The term “fourth wall” comes from the theater where a stage enclosed by three walls contains an imaginary fourth wall that marks the boundary of the stage action. In movies, the fourth wall exists to separate the story from the viewer and provide a more immersive experience.
Filmmakers sometimes intentionally break the fourth wall to disrupt a film’s fantasy by introducing reality. While it’s usually successful, it doesn’t always work (e.g. Adam Sandler in Bedtime Stories). But cinematic technique can be used very effectively to make a scene funnier, more sophisticated, or in some cases more disturbing.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
Sometimes breaking the fourth wall in a movie can separate the audience from the movie’s characters and take them out of the story. This is not the case with the classic John Hughes comedy Ferris turns blue.
Instead of freeing the audience from the film’s magic, Ferris Buellers (Matthew Broderick) in front of the camera invites the audience to come along. By speaking directly into the camera, viewers are drawn into the world of Ferris rather than simply watching the action unfold.
“Wayne’s World” (1992)
It soon becomes apparent that one of the more successful uses of breaking the fourth wall occurs in the comedy genre. And few comedies have done it more successfully than Wayne’s world.
Wayne’s world is an “excellent” meta-comedy that frequently breaks the fourth wall, a prime example of which is when Wayne (Mike Myers) underscores the absurdity of product placement in movies. After announcing that “contract or no, I won’t bow to any sponsor,” Myers is grinning for the camera within a minute while holding a slice of Pizza Hut pizza, a pack of Doritos, a bottle of Nuprin and a can of Pepsi.
The parody of the disaster film Airplane! is definitely made for laughs. However, there is one particular scene early in the film that deals with a more serious issue: the breakup of relationships. In this scene, complete with string accompaniment, Ted Striker (Robert Heys) tries his flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julia Hagerty) that they should resume their relationship. She eventually rejects him and walks away, whereupon Hays turns to the camera and says, “What a prick.”
Not only does this breaking of the fourth wall make for a succinct punch line that makes the scene funnier, but Ted’s outburst is in stark contrast to the flowery, romantic language he used to try to win Elaine back. It keeps the scene from devolving into cheesy romance and ensures the film quickly gets back on its comedic track.
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
These irreverent Monty Python guys loved breaking the fourth wall. in the The sense of life (1983) they commented directly in front of the camera that they had reached the middle and the end of the film. And in her earlier film Monty Python and the Holy Grailthey broke the fourth wall in the middle of the scene.
In a true meta moment, while Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) talks to Dingo (Carole Cleveland), Dingo asks the audience directly, “Do you think that scene should have been cut? We were concerned when the guys wrote it, but now we’re glad! It’s better than some of the previous scenes I think.” The scene is followed by a montage of other characters also speaking directly to the camera, telling Dingo to “move on”.
“American Psycho” (2000)
Comedy isn’t the only film genre that makes good use of breaking the fourth wall. And how american psycho demonstrated, the technique can be achieved in ways other than the actors directly addressing the camera.
american psycho breaks the auditory fourth wall by having their main character Patrick Bateman (Christian Balle), address viewers via voiceover. In scenes like the one where Bateman and his above-average friends compare business cards, we hear what Bateman is thinking, while the on-screen dialogue conveys something else entirely. Although Bateman is an unreliable narrator, the fourth wall break gives us a glimpse into the workings of his psychotic mind.
Another film that offers audiences a glimpse into the psyche of a psychopath by breaking the fourth wall is Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho.
Anthony Perkins‘ Looking straight into the camera at the end of the film – he peeks out from under his eyebrows with a flickering smile as his “mother” provides the voiceover – has produced one of the most iconic and disturbing images in cinematic history. Adding to the creepiness of this image is the skull superimposed on Norman Bates’ face as the film fades into its final scene.
“A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
It’s an opening scene that’s burned into the audience’s brain and has everything to do with the director Stanley Kubrick Breaking the fourth wall. Although Kubrick is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall – he does The glow (1980) and full metal jacket (1987) – he dealt with it differently in each of his films.
in the A Clockwork Orangethe first thing viewers are offered after the opening credits is a full 20 seconds of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) unblinking, piercing gaze straight into the lens as the camera pans out to reveal him drinking a glass moloko (Milk). As a scene, it perfectly sets the scene for the disturbing dystopia that follows.
“Fight Club” (1999)
Another use of the fourth wall break is to convey a large amount of information about a complex character to the audience. That’s the way it is David Fincher‘s fight club.
By the narrator (Edward Norton) regularly breaking the fourth wall throughout the film – “Let me tell you a little about Tyler Durden” – Fincher allows the audience to engage with Durden’s (Brad Pitt) complicated character. The multiple breaks of the fourth wall are so seamlessly incorporated that it’s easy to forget that Norton is addressing you directly.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)
As in fight clubin The Wolf of Wall Street The protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), regularly tells the events of his life directly in front of the camera.
director Martin Scorsese has DiCaprio address the audience to let us know what kind of man Belfort is: brashly confident and charismatic. This kind of breaking the fourth wall, combined with the dynamic movement and placement of actors – something Scorsese is famous for – helps connect the character with the audience.
‘The Great Short Film’ (2015)
Based on the book of the same name about the 2007 US housing market crash, The great short film deals with many dense economic concepts.
In addition to providing on-screen definitions of certain terms, Director Adam McKay decided that the best way to convey these concepts to audiences was to break the fourth wall and have various celebrities appear to explain them with metaphors. Enter the cook Anthony Bourdainactress Margot Robbiesong writer Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler – among other things – to educate the audience.
“Annie Hall” (1977)
Few filmmakers break the fourth wall as often Woody Allen does. His use of the technique in Annie Hallalong with the film’s clever writing and storytelling, helped it win the 1978 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
The scene where Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diana Keaton) wait in line at the cinema while another patron – a pompous academic – auditions Russell Horton — loudly criticizes movies behind it. When it gets too much for Allen, he turns to the audience to complain. But the real shine comes when the tiresome academic and Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media scholar he’s talked about so much, join us for the fourth breach of the wall. It’s scenes like this that make the difference Annie Hall one of Allen’s finest works.
The movie that takes breaking the fourth wall to a whole new level is Dead Pool. Wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), often turns to the audience to give his opinion on what is going on around him.
As Deadpool, Reynolds not only acknowledges the viewer but also relates to the outside world and the film in which he stars. Importantly, Reynolds’ fourth wall break never detracts from the film’s plot. To give audiences even more fun—and a lot more meta—Reynolds deftly weaves a web of pop culture references, successfully fusing the worlds of fantasy and reality: “Fourth wall break within a fourth wall break? It’s like… 16 walls!”
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