The Fourth Wall Dilemma

Yes, the title may sound like the name of a new Big Bang Theory Episode, but this post is actually about the rather contentious issue of breaking the fourth wall in cinema. I saw this video a few days ago and found it very interesting, and I thought I’d throw my two cents in.

My first experience of the fourth wall being broken was actually in Annie Hall many moons ago. It’s probably unfair that I started my judgment of the technique with a master such as Woody Allen; I loved his to-camera monologues but I have a sneaking suspicion this has more to do with the man than the mechanism. The same goes for the next encounter I can remember, Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film which even now I’m finding it difficult not to go all John Hughes fan club over. Broderick executes the to-camera delivery so perfectly that it’s difficult to begrudge Hughes the indulgence.

I think what makes these examples work is that the fourth wall is broken in order to connect to the character more personally, and both Ferris and Alvy are people we really want to get to know better. For Ferris, talking to camera acts as another spotlight for him to bask in, and as a way to show off his street smarts and humour. Plus, I have to admit that little smile to camera melts my heart every time. Similarly, Alvy’s identification with the audience gives him a forum through which to tell his story and perhaps more importantly to discuss and channel his various neuroses.

So, maybe my problem with the technique lies in its use in a dramatic setting? Much as I begrudge to admit fault with one of my all-time favourite (as you had probably guessed) films Fight Club, I have to admit that Tyler’s scene to camera was a bit unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, the monologue is brilliant and probably quite rightly put a lot of people off khakis for a while, but although the scene is striking and useful for showing the mental dissonance, I’m inclined to say it was unneeded. All this said, I come back to my fondness for the direct-to-camera monologue with Edward Norton’s narration when introducing Tyler. I’m torn.

I also can’t deny that the illusion of our safety as an audience and our detachment from characters and scenarios we would like to remain detached from being broken is a disconcerting and powerful tool to a filmmaker. The almost alien merging of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman’s face in Persona; that horrible feeling that Gloria Swanson is speaking directly to you in Sunset Boulevard; and the surprisingly moving speech in The Great Dictator, in which a man who made the world laugh through his silence made them speechless when he spoke, to name a few that have stayed with me.

Much like the rest of the film community, I’m inclined to remain undecided on the whole thing. I can’t sit here and deny my soft spot for that subtle wink to the audience, the charming monologue or the look to camera that sends a shiver down your spine. However, I also cringe at how easily the technique can be misused. I guess, for now, I’m going to give the incredibly democratic answer of “it has a place and time”.