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How to Break the Fourth Wall

on June 22, 2015, 12:00am

The idea of a “fourth wall” began back in ancient days (pre-1950s) when theater was the primary source of entertainment. It is “the space that separates a performer or performance from an audience,” an imaginary barrier that allows the audience the chance to observe the actions on stage or, nowadays, the story in a movie or TV show. When the actors break through that fourth wall and address the audience with a few words, a smile, or even a wink, the audience transforms from observer to participant, whether they wish to or not. Justin Gerber, Dan Caffrey, and Randall Colburn investigate the best and worst uses of this filmmaking method.

Justin Gerber (JG): A number of movies come to mind when I think of breaking the fourth wall, but the first one I remember doing so was Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Joe Dante’s sequel to his original 1984 film took meta-comedy to a whole new level — a subgenre he didn’t even attempt to approach when we first saw Gizmo sproutin’ out those ghoulish, grotesque monsters. In theaters, about halfway through The New Batch, the film reel we watched appeared to tear, which left a white screen. Soon, we heard the Gremlins cackle and perform shadow puppets. If that wasn’t surreal enough, we cut to Hulk Hogan as an audience member who turns toward the projection booth to demand the Gremlins cut it out and continue the movie (home video releases saw the Gremlins getting yelled at by John Wayne).

The breaking of the fourth wall served The New Batch well. What other instances can you think of that worked or didn’t work at all?

Dan Caffrey (DC): Most of the instances I can think of where breaking the fourth wall in film has worked are in comedies. But the device certainly isn’t exclusive to that genre. What it is exclusive to — at least in its most successful examples — are stylized films. Blatantly acknowledging the audience is a highly stylized move, one that has to be earned by tying into the overall theme or tone. Most of the time, Gremlins 2 doesn’t feature characters talking directly to the screen, but when it does happen, we don’t question it because the movie has already become so batshit insane. Also, as you pointed out, Justin, the film is skewering the original from the get-go, allowing for an “anything goes” policy where, well, anything goes. The Hulkster, John Wayne, Leonard Maltin, and even the Brain Gremlin addressing us directly springs from Joe Dante commenting on the ludicrous nature of sequels in general. This is an example of thematic wall-breaking.

High Fidelity, on the other hand, is an example of tonal wall-breaking. As much as I love the film, I’m not sure how John Cusack’s narration ties into its themes of romantic neuroses and fear of commitment (or hell, maybe it does). What it does do for certain, though, is replicate the first-person voice of Nick Hornby’s source material. Beyond that, it works as a filmmaking choice. We see Cusack’s Rob Gordon talking to us from the moment we meet him, so we accept that this is the given aesthetic. In the world of High Fidelity, we know no other way for events to unfold.

Randall, would you agree that that’s what makes for a successful breaking of the fourth wall, this idea of tonal consistency or thematic appropriateness?

Randall Colburn (RC): Tonal appropriateness is one thing, and typically, I’d say, best suited for comedies. As Dan noted, absurdity allows us to accept anything in such a world, and we see the acknowledgement of artifice pay big comic dividends in goofy flicks like Spaceballs (when a VHS copy of the movie we’re currently watching plays within the film) or Wayne’s World (when Wayne and Garth begin spouting marketing copy for products such as Pepsi and Nuprin). A less successful trend that was seemingly ubiquitous in the ’80s and ’90s was the “shade tip,” that leering moment of acknowledgment that let us know we were about to see some boobs. As a woman undresses, a character — usually male and teenaged — lowers his sunglasses, raises his eyebrows, and gives the audience a look that says: “Get ready.” John Landis popularized a form of this in Animal House, and it pervaded horndog comedies throughout the ’80s.

The idea of thematic appropriateness is more interesting, as it allows the shattering of the fourth wall to serve a purpose beyond laughs. The most effective example I can recall is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film that hinges itself on blurring the line between performer and audience. The story of two sadistic teens who take a family hostage, Funny Games attempts to skewer Hollywood’s commodification and formulation of onscreen violence by having the killers repeatedly acknowledge the genre’s tropes, then subvert them. In both the European and American versions of the film, the killers offer winks and direct questions to the audience that are meant to confront viewers with their expectations for such a film. The result is queasy, aggressive, and anything but fun. I love it, but audiences were incredibly mixed.

Can you guys think of any other films where the breaking of the fourth wall was intrinsic to a film’s content or message?

JG: Right off the bat, my mind goes to Christopher Reeve’s smile at the camera at the end of Superman. At the time, I doubt either director Richard Donner or the film’s awful producers (The Salkinds — look them up) knew how important this quick break of the aforementioned wall would be. The tagline for the film is “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly,” and by adding that smile, we go one step further for a few more seconds: You believe Superman is real. Maybe he’s out there, waiting to save us from ourselves. Or from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: First Blood: Part 2.

