©Copyright 2022 Julia Garcia, Ryerson University
For the purpose of this research paper, I will be taking a deeper dive into the 1982 film The Wall, directed by Alan Parker and based off of the album of the same name by Pink Floyd. The research I will be conducting will analyze the connection that filmmakers construct between art itself and childhood trauma, with a focus on symbolism as a delivery method. Through this topic of research, I aspire to draw a clear connection between trauma and how these complicated mental health issues are expressed on screen through art.
To begin my research, I will be diving into the movie itself, and analyzing its themes and motifs surrounding childhood trauma and its effects on adults later in life. The Wall presents its meaning through layered symbolism, using abstract, obscure and at times disturbing imagery, in order to elicit feelings of discomfort and uneasiness from the viewer. Using this to their advantage, the film pairs songs from the album to further the emotion and meaning behind each scene. Each frame is deliberate, combining fantasy and delusion with the real, lived childhood experiences of founding band members Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, both of whom’s story is told throughout the film.
In order to analyze and research the connection between art and traumatic experience, I will consult the work of four scholarly articles, beginning with a brief look into Barrett, the muse behind The Wall, and his mental and physical breakdown following a life of substance abuse, mental health issues and overwhelming fame. I will then tap into two additional articles written on the multiple streams of trauma which can be experienced by young children, broken down into three categories in order to begin understanding the ways in which these events can manifest as serious mental health issues in adults later in life. Finally, I will be referencing an analysis on the work of Toni Morrison, and the ways in which she wrote on trauma through a lens of fantasy, delusion and fairy tales in an effort to come to terms with pain. By referencing this material, this essay will work to deconstruct the connection that artists and filmmakers draw between art, trauma and mental health, and how they portray it through their chosen medium.
The Wall That Trauma Built
The film opens with a camera panning over a dimly lit hallway; a staff member is working busily on hotel maintenance, a dreary scene accompanied by old-timey music growing increasingly louder as the vacuum roars to life, taking us into the opening titles. On the other side of the door at the end of the hallway, viewers are taken back in time to an image of war. We can hear the crackle of a match as it strikes, the scene opening with a man dressed in army garb, and the faint light of an oil lamp. Overhead, the distant but terrifyingly close sound of fighter jets can be heard above the tent. The expression on the unknown soldier’s face says this is not a new experience, he is alone, but remains calm and collected, lighting a cigarette and glancing up as the jets grow closer. There is no indication of what could be running through his mind, no shade of fear slowly spreading across his face, only a stillness, despite the sounds of war raging around him. The man, the unknown soldier, is revealed to be the father of the film’s main character, Pink, a man who would shape Pink’s story and the way it is presented on screen.
The film itself relies heavily on wartime trauma as an overarching theme, the root of Pink’s breakdown and eventual downfall into madness, utilizing violent scenes and tapping into that trauma as a tool that appeals to the audience who would have experienced The Wall upon its initial release – the viewers who would be typically younger in age, fans of the band who are just entering adulthood. This audience would have been no stranger to the realities of growing up in a home shaped by the wars their parents were subjected to, whether they were soldiers themselves, medics, or even holding down the hearth across the pond at home. It provides viewers the opportunity to imagine their lives, their parents lives, as the one being portrayed on screen. There is no visible identification as to who the soldier is, a vagueness that allows those watching at home a chance to relate their own personal stories to the main character and his upbringing. By putting this type of almost universal wartime experience into a visual medium, one that speaks so loudly to its younger audience, Parker is able to effectively paint a clear picture of the traumatic reality experienced by Pink in his youth, who is revealed to have eventually lost his father. He becomes yet another name in a long list of fallen soldiers during the second World War, and another brick in Pink’s metaphorical and emotional wall.
Throughout both the album and the film, this heavily referenced wall is a symbolic representation of the chain of emotional damage experienced both by Waters in his own life, and Pink within the film. The inspiration behind the main character himself, Syd Barrett, constructed his own symbolic wall, described by Gilad Cohen in the article “The Shadow of Yesterday’s Triumph”: Pink Floyd’s “Shine On” and the Stage Theory of Grief. Cohen writes, “the pressure from the music industry, the public, and his colleagues likely enhanced Barrett’s increasing use of LSD, and some argue, preexisting mental instability.” Yet, outside of the film, Barrett’s mental health was not widely discussed or published. His life was minimized down to that lived by a raging drug user, who could not keep up with the demands of his musical career. Parker, within The Wall, and with the help of Waters attempts to rewrite a bit of Barrett’s story, expressing it on screen through the use of heavily fantasized story telling, visual accounts of childhood tragedy and using music and lyric as a way to paint a picture of trauma and its many manifestations on film.
