How to Break the Fourth Wall

How to Break the Fourth Wall

Breaking the fourth wall is one of the most
unique thematic devices at the disposal of a filmmaker. Most cinematic techniques pull
us into a story and make us forget we’re watching a film, but breaking the fourth wall
does the opposite. It reminds us we’re actually an audience member watching what’s happening
on screen. The technique can contribute to the visual storytelling of a film in many
different ways depending on how it’s presented. To really understand the power of breaking
the fourth wall, we have to look at its inception in theatrical performance. A formal definition for breaking the fourth wall would be a dramatic technique in a work
of fiction where characters display an awareness that they are in such a work. The technique
goes as far back as Ancient Greece and continued through Shakespeare’s time and well into
postmodern theater, especially musicals. The term first arose after the use of Box Sets
became popular in the 1800’s when sets were constructed with three walls, the fourth wall
being the imaginary wall between the audience and the performers on stage. So whenever a
character acknowledged the audience’s presence, the fourth wall was broken. The technique has been used since the silent era, and Charlie Chaplin played around extensively
with fourth wall breaks in his films. With the introduction of sound and the popularity
of the musical genre, fourth wall breaks became more common to contribute to the spectacle
of film, and over the next 70 years, fourth wall breaks have made their way into a variety
of film genres with a variety of thematic effects. The most popular use of this technique is for comedy and the comedy stands out by creating some of the most memorable punch lines in cinematic history. There’s something really surprising and hilarious about reminding us that we’re in the middle of watching a film.
No matter how many times I watch a movie break the fourth wall, the joke can still catch
me by surprise. The joke has to step out of the film to deliver the punch line, and there’s
really no other type of joke like it. Every other joke is enclosed within the imaginary
world of the art form. Taking that step out of a movie is what makes a good fourth wall
joke so satisfying and creative. I do want to note that breaking the fourth wall doesn’t
automatically make you a comedic genius. The set up and delivery of a fourth wall break
has to be at least somewhat surprising or the joke can come off as kind of lazy. You can’t talk about breaking the fourth
wall without mentioning Mel Brooks. He broke the fourth wall in the most extreme ways possible.
His films go so far as to actually have the main characters watch themselves within the movie While his films are funny because of their ridiculousness, there’s definitely some
method to his madness. I like how Blazing Saddles uses fourth wall breaks to poke fun
at the Western genre as a whole. It really points out how unrealistic Hollywood films
were in their portrayal of life in the west. In reality, western films were nothing but
actors in a studio acting in fake towns and eventually getting into a car to drive off
the set. Blazing Saddles is a not so subtle reminder that film as an art form has its
limitations at portraying reality. Mel Brooks made a statement by pointing out the lack
of realism in the Western film. Western films of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s almost completely
ignore racism, xenophobia, and other ugly parts of the west, and Blazing Saddles breaks
the fourth wall in an insane way to remind us we’re watching a dramatized film, not
reality. Perhaps what makes breaking the fourth wall
the most intriguing is that, depending on its context, the act of acknowledging the
audience can actually push us into the film instead of pulling us out. There’s a sort
of intimacy to a character speaking directly to us. In Road to Morocco, Bing Crosby and
Bob Hope make lighthearted jokes straight to the audience and even remind us that they’re
going to end up fine on their adventure We know from the casual and inviting fourth wall
breaks that this is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and will provide
light, conservative entertainment. Fourth wall breaks can be a way to welcome us into
the story, and this variation of the technique is definitely indicative of a more casual
movie. A fourth wall break can make us intimate with
a character as well as with a story. There’s really no stronger way to show a character’s
ulterior motives than by having them look right at us and say them. It’s a great way
to show us what’s going on in a character’s head and is comparable to an aside in theater.
Frank Underwood addressing us directly is the foundation for so much of the energy in
House of Cards. I love the scenes where he says one thing to another character, and then
looks at us and reminds us what he’s really after The final great effect of breaking the fourth wall is to unsettle. There’s nothing scarier
than feeling safe and removed from the villain in a movie and then having that villain look
directly at you. Yikes. Comedy, satire, intimacy, and fear can all
be accomplished just from a look to the camera. So don’t forget the great potential a fourth
wall break can have, and thanks for wa-


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