Randall, you mentioned that period in the ‘80s when leering teenagers would break the fourth wall, but I have something more revolting than that: two, count ‘em, two instances of Corey Feldman committing the act and referencing his earlier work both times. In National Lampoon’s Last Resort, Sam (Feldman) and Dave (Corey Haim) are under attack. Dave forms a cross with his two fingers and Sam scolds him with, “Put your fingers down! You did that in The Lost Boys!” At the end of Meatballs 4, Feldman is making out with his co-star before breaking the fourth wall again to tell the audience that the movie’s over. She tells him, “This isn’t working. Some movie star you are.” She walks away, and Feldman tells us, “Hey! I was in Goonies.” Some movies that you watched on USA on Saturday nights stick with you, I guess. I was a kid. I had no place to go!

Dan, I know you’re dying to talk about something, so let me set the scene: Luis. D3: The Mighty Ducks. Go!

DC: Oh boy. A lot of people roll their eyes at me when I make fun of the Mighty Ducks franchise, as it’s kind of like shooting fish (or ducks!) in a barrel. But the third film commits an egregious offense that goes far beyond precocious teenagers and forced sentimentality. Even describing it objectively makes it sound awful. In the film, speed skater Luis Mendoza (Mike Vitar), largely devoid of personality in the second installment, transforms into a full-blown cooze-hound after the Ducks all get scholarships to a prep school. Once there, he pushes the Latin-lover stereotype to the max, practically sniffing the panties of every girl in sight.

“You’re crazy,” says one cheerleader after he starts hitting on her. “Loco?” he responds “Yes. For you. Just give me five minutes after school, and I will die a happy man.” But like all cheerleaders in shitty comedies (even of the family variety), she has a meathead boyfriend who waves to her from across the cafeteria. This prompts Luis to crawl under the lunch table and make his way past all of the cheerleaders’ legs. Oh, and it looks like it’s his lucky day — one of the cheerleaders has her legs open! Just enough for him to look up her skirt, of course. He does, then slowly turns his head to the camera and nods to the audience. It’s a shades tip sans shades, only much, much worse for several reasons:

1) It’s just creepy, especially for a kids’ film.
2) No one in any of the Mighty Ducks films has ever acknowledged the audience, ever. The gag breaks the series’ most rudimentary rules of storytelling.
3) Luis ducks under the table under the pretense that the cheerleader’s boyfriend wants to kick the shit out of him. But when the cheerleader acknowledges her boyfriend, he barely even notices Luis. He doesn’t make any kind of threatening gesture towards the hockey player, which makes his escape under the table even creepier. It’s not like Luis had no other options. The sequence is merely an excuse for Luis to look at some poor girl’s underwear.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the most unsuccessful instance of wall-breaking I’ve ever seen on film. While the wall-breaking in ‘80s sex comedies was always made at a woman’s expense, so many other jokes in those movies were also made at a woman’s expense. As a result, the shades-tipping never felt as out of place there as it does in the Ducks film. I guess what I’m saying is movies like Hot Dog! and Animal House (which I still love, even with some of its regrettable gender roles) were … consistently sexist? Does that make sense? I know it sounds terrible, but when you’re surrounded with grossness, it’s hard for a sexually charged case of wall-breaking to feel gross. In D3, however, it’s almost sickening.

Do you guys agree? Am I putting way too much credence into something that, at the end of the day, is just another shitty kids’ film? Is D3 the most off-putting example of wall-breaking put to celluloid, or am I forgetting something?

RC: It’s interesting how this conversation has segued into a discussion of sexism. That says a lot, I think, about how so many memorable instances of breaking the fourth wall tend to favor the male gaze. It’s a direct acknowledgment of what so many “film purists” complain about, that Hollywood films feel the need to cram in the tits, ass, and explosions if they ever hope to sell tickets. “This,” those glances say, “is what you really want.”

And that’s so funny because, in theater, breaking the fourth wall is used entirely differently. I’m not favoring it, necessarily, as I tend to despise presentational theater, but onstage it undoubtedly makes more sense because the audience is right there. Theater is ultimately an art of intimacy, whereas film thrives on spectacle. Onstage, acknowledging the audience means acknowledging the immediacy of the art. Onscreen, it’s about calling attention to what’s unfolding, a way of directly asking the audience: “Isn’t this cool?”

Lately, however, the trend has taken on more subtlety. On shows like Ricky Gervais’ Extras, not to mention any movie that features a celebrity playing themselves, there’s a strain of self-deprecation that, by virtue of its attempt to make the performer seem self-aware of their public perception, can’t help but break the fourth wall. There’s no nod to the camera, necessarily, but when George Michael popped up on Extras as a lascivious pervert looking to score in a men’s restroom, it felt like an appeal to the audience: “I know how you all see me, and I’m laughing with you!” The same goes for Bob Saget’s filthy run on Entourage or Julia Roberts’ role in Oceans’ Twelve.

JG: Randall, the most extreme example of that arrives just before the opening titles of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the lone James Bond outing for George Lazenby. He gets into a fistfight on the beach with some no-name, and instead of the damsel-in-distress running into his arms and falling in love with him on the spot, she drives away without saying a word. Bond says, “This never happened to the other fella,” and then looks directly into the camera! It’s the producers acknowledging that Lazenby is no Sean Connery, or at the very least a different kind of Bond. This was before it became official that every actor playing James Bond is supposed to be the same person, but that look at the camera makes it obvious he’s in on the press surrounding the film and that he had big shoes to fill. Despite this bizarre choice, OHMSS is arguably my favorite Bond film. Consider me a true Bond Freak.

What is the best example of breaking the fourth wall, gang? Mine takes place in Psycho. We’ve reached the end of the movie, and Norman Bates is in prison — wait. Who hasn’t seen Psycho? That’s a whole other feature! Anyway, it’s when Norman Bates looks directly at the camera, and Norma Bates’ mummified face subtly appears atop his own. Hitchcock very nearly pulls the same act earlier on during a scene in which Marion (Janet Leigh) drives late at night, realizing she’s getting away with it all. She’s likely looking just to the left of the camera lens, but dammit, it still creeps me out when that smile slides across her face. These acts don’t pull us out of the movie. They pull us in.

DC: Justin, you may have stolen my answer. As far as movies go, Psycho is certainly my favorite instance of wall-breaking, not just for the reasons you mentioned, but also because it feels completely appropriate within the character of Norman Bates. This is a guy whose mind has split into two separate personas, one of them murderous. Simply put, he’s insane. Why wouldn’t he think there’s an unseen audience watching him at all times? And in the world of the film, maybe there is.

Another similarly understated example that comes to mind is Hard to Be a God, a recent sci-fi masterpiece from the late Russian auteur Aleksei German. The film takes place 800 years in the future on a planet that’s permanently stuck in the Dark Ages, with no Renaissance on the horizon. Its citizens revel in shit, violence, and the fact that fine art has never transformed the environment into something more humane. As the camera sweeps through the muck-filled streets, peasants gleefully taunt it with excrement, spittle, and mud, as if they’re giving the finger to the theater full of sensible, refined Earthlings that are watching them. “This is who we are. We are poor. We are filthy. Fuck you.”

None of this is ever said, of course, and the frequent wall-breaking is never acknowledged with any dialogue. It’s more of a subtle background device to enhance the dismal atmosphere of the world German and his team have created.

Oh shit, and what about “Too Many Cooks”? It’s not a movie, but the entire short is, in itself, one prolonged breaking of the fourth wall. It might even be the ultimate textbook use of the device, as it fully embraces the inherent cheesiness of its presence in the opening credits of sitcoms, not to mention its creepier, more voyeuristic use in ’80s movies. Then it takes the invisible barrier into full-on Funny Games territory: Everyone realizes the wall is there, but the only one able to move through it and into some other universe — the only one able to alter events and escape, if you will — is a serial killer.

Randall, close us out. Do you have any other thoughts on the aforementioned films/bizarro opening theme songs? And what’s your favorite example of wall breaking?

RC: Perhaps the most moving instance I’ve seen of a fourth wall break occurred this year in the indelible, transcendent Furious 7. As most anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the film knows, series star Paul Walker passed away tragically during filming of this most recent sequel. Since the film’s themes and, more importantly, the cast cherishes the concept of “adopted families,” Walker’s death was a detrimental blow to the series dynamic. It’s no surprise, then, that the film’s epilogue acknowledged the loss of this integral member of the Fast family. What was a surprise, however, was how they acknowledged it.

As previously shot footage of Walker with his onscreen child played, the Fast cast bids farewell to him in vague terms, offering a quiet exit for his character as they mourn for the man himself. At first, it’s sweet. Then, it’s sad. And once Vin Diesel (and it is Diesel, not Dominic Toretto) gears up for one final race with his old friend, the film abandons all pretense; the Walker in the opposing car is supposed to be Walker, and the fresh face they’ve CGI’d on is of a younger, happier man. I can’t imagine how this intensely personal, plotless eulogy will play years down the line, when viewers are distanced by, and likely ignorant to, Walker’s untimely death. Now, however, it resonates.

As an example of a fourth wall break, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing. Honestly, I don’t think it works, if only because it’s not timeless. It is, however, nakedly personal, and tied to the themes of the series in ways that are both blatant and unconventional. That goes for a lot of the films we’ve discussed, I’d say, which posits fourth wall breaks as something special, even if they don’t always necessarily work.

(lowers sunglasses)

Now, audience, what do you think?

JG: I think there are countless others we could cover, but we’ve done our duty here. And I forgot about Duckie!

Duckie!

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