Exhibits in Childhood Trauma
These incidents of trauma and how it is that they are distributed and understood through art is not an easy feat to accomplish. Trauma is not linear, and is not always born from a single, isolated incident. The Wall’s attempt at showcasing childhood tragedy as a stepping stone into a lifelong battle with mental health begins with the loss of a father at an extremely young age, and it carries on throughout Pink’s teenage years and his adulthood through a series of misfortunes, and emotional abuse inflicted by his mother. This culmination of emotional turmoil eventually implodes into a series of violent outbursts, and without seeking support, Pink continues down a dark, unstable path. In an article by Allan V. Horwitz et al., “The Impact of Childhood Abuse and Neglect on Adult Mental Health: A Prospective Study”, Horwitz writes:
“Several studies show that the lasting impact on adults of childhood experiences – such as growing up with a mentally ill parent, placement in official care settings, and the death of a parent in childhood – depends on later factors such as the strength of adult marriages and other social relationships, educational and occupational attainment, and the adequacy of family functioning” (Horwitz et al., 185).
This insight into the ways that tragedy presents itself in the lives of adults who experience it at a young age offers an interesting glimpse into the multiple avenues in which trauma can take within different individuals. In the case of Pink in The Wall, we see this manifest through his tumultuous relationship with his mother. Following his father’s untimely death, we witness Pink’s mother transforming into an overbearing figure, an image of domineering and emotional abuse, leading Pink to develop equally abusive and unhealthy relationships with other women who pop up into his later life. Parker translates this within the film by presenting demonized, monstrous animations of Pink’s mother, and he becomes increasingly plagued with flashbacks and delusions of his childhood self. The reflection of this figure, referred to simply as mother, plays an important role in Pink’s trauma and how it is represented on screen, with references to her character scattered throughout Pink’s downward spiral.
In a separate article, by R. Jay Turner and Donald A. Lloyd, this topic regarding childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood is boiled down to an eight point adversity figure, listing early death of a father, family mental illness, and absence of a close and confiding relationship with any adult (Lloyd & Turner, 362) as some of the most prominent links between trauma and severe depressive tendencies within adults in a study. Within The Wall, we find these to be recurring issues in which Pink struggles to cope with, and in turn develops extremely erratic, violent, and unpredictable mental health crises throughout his adult life. This perspective allows us to better understand the tragedies that lead Pink to this place, and offers viewers the opportunity to pick out recurring themes, symbols and representations through art within the film.
Fantasy and Delusion
The violent, graphic images throughout The Wall become placeholders for the memories that Pink refuses to face, and he finds himself indulging in the fantastical aspects of his life as a performer. Pink assumes an alter ego as a rising star, a culmination of all the tragedies he has experienced since the death of his father, and embodies the personality, mannerisms and attitude of an all powerful leader; a dictator. The imagery of the symbolic wall is now a prominent aspect in his delusions, Parker works it into his fantastical renderings of mother, and into the lyrics standing prominently behind the scenes. Yet, at some point, the wall must come crashing down – and with it, the last shred of sanity Pink clung to.
In an article analyzing the fairytale and fantasy inspiration behind Toni Morrison’s Home, Irene Visser writes, “what these adaptations share with the classic fairy tale is the recognition that the tale must be unsettling before it can be reassuring, and the characteristic happy ending can only be achieved by acts of courage and perseverance” (Visser, 150). Parker, tying together the symbolic wall with Pink’s final breakdown, allows viewers to observe his almost dreamlike delusion beginning to form cracks. It was an unsustainable feat, and Pink begins to reap the consequences during the final animation, where hammers, symbolizing soldiers marching forward, begin to tear down the wall he has built around himself, both physically and
emotionally. “How does healing from trauma come about? How may traumatized characters come ‘home’ to a sense of self, to peace of mind, and to a renewed love of life?” Visser (150) questions within the article. Pink’s healing is portrayed as beginning with the crumbling of his wall, as the chanting grows louder and the hammers strike against the brick. The delusions that had become almost comforting with their consistency have begun to change their tune, closing in on Pink with one final battle.
Bricks in the Wall
In order to understand Pink’s trauma, Parker works to create an environment that invites viewers to become engulfed by his tragedies, to experience them as vividly as he had experienced them on film. Parker’s use of symbolism, soundtrack, production and target audience allows viewers to witness a carefully orchestrated display of childhood tragedy, trauma and mental health struggles through art and visual media, and to witness the ways in which they snowball and carry over into adult life when untreated and ignored. The Wall is an example of how art can reflect life, even when jaded by delusion and fantasy.
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Cohen, Gilad. “‘The Shadow of Yesterday’s Triumph’: Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On’ and the Stage Theory of Grief.” Music Theory Spectrum, vol. 40, no. 1, [Oxford University Press, Society for Music Theory], 2018, pp. 106–20, https://www.jstor.org/stable/90021930.
Horwitz, Allan V., et al. “The Impact of Childhood Abuse and Neglect on Adult Mental Health: A Prospective Study.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 42, no. 2, [American Sociological Association, Sage Publications, Inc.], 2001, pp. 184–201, https://doi.org/10.2307/3090177.
“The Wall.” Directed by Alan Parker. Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. 1982.
Turner, R. Jay, and Donald A. Lloyd. “Lifetime Traumas and Mental Health: The Significance of Cumulative Adversity.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 36, no. 4, [American Sociological Association, Sage Publications, Inc.], 1995, pp. 360–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/2137325.
Visser, Irene. “Fairy Tale and Trauma in Toni Morrison’s ‘Home.’” MELUS, vol. 41, no. 1, [Oxford University Press, Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)], 2016, pp. 148–64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44155224.