Four walls and one made of glass, with us sitting before it and staring through into the diegesis. This fourth wall (which may also be considered the screen regarding the previous week’s topic) is the barrier between our world and the fictional and can so easily be broken by a mere glance.
Breaking the fourth wall is a modern convention of cinema with breaking the fourth wall becoming more and more popular in the sixties, though are plenty of examples that predate this. Groucho Marx would often quip to camera in his films, and Hollywood film noir’s narration gimmick would talk the audience through the inner workings of the mind of the protagonist (although this could be attributed to the style of the established literary genre, originating in pulp novels).
This look, this direct acknowledgement of us is quickly becoming an accepted function in modern cinema, and is being used as a tool for narrative and character development. The film JCVD takes its time to pause so Jean-Claude Van Damme can deliver us a kind of confession, rising above the set and speaking of his own history and thus his character’s history as he plays himself in the film. This fosters a deeper emotional investment in him during the film. It’s used most effectively and famously in House of cards, with Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood constantly chatting away to us, revealing his intentions and explaining his actions. He could just as easily speak to someone in the show of these matters, but instead he speaks directly to us. We in fact may be the only ones he doesn’t constantly lie to, a very interesting and potentially alarming thought.
Through these breaks, we are dragged further into the world, pulled through the looking-glass. However, this doesn’t make us feel any safer despite the characters reaffirming the fiction by looking at us, by talking to us. Unless we’re in the right sort of movie.
Comedy is where the fourth wall really takes a beating. Ferris Bueller constantly talks to us, Mel Brooks practically made a career with self-aware films, the TV showCommunity constantly drops meta references, and The Muppet films are very much aware of their audience.
I’d argue the reason for this is that comedy lends itself more to fourth-wall breaking than any other genre due to its lighter nature. It’s less of a worry when Kermit looks at us and tells us that he knows we’re watching and makes a joke of it rather than when Hannibal Lector tells us he knows we’re there and makes a meal out of it.
Essentially, as a convention the effect of breaking the fourth wall is dependant on the genre.
In House of cards it adds to the thrill and helps us stay in Frank’s mindset. In Last Action Hero it makes us aware of tropes and adds to the humour. In Funny Games it terrifies. And like any tool, overuse of fourth-wall-breaks can be very damaging, both to the audience’s attention and the film’s narrative and story. After all, if we’re constantly made aware that the danger on-screen isn’t real, then why should we care?