In cinema, it’s often a rule of etiquette that actors ignore the camera’s presence and interact with the fictional world as if the lens were non-existent. The concept works like a two-way, interrogation room mirror. We can see what’s going on behind the screen, but characters on the other side can’t.
It is considered impolite to stare into the camera because it shatters the illusion of film by making viewers aware of the fiction. However, sometimes not observing this rule is done to strategic effect.
When a character directly speaks or interacts with viewers, thereby shattering the barrier that separates the real word from the story’s realm, that is referred to as breaking the fourth wall. To understand it better, we’ll discuss the box set.
Somewhere towards the end of the 19th century, the idea of the box set became a popular concept in Western theater. You’d have stage play directors construct a three-walled room, complete with all the little realistic details, including slamming doors instead of swinging ones as in the past.
So, you have audiences sharing a room with the characters, however, an invisible wall separated the two worlds. The wall closest to the audience came to be known as the fourth wall as a result. It doesn’t necessarily refer to the physical boundary, but the invisible barrier that separates us from the characters we see on screen.
The camera typically takes the place of the fourth wall, hence why we only see three walls at a time when action in a movie is unfolding within a room.
A fourth wall break doesn’t only occur when a character strikes up a conversation with viewers. It generally happens when a movie acknowledges the audience in any way, even without directly communicating with audiences.
For example, an actor disassociating from his character to acknowledge that he is up for an award, like in Blazing Saddles.
While the history of fourth wall breaks is complicated, many cite Men Who Have Made Love to Me as the first film to use it. The 1918 silent movie pauses the story for the heroine to speak to the audience as if she were across the table from them. Entangled in a web of complicated relationships, the protagonist occasionally pours her heart out to viewers, as if talking to a friend.
Some filmmakers also play with the fringes of the fourth wall but they don’t break it. This filmmaking technique is referred to as bending the rule of the fourth wall.
Examples of these situations include a character speaking directly into the camera when recording themselves, etc.
Many experienced filmmakers wouldn’t dare approach a fourth wall break even with a ten-foot boom stick because it detaches from the story, and can sometimes be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. For those willing to push the envelope though, it can be very rewarding when done right.
One of the most common purposes of the technique is to inject comedic relief.
Jim Carrey’s The Mask certainly wouldn’t be as exciting or funny without the cartoony character reeling in the audience into his conversations. The flamboyant antihero keeps us laughing all the way through with fourth wall breaks about his over-the-top pranks, bad decisions, obvious disguises, and questions about what he should do next.
One particular standout moment of fourth wall breaking from the movie is the hallway clock scene. As the character is trying to sneak out of his apartment, he beckons the audience to be quiet after he spots a quiet sign on the manager’s door. It doesn’t work out very well for him, and the scene couldn’t be funnier.
Other times, the fourth wall break instigates comedy by making fun of itself or the production. It can be a witty way for directors to sneak in some criticism about audiences, the real world, his production team, among other things filmmakers have on their mind.
When filmmakers want to get you more involved in the story and actively participate in it, they may turn to a fourth wall break. It is a tactic that traces back to the stage plays of old, where characters would ask for the audience’s help to achieve their goals.
In Peter Pan theater reenactments of the past, audiences would be requested to clap their hands to give power to the magic. Writers can use fourth wall breaks to the same effect in cinema. Viewers can join in certain actions with the character, and get a bigger role to play beyond being a casual observer.
When Maureen Johnson protests against the eviction of the homeless in Rent, she asks us to “moo” with her. This gets us into the heat of the moment, and we feel like one of the protestors alongside her.
By consistently addressing the audience, they feel like an active member of the conversation. When people talk on and on at a dinner table, for example, and they act as if you’re not there, it’s easy to lose concentration. But if you have a few questions or comments directed your way, even if you can’t get a word in, you still feel noticed. That in turn makes viewers more invested in the events.
Additionally, this direct communication between characters and viewers enables an intimate relationship to blossom.
There are many ways writers can add exposition to their story. A fourth wall break is one such method to do that, especially when other options don’t seem to fit as naturally as desired. When it becomes hard to sneak in important information into organic dialogue or mise en scene, a break offers a way to cut to the chase.
Although, when badly pulled off, it can come off as lazy. The key is to avoid being overwhelming by mixing it up with other styles of exposition as well.
The Big Short uses fourth wall breaks to explain the complex economic topics it discusses. Big-name personalities like Richard Thaler, Selena Gomez, Anthony Robbie, and Margot Robbie, all playing themselves, take turns to break down financial jargon.
While explaining the US housing bubble and the resulting financial crisis of 2008, the breaks also help viewers get to the bottom of the truth. Instead of getting bogged down with statistical analyses and deceptive information, the breaks downright state when people are taking advantage of a situation by confusing viewers.
