C. Robert Cargill July 20, 2009
The fourth wall in film, television, and video games is defined as the screen in front of you — that line of demarcation between you and the story. Originating in the days of the stage, breaking the fourth wall meant that someone onstage was stepping out of their fictional universe to talk directly to or acknowledge the audience. In one of the greatest and most memorable of stage performances, Peter Pan often encourages kids to clap as hard as they can to bring Tinkerbell back to life. So what are the very best uses of this convention in film?
10) Spaceballs. While the film doesn’t entirely hold up, many of the jokes do. In one fantastic gag, Dark Helmet gets a copy of their movie on video and fast forwards in order to find out where their heroes are headed. Instead, they get stuck on the moment they are in and watch themselves watch themselves, along with the time honored turning-away-then-turning back maneuver.
9) A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. My all-time favorite musical uses the convention of breaking the fourth wall on a number of occasions, chiefly at the beginning and the end when the cast sings to us about how tonight, we, the audience, will watch a comedy. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight. Fortunately for us, their promises are kept and there actually is something for everyone.
8) Duck Amuck. In this classic vintage Daffy Duck cartoon, Daffy is absolutely tormented by an impish animator dead set on ruining his day. No matter what Daffy does, the animator one-ups him to comedic effect. Probably one of the best animated gags of all time.
7) Fight Club. Very subtle and easy to forget, there are a few frames in which it appears that Tyler Durden has altered the version of the film you’ve been watching, calling back to a moment in which he discusses defiling children’s films with frames of pornography. A brilliantly subtle gag that never spoils the coherency of the movie.
6) JCVD. Jean-Claude Van Damme in the single best movie of his career … playing, surprisingly enough, himself. This underseen modern classic puts an aging, desperate action hero into an action hero situation … but doesn’t let him be the action hero. Finally, during a rather tense scene, Jean Claude looks into the camera, gives a brilliant heartfelt soliloquy about his career and what you, the audience thinks about him, then turns back to continue the movie. An unflinching, remarkably brilliant use of the technique.
5) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. In one of the film’s better scenes, Ben Affleck, playing a character from an earlier film, manages to break both the fourth AND fifth walls with a speech in which he asks who in their right mind would pay to see a movie about Jay and Silent Bob. The fifth wall is a mutation of the fourth in which a character on screen makes a reference to a character in another film played by the same actor. In this case, Affleck, playing Holden Mcneil, refers directly to actor Ben Affleck. He later also plays himself.
4) The Great Dictator. In one of the first well-known uses of the technique, Charlie Chaplin stops the movie and gives a heartfelt plea to the audience about the need to do something about Hitler and the growing threat of fascism.
3) Blazing Saddles. In this film-bending ending, the big chase leaves the walls of the studio building it is being shot in and runs amok over the entire movie studio lot — involving hundreds of extras and actors from other films in an unforgettable, sidesplitting climax.
2) Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (and the John Hughes camera look). John Hughes popularized this momentary breaking of the fourth wall in which his characters would look at the audience for comedic effect, usually before going after a girl. But his best use of the formula was in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off when the lead character, played by Matthew Broderick, talked directly to the audience and even scolded them for staying until the end of the credits when the movie was clearly over. Comedy gold.
1) Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The single most genius use of the convention, this entire film is narrated by the protagonist (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who breaks the fourth wall almost every time he opens his mouth. He forgets to mention things, only to bring them up later while admonishing himself for telling the story wrong. One moment involves him resurrecting Abe Lincoln, Elvis, and the Easter Bunny, and the film ends with a videotaped apology by the main characters apologizing for swearing so much. Oh yeah, and did I mention it is genius?
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