Why speaking directly to the public works
Why do actors, directors and screenwriters like characters to face the camera and speak directly to the audience? What is breaking the fourth wall that has made it such a popular technique in movies across the decades, from silent film (The Great Train Robbery) at New Hollywood (Annie Hall), and on today’s modern blockbusters (dead Pool)?
With the written word, it is easy to convey the internal thoughts and feelings of the characters; the author can tell the reader directly through third-person narration, or write in the first person and ask the character to express their thoughts and feelings about the plot, the other characters, and what happens. In the theatre, conventions such as soliloquy and asides have accompanied us for centuries; when Shakespeare took these conventions to new artistic heights, it became inevitable that they would remain a central tenet of writing for the stage and would eventually evolve into something similar but different after the invention of motion pictures. In film and television, reaching out to the audience and speaking directly to them can have much more impact.
Due to the nature of the medium, addressing the camera may remind the audience that they are looking at an artificial construction; conversely, it can also be used to reinforce artifice, the characters dragging us into their conflict, making us accomplices. Such a powerful tool can only be used sparingly (to draw attention to itself for humor or to make a point) or intensively (to have a character addressing the audience at length throughout an image, a one-sided conversation).
One of the earliest surviving examples of a fourth wall break is the fence plan in The Great Train Robbery (1903): In a stand-alone shot, separate from the train robbery narrative, the gang leader draws his gun and empties the barrel directly at the audience. It’s not particularly noteworthy by modern standards, but in its time it was a unique selling point for the film, and those shots have gone down in film history. When Martin Scorsese realized his masterpiece, the odyssey of the gangsters Freedmenone of the greatest directors of all time gave a nod to this iconic scene: once again separated from the narration, the film concludes with psychopathic gangster Tommy (Joe Pesci), framed in exactly the same way as the cowboy, aiming and shooting at the audience. The plan reminds us that not much has changed in the world of organized crime in the 80+ years between productions – criminals can make big bucks heading to the top, but it always ends in arrests and violence.
Tommy’s shot is the third fourth wall break in Goodfellas, all of which occur in quick succession over the film’s final two minutes. Henry (Ray Liotta) narrated in voiceover throughout – chatting with his wife (Lorraine Braco) whenever his point of view is required – but in delivering his accomplices to justice, he turns his attention to us. The fantasy gangster life comes to its inevitable conclusion, as does the Goodfellas’ artifice; Henry, seated in front of the Star Spangled Banner, looks us straight in the eye and rolls out a list of benefits granted to him due to his gangster lifestyle which he is now losing to spend the rest of his life “as a schnook” . Just before Tommy emerges, we see Henry, the once well-dressed mobster, come out of his suburban witness protection house to retrieve his paper in a dirty bathrobe, and he laughs at the camera, acknowledging the irony.
The restrained use of breaking the fourth wall can also be used for comedic effect. There is a rich tradition, with many more examples than in movies, of addressing audiences in animated shorts. Perhaps the most popular examples are found in the Roadrunner series – usually involving Wile E Coyote fleetingly glancing at the camera as he realizes he’s out of ground in a split second before collapsing to the ground. The same technique can be applied to live action for big laughs – take the comedy Stock exchanges, for example. The bigoted, rich and insensitive Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) carry out a plot to carry out a social experiment, changing the life of their pompous general manager (Dan Ackroyd) and a street hustler (Eddie Murphy). In one scene, they begin to explain the concept of merchandise in extremely condescending tones; to acknowledge that he knows he’s being spoken to, Murphy looks briefly at the lens before resuming his role in the narrative, never to refer to the fourth wall again.
A more elaborate break from the cinematic illusion for comedic effect takes place in Annie Hall. Alvy (Woody Allen) and Anne (Diane Keaton) line up at the cinema. Alvy grows increasingly irritated by a pretentious loudmouth in the queue, pontificating to his date about his portrayal of the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. When he can’t take any more, Alvy lures the actual academic into the frame to remedy the nuisance of the trumpet voice. “You don’t know anything about my work… How you could teach a class in anything is totally amazing!” Alvy then turns to the camera smiling and says “Boy, if life were only like this!” In a movie full of memorable one-liners and comedic set-ups, it stands out as perhaps the funniest and most ingenious moment.
Sometimes speaking directly to the audience can be used to help an audience come around to a flawed character, to help us understand their thought process and improve the chances that we find them likeable, or at least make us want to move on. time with them as they engage in morally questionable activities. High fidelity is a superb example, inspired by the British comedy of the 60s Alfie and run even further with the idea. It helps that it was adapted from a book (for Nick Hornby) written in the first person, and also that John Cusack is so inherently engaging as Rob, the music-obsessed narcissist who tries and fails to rein in his disastrous love life. Despite his myopic selfishness and self-obsession, we come to sympathize with Rob simply by spending so much time with him as he explains why he’s terrible without ever seeming to understand it himself.
A more extreme version of Rob can be found in Phoebe Waller Bridgethe instant classic sitcom of, Flea bag. The titular main character (Waller-Bridge) doesn’t just break the fourth wall, she steps off the TV and watches the show with you. As she goes about her daily business, stealing precious works of art from her mother-in-law, fighting with her brother-in-law and trying to seduce a Catholic priest, she often turns to the camera in the middle of a phrase (or gender) to make a sly comment on the proceedings, or even just make a face to express joy or anger. Despite being one of the most morally dubious characters in recent memory, we continue the ride, almost entirely because of this heavy use of breaking the fourth wall (and Waller-Bridge’s effortless charm).
Sometimes a fourth wall break can be used to comment on the movie itself, or even the genre the movie belongs to. In dead Poolin source comic lore, once he becomes the Merc with a Mouth (Ryan Reynolds), he offers opinions on superhero shots, sometimes addressing the audience directly like in the scene where he informs us that he had to perform sexual favors on Wolverine to get his own spin-off movie. The result is surprisingly subversive. However, when the same technique is explored by Michael Haneke, the effect is devastating. In his critique of violent cinema, funny games (first made in 1997 in Austria, then almost remade shot for shot in 2007 with an American cast), it takes the concept of a home invasion film and turns it to the audience.
Two mysterious young men show up at a wealthy family’s vacation home and carry out mental and physical torture in a way far more disturbing and realistic than the usual horror fare; at various points, one of them looks at the camera and smiles, at one point asking “Don’t you wanna see how it ends?” that the film becomes unbearable. When the mother takes over and one of the antagonists is shot, the surviving sadist finds the remote control, rewinds the movie, and lets it play again without the mother taking over – the protagonists are doomed, as are the viewers. Unlike the other films on the list, Haneke breaks with cinematic convention in order to appeal to its audience for the very act of watching violent films.
But all is not gloomy. Adam McKay uses a unique and hilarious twist on the concept in The big court. A film about the 2008 financial crisis might run the risk of being too involved and complicated for a mainstream image meant to entertain, so McKay uses a series of celebrity cameos to explain dry or potentially boring concepts in an engaging way. and self-referential. The most notable example is a lesson on subprime mortgages given by Margot Robbie as she sips champagne in a lavish bubble bath, but there are other examples sprinkled throughout the film to explain to the layman what happened to the financial world and why we should be mad about it, as well only pauses at the fourth wall of the narrator, Ryan Gosling.
There is a lot of potential for various interpretations of breaking the fourth wall. It can be funny or thoughtful, incisive or inclusive. It’s no wonder there are so many varied examples throughout the history of cinema. Now, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s day off) – You are still here? The article is finished! Go home.
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