These breaks in fiction, mixed with real-life crisscrossing, make the movie feel more real, like a documentary.
An antihero without a conscience makes for great company as he takes us on a journey of X-rated tendencies and dark humor. The character’s charm and charisma break through the barrier as he regularly addresses the audience on a variety of trivial and life-threatening issues.
Even the opening credits themselves set the pace by calling out the film’s contributors. Ryan Reynolds is hilariously referenced as “God’s perfect idiot,” while the director is pointed out as “an overpaid tool.” An image of Reynold on the cover of People Weekly compound the break in the intro, mixing a character’s real-life info with fiction.
In one instance, Deadpool even reveals to other characters that he is taking to the audience. He explicitly says to Colossus in the bridge scene that he isn’t talking to him but rather to “them” (viewers.)
His fourth wall breaks are mostly to tone down grotesque violence with moments of levity. A film with rather serious undertones becomes lighthearted because of his comedic wall breaks. They also work to get us acquainted with a twisted character, creating deep connections across the divide of the lens. By the end of Deadpool, the character feels more like a friend. One that could down-low be a serial killer, but we still love him because he has all the nicest punchlines.
If you have some experience with Marvel movies, you’ll know how fond they are of the post-credit scene. It’s become a tradition for the franchise to include a teaser for subsequent films after the credits roll, in a bid to keep audiences in theaters till the last minute.
The post-credit scene in Deadpool hilariously breaks the fourth wall for comedic relief. It is a scene inspired by the next entry on this list. Wade jokes about the production not having money for a sequel and urges the audience to go home. He further trashes viewers who leave garbage lying around at the movies, and ushers couldn’t have been prouder.
When you think about fourth wall breaks, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is among the first things to come to mind. It would be a travesty to talk about fourth wall breaks, without mentioning a film considered by cinephiles to be the father of fourth wall breaks.
It is a trailblazer for this cinematic tactic, offering a blueprint that inspired movies like Deadpool and many others.
Matthew Broderick, the actor who made the famous role his, was initially apprehensive about the script. There were too many moments of camera monologues that didn’t sit well with him. However, once the movie was out the door, a screenplay that was written in less than one week enjoyed similarly rocketing success.
High school student Ferris Bueller is tired of his daily routine. He skips school to let his hair down, and we spend the day with him through multiple fourth wall breaks. The first one comes right at the start of the film. Bueller has faked illness, and he explains his methods and dislike for school.
This creative opening scene also lets us into the mind of the stranger we’re just meeting. We understand that he doesn’t fancy the idea of education and is rather dishonest. The latter quality surfaces quite a bit as the story advances.
He offers exposition about his life and personality but graces it all down with accents of humor to avoid it playing out like a boring lecture. It persists as a technique of giving us more information about his actions and the new people we meet in his social circle.
But there’s more to his wall breaks.
The final wall break comes after the end credits when Ferris quizzes the audience about why they’ve not left. A scene that has inspired Deadpool and its recreation of this iconic ending.
Although most audiences at the time didn’t know it was in there, later viewers were well-informed. It gives viewers a reason to stay beyond the black screen, allowing the film’s contributors to get deserved attention.
More importantly, though, the wall breaks allow us to make a new friend and connect with him on a deeper level.
Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film sees Leonardo DiCaprio star as Jordan Belfort in an adaptation of the 2007 memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie reenacts Belfort’s unscrupulous career as a stockbroker, and how his corrupt empire crumbled.
A significant fourth wall break comes when the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, sends its lawyers to look through the books at Stratton Oakmont. Belfort is serving up a distraction to hide the smoking gun, and he proceeds to explain his method directly to us in a heap of financial jargon. We can’t for the life of us understand what he is talking about, but he answers the most important question about the process.
The scene serves to offer more than just exposition. This fourth wall break also tells us more about a character and how he operates on the fringes of good and bad. He couldn’t care less whether what he’s done is legal or not. All that matters is that they’re making loads of money because of it.
The break also adds a new dimension to our relationship with the character.
Voice-over narrations are a common feature in Scorsese movies. The Wolf of Wall Street is no exception. Until this point in the film, we’ve learned all we have through the protagonist’s narration.
However, this is the first time Belfort is talking to us directly, and we feel as though we’ve entered a new level of closeness with the character. He trusts us enough to let us in on his illegal plans, and we feel we’re now part of the inner circle.
Jordan Belfort is a talented salesman, and he uses the fourth wall breaks to get us on his side. In the end, we’re desperately hoping he keeps his fortune and gets away with his crimes. Sadly, he doesn’t get his happily-ever-after.
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