Split Decision: Fourth Wall Breaks

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

In honor of Deadpool 2, what is your favorite example of a film breaking the fourth wall?

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall breaks the fourth wall very well, but one of my all time personal favorite films, Chilly Scenes of Winter, does it in a way that charmed me. The film’s hero, Charles Richardson (John Heard), bemoans to the camera periodcally–even while in the bathtub–and his droll delivery always generates a laugh. I like films that use this device to confide to, or invite the audience into the story, rather than use it as a smug, wink-wink shorthand (hello, Deadpool!)–Gary M. Kramer

There’s a scene in Young Frankenstein in which Igor (or is it Eye-gor?) first brings Frederick (or is it Froderick?) into the laboratory. The duo enters the room to find it in full dark. Igor notices a rickety electrical switch on the wall and pulls it, resulting in explosive sparks. 
“Damn your eyes!” yells a perturbed Frankenstein.

In response, Igor, as played by the inimitable Marty Feldman, looks into the camera with his googly eyes and responds with glee, “too late!”

I’m laughing just typing this. Dan Scully

Having seen both the original Funny Games (1997) and its remake of the same name (by the same, wonderful and frustrating Haneke in 2007), I have to double down on this answer. I wrote about the movie briefly before, and I find both versions of the film to be entirely unsettling, in some ways more so than your typical horror film. The bizarre and brilliant thing about the remake is that it’s not Haneke’s way of telling a new story, at least not entirely. He set out to make the exact same movie. If you watch the two movies and do a shot-by-shot comparison, it’s pretty eerily accurate. So why make the same movie twice? In his own words, Haneke said in an interview, “If at all, it became almost a gamble with myself, whether I was able to do the exact same film under very different circumstances.”

What I really love about how Haneke goes about breaking the fourth wall in these two perfectly twisted companion pieces, is how obnoxious it is. That’s what Brecht intended, right? To make the familiar strange? In doing so, it’s extremely irritating (and alienating) because it’s not what we know, expect, or desire out of a filmgoing experience. Particularly in this example. We as viewers are stuck, somewhere between the victims themselves and complicit bystanders. So, needless to say, when I saw the remake in 2007 (which I saw before the original) I hated it. It drove me crazy. When Paul (Michael Pitt) smirks at the camera, the entire remote scene I truly despised it all. However, that discomfort and annoyance grew into something so shockingly rare for me. I was truly moved and affected by a movie, for maybe the first time since I saw Mulholland Drive. As more time went on, and I still couldn’t stop thinking about it, I had to finally admit that I love Funny Games.–Catherine Haas

The most affecting, if not affronting breakage of the fourth wall in my cinematic viewing history has to be Michael Haneke’s home invasion masterpiece Funny Games (2007). Even if I subtract the mechanisms of self-awareness, Funny Games still unsettles me more than any “horror” film I’ve ever seen by mere “real world premise.” When the offending Paul (Michael Pitt) turns briefly to the camera and smirks as his newly minted victims Ann, George and Georgie (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Devon Gearhart) search for their dog, which Paul and his coconspirator Peter (Brady Corbet) have obviously dispatched, I knew I was inside of a devious experiment, powerless and complicit. It is a chilling moment of inclusivity that renders Funny Games ever more disturbing, gripping, frustrating and immersive. Haneke takes an even more self-reflexive swerve in the third act when his nefarious Paul literally rewinds the film we are watching, wherein they themselves exist, so that he can undo the most cathartic moment of revenge perpetrated by Watts with a shotgun. Therefore Haneke first gives us the satisfaction of vengeance, and then revokes it. Haters gonna hate, but having only seen his US rendition, I cannot speak to his original Austrian version. I can however say that Funny Games US is sickeningly effective and subversive, all the more because it knows it is a film. —

My gut tells me to go with Wayne’s World 2– after Wayne loses Cassandra to a douchey Rob Lowe, they go through a series of potential endings, a sort of choose your own adventure idea aimed directly at the viewer. They spoof The Graduate and Thelma & Louise. As a kid that tickled me but also confused me- I can’t even remember how the plot of the movie *really* ends. I suppose that Wayne’s World 2 taught me that movies are fake, but that noticing all the mechanics at play is enjoyable unto itself.Andy Elijah

For my selection, I thought I’d highlight a fourth-wall break that’s expressed through purely visual means as opposed to character interjection. In the final scene of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, one of my favorite American films, we see the Driver (James Taylor) behind the wheel, careening down the road mid-race, the camera situated in the backseat looking out the windshield. With nary an indication, the film suddenly breaks its standard, 24-frames-a-second speed and gradually slows down, each successive frame holding longer and longer until the image ceases motion altogether and, after a moment, “burns up”. Not only does this stylistic flourish jolt the audience, but, upon recollection, it appears the only logical way to end the movie. Throughout, Hellman whittles away the expected car movie tropes in favor of something more elemental, contemplative, and existential; he sees the Driver’s chosen path as one fueled by instinct and compulsion. His protagonist will never stop racing. It’s all the Driver seems to know, and, moreover, it’s what gives him purpose. The only way to break the cycle is to cut it off mid-stride and let it melt away.–

I gotta go with Fight Club. Fincher expertly weaves voiceover, 4th wall breaking, and character interaction into scenes without the audience questioning what is narration and what is the reality of the characