Monday, February 22, 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall

The Fourth wall is that invisible barrier that divides the audience from the film. It’s the reason why actors are never supposed to look directly at the screen or talk to the camera. The film is supposed to be happening independent of us, we are simply voyeurs.

But there’s an increasing number of films out there that break this wall, completely acknowledging the audience, letting us know that they know we are there. It’s a fun gag, and when used in the right kind of film can be quite funny.

Here are a few examples of films that do this:

Amelie (2001) – On this one Amelie constantly refers to the audience by talking directly at them, or just giving us a little look, to let us know that she knows were there. One scene has her inside of a movie theater, and she tells us how much she hates it when in old movies, actors drive without looking at the road.

Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) – On this one Austin Powers gets a lecture on time travel and suddenly gets cross eyed. Basil tells him: “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself” and then Basil turns to the audience and says “That goes for you all too!” and Austin says “Yes.”

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) – On this, Bill and Teds first adventure, Rufus (played by George Carlin) gives Bill and Ted a new shinny electric guitar to each of them. You see, supposedly, Bill and Ted’s rock and roll will be so awesome, that it will bring peace and harmony to the universe. Unfortunately, when we hear Bill and Ted play their guitars, they suck. Rufus then turns at the audience and says “They do get better!”

Empire Records (1995) –  The movie starts out with Lucas one of the crazy characters who works on the record store trying to decide what he is going to do with the money that the store made that day. Shall he deposit in the bank the next morning or should he gamble it away? He then talks to the camera and says: “In the immortal words of The Doors ‘The Time to hesitate is through’” After he gambles it and looses he looks at the camera and says: “I wonder if Ill be held responsible for this”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Ferris Bueller has to be one of the most famous examples of breaking the fourth wall. He does it all through out the film. Right from the very beginning of the film he begins talking directly at the audience giving us pointers as to how to fake out your parents if you want to play hooky. In one scene he is taking a shower and he covers our eyes so we don’t see him washing his privates.

Fight Club (1999) – Edward Norton’s “Jack” talks at the camera constantly through out the whole film. At one point, he is explaining to us how Tyler Durden was the guerrilla terrorist of the food service industry. He looks at the camera and says “he farted on the meringue, sneezed on braised endive and as for the cream of mushroom soup…” Then he pauses and Tyler Durden says “Go ahead. Tell ‘em” to which Jack says “You get the idea”

High Fidelity (2000) – John Cusack plays Rob, a music store owner frustrated with his love life. He is constantly talking to us about how terrible his life is and why things just aren’t working out. At one point, he is going crazy because his ex girlfriend has already moved in with someone called Ian. He is going crazy trying to figure out who this Ian guy is and screams “What Fucking Ian guy?!”

The Holy Mountain (1973) – There’s a scene in the film when the religious leader tells the camera to pull back and we can see film equipment and crew.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) – Jay and Silent Bob, the two main characters in this film are discussing the fact that there is going be a movie based on them at which point one of them says “A Jay and Silent Bob movie? Who’d pay to go see that?” and then they turn and look at the audience.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – This film has three girls singing most of the songs through out the whole movie. When they sing their songs they look directly at the camera.

The Meaning of Life (1983) – At one point in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life the movie reaches its middle point and suddenly the film stops and a character welcomes us “to the middle of the film”. When the movie ends she tells us: “Well, that’s the end of the film. And Now, here’s the meaning of life”

Scrooged (1988) – In Scrooged, when the film ends, Scrooge starts to sing Christmas carols with everyone in the film and he turns, looks at the camera and starts talking directly at the audience urging us to sing along.

Spaceballs (1987) – Mel Brooks loves breaking the fourth wall in his films. At one point in Spaceballs Dark Helmet is talking directly at the camera. The camera closes down on him as he speaks wondering who could have “jammed” his radar and he says “only ONE man would dare give me the raspberry! Lonestar!” and then the camera hits him on the face during the close up. Another scene has Dark Helmet killing a member of the filmmaking crew with his lightsaber.

Top Secret (1984) – The Zucker Brothers and Jim Abraham love breaking the fourth wall as well. It seems this gag works wonders in a slapstick film. In one scene, Val Kilmer is describing the plot of the film to his love interest and then she says “I know, it all sounds like some bad movie” then the two characters turn around and look at us.

Wayne’s World (1992) – Mike Myers is a huge fan of breaking the fourth wall and does it constantly through out many of his films. In Wayne’s World, Glen, the manage of Mikita’s Donut shop starts talking at the camera telling us some story and Wayne stops him dead on his tracks and says “What are you doing? Only Garth and I get to talk to the camera!”

Well, thats it for now! I might do another post on this in the future. For now, which ones can you remember?


Reina said...

hey this is a very original post! Like it! lets see if i can remember one....i think inland empire does it! If i remember correctly actor look directly at the camera a couple time throughout the movie..and what about the life aquatic? and holy grail?and school of rock??

Franco Macabro said...

Thats right, in The Life Aquatic that portuguese guitar player is playing those David Bowie tunes while looking at the audience.

In School of Rock Jack Black talks to the audience during the end credits.

Holy Grail is the only Monty Python movie that i dont know by heart. I cant quite remember how they do it on that one.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

How about Funny Games (both versions) - in which the sick sadists not only address the camera, but at one point rewind the film so that they can manipulate evens to avoid one of them dying.

Franco Macabro said...

I never saw Funny Games because I thought it was just going to be another crazy kids invading a home and killing people, but Ive heard lots of good stuff about it. I think I will have to be giving Funny Games a watch. I think Ill watch the remake first, cause I love Naomi Watts.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

It is just about crazy kids invading a home and killing people - but because the original was directed by an Austrian guy and had subtitles and was all arty and self-conscious and up its own arse it was considered very important. I havent seen the remake, the original was foul enough. Not because of the violence, but because of the preachy "how bad are you for liking violent movies" message of it.

Franco Macabro said...

Really, the new remake has that message going for it? Its kind of like criticizing its own audience, hmm, I see what its trying to do, but hey, movies are movies, not real life. I dont feel bad for watching violent movies, cause thats all they are. Fantasies.

Im curious for it now. I guess Ill give it a go.

Another film that breaks the fourth wall:

Coming to America - When Prince Akee (Eddie Murphy) akss his wife to be to bark like a dog and she does, he looks at the camera.

Manuel Marrero said...

Great new post bro! Very unique. Its funny...I was gonna tell you i watched Empire Records for the 2nd time in years and...That movie is the biggest pile donkey shit but, it does break the 4th wall like you said. Keep it up bro.

Franco Macabro said...

Empire Records, its so 90s. Right down to the ultra serious suicidal kids..the thing I remember the most is that song in the end "sugar high...gotta need it gotta have it to get by...sugar high!"

Also, that guy that sings that song "Say no more mon amour!"

Ha, so cheesy. Yet, I dont think Empire Records is completely crappy, its got its own charm to it if you lived through the 90s.

Simon said...

Well, hey, parody movies like Spaceballs shouldn't count. It's kind of expected.

I think I'll write an article about Meta fiction...that's even better than Fourth Wall, because it's less in-your-face.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Shaun beat me to it, the original FUNNY GAMES is one of the Berlin of 4th wall breakers, I highly recommend it Franco! Brilliant film, even though it is a bit hypocritical in that it speaks against sensationalism in the media by being sensationalistic.

Neil Fulwood said...

Good subject for a post. I think of all the examples you cite, 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' uses the fourth wall to best effect.

Jean-Claude van Damme's soliloquy direct to camera in 'JCVD' not only breaks the fourth wall, but is the pivotal moment where what could have been a run of the mill genre film becomes something more akin to a work of Spike Jonze style deconstructionism.

Ingmar Bergman's 'The Silence' has a scene where Gunnar Bjornstrand starts reading a letter and Bergman cuts to Ingrid Thulin (whose character it's from) placed against a stark white background delivering the letter as a soliloquy direct to camera.

Franco Macabro said...

@Simon: Parody movies do break the fourth wall a lot, for example Airplane!. On that one the main character Striker is getting told of by his girlfriend, and after she finishes he looks at the camera and says "what a stinker!"

Hey Simon, looking forward to your post on meta fiction!

@Carl: Ill defenetly be checking out Funny Games very soon, it keeps getting recommended so that must mean something. Ill post a review for it as soon as I check it out.

@Neil: Yeah, Ferris Bueller uses it to good effect, I agree. I mean when thinking of that movie, one cant help but remember Ferris talking to us.

Manny, a good friend of mine wants me to review JCVD, he's like "man I cant wait to see you review it I think your going to like it!" I think I have to now. It looks like its not your regular run of the mill straight to video Van Damme flick.

That Ingmar Bergman example is excellent!

Heres another High Art example of breaking the fourth wall, though Im not really sure if it counts:

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. That scene where he gets up on the stage as if he was the great dictator and starts giving his famous speech. You almost feel like Chaplin completely breaks out of character and is talking directly at the audience, at the world. Love that movie!

Jeffrey said...

Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL shatters that fourth wall instantly after the credits and spends most of the film being pretty self-aware.

4th wall breakage is one of my favorite devices but I have to be brave enough to put it in one of my scripts...

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Jeff, if it fits your scripts use it, thats all that really matters, that using this device is justified somehow by the story your telling.

Aaron said...

Great post! I always get a kick out of people breaking the fourth wall in movies.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks Aron! Ill see if I can post a few more on a future post. For now, I got some catching up to do, I have to watch some of the recommendations I got on this post.

alma said...

In case you haven't seen it after you've done this blog, Allen's Whatever Works has a really funny breaking the fourth wall in the beginning. Like in Annie Hall, the narrator talks to the camera, but the other actors are amused and a little bit worried by him addressing the audience which they can't see. It's a brilliant use of the technique! Actually I'm writing my dissertation on this subject, love it so much! And great post, it's helped with my study!

Franco Macabro said...

Glad the article was of help to you Alma!

The Film Connoisseur: proud sponsor of film students everywhere! ;)

Mike Kesslak said...

these were all great movies, but one that i thought would be talked about but i have not seen it on any site, is the movie "Funny Games", the use of breaking the fourth wall was key to certain parts and gave you an overall feeling for the movie, if anyone hasn't seen it, i would say check it out, it's very unique but a good movie

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Mike, thanks for commenting!

Both versions of Funny Games were recommended in the comments section, Shaun Anderson mentioned that both versions of that film would make a great example of breaking the fourth wall.

Still need to see them both, but watching a Haneke flick is not an easy task, they are a deliberately slow and cerebral affair, I have to be in the right mood to watch that kind of movie, but I will get to them eventually.

Thanks again for commenting!


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