviour according to the inverse-square law. The single hand speaks for the whole human existence and humbly teaches us about how writing with light is something doable for our fragile species.
The message left to us is that “writing with light” is important, but such a metaphor feels too magical or poetical for our taste. Instead, a more scientific approach to how we use photography in our everyday lives could be that “light is trapped in time” thanks to this sociocultural practice that is almost 200 years old now.
Moments get to be interpreted from different social and historical positions by the same people who captured them. But that doesn’t stop there since the same objects are capable of being interpreted by the same people as they age according to the inevitable whims of time. And if that wasn’t yet enough, the same images have the potential of being interpreted or at least consumed by other human beings.
Through images, both fixed and mobile as well as electrical and chemical, we human beings have learned to tell stories and share ideas more immediately. Enhanced by technology, the social uses of photography have transformed into vivid tools used for communicating and interacting among ourselves. Such a universe of visual imagery has broadened the possibilities for multiple connotations beyond the denoted messages embedded in those photographs.
Photographs and Historical Memories
Cruel abuses and other signs of harsh-direct violence are explicitly shown during the whole film, but it is in the very first minutes that we see the practical use of such images for our species. Violence seems to be orchestrated in a coordinated effort by a handful of powerful people who aren’t seen but whose presence is particularly strong. You know they are there, and that’s a powerful thing.
The following aims to resume what we understand from these messages about the social importance of accessing such visual materials worldwide. If atrocities like those used in the film are capable of being seen, then the potential for them to eventually stop could become a real thing. In other words, what’s possible of being seen, is also possible of being interpreted. Subsequently, lessons and knowledge could be constructed from those interpretations, allowing us to prevent huge mistakes simply by seeing the past. Visual content is a tangible window to the past and offers us the possibility of making better decisions for our humankind.
And speaking of historical memories, Pink allows us to get a tiny glimpse of some intimate moments of his past by showing us photographs from his family album. Also, mirrors are shown as alchemical portals towards a parallel and synchronized realm.
Excerpt from “When The Tigers Broke Free” lyrics:
And kind old King George
Sent Mother a note
When he heard that father was gone.
It was, I recall,
In the form of a scroll,
With gold leaf adorned,
And I found it one day
In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.
And my eyes still grow damp to remember
His Majesty signed
With his own rubber stamp.
A couple of particular scenes that caught our attention like no other are these two. First, a scene in which Pink is floating in a pool dyed red by light. About light, we’ll talk in a second. Here, he is depicted in a feeling of deep sorrow and a mighty suffering state. Furthermore, some transitions in which we see a photo album, and we aren’t sure about the message of this icon within the scene. Are they trying to say to us that with the photographs inside the album he might be easier to save from his authoritarian self? Is the past capable of saving people from their circumstances? Would these photographs be capable of saving Pink from whatever structural forces might be pushing him into transforming himself into the fascist leader we are later presented with? Is photography capable of holding us back or pushing us into our destiny?
And the second scene relates to the red light we are presented with while Pink inertly floats in the dyed water from before. When we talk about color, we are talking about light. Specifically, about the visible spectrum of light. But what is light exactly? Is it a particle? Or is it a wave? Well, it is both. In physics, light broadly refers to the electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, visible or not.
In optics, a dispersive prism is an optical apparatus used to disperse light. Or to fragment it into its spectral components pretty much like the album-art designed by Thorgerson for the most famous album from Pink Floyd. The resulting dispersion allows us to see colors according to their wavelengths; generally, longer wavelengths (red) undergo a smaller deviation than shorter wavelengths (blue) in which the refractive’s index is larger. Also, this makes pure white and black colors to be strictly theoretical for us human beings, but that’s a story for another day.
Following the idea of the color red, due to its nature, it is the closest color for our species to understand. Have you ever wondered why pictures depicting red are more prone to perform well at photo contests? Or why does this color happen to grab our attention the most? Maybe its overall wavelength has something to with that.
Oh, right, the second scene! In charge of Gerald Scarfe, the animation dedicated to “What Shall we do Know” is heavily charged with intimate symbolism that speaks to us in a more dissonant way about the internal conflicts that lead Pink into alienating himself in a most unrepairable way. But to us, the yelling wall is the subtle teller of how light has become our prisoner since the days in which we became capable of crystallizing light in such a dense object like a photograph. A white wall that travels fast but which also appears to be yelling repeatedly. And when it does it, the wrinkles turn into subtle rainbows trying to escape from the overall structure holding together the wall.
Last but not least, the scene in which photography appears to be more durable than video, especially when transmitted through the telly. In an angry outburst, Pink bashes a camera, but its tough construction disables him from destroying it for good. Instead, he lashes out at the television until he throws it through the window. Our reading is direct, against the ephemeral nature of the moving images provided by the screen, photographic objects are presented as more durable and strong.
On The Liberating Importance of Visual Animations across The Wall
In short, animated content allows more elaborate messages to be conveyed. Describing them would take a lot of effort but fortunately, we found a great video in which these are visited with both passion and precision so here it is. Watching them as a single piece is also an interesting piece of art to contemplate. And if you want to dig even deeper into The Wall, we recommend you all this interesting book written by Gerald Scarfe and forwarded by the one and only, Roger Waters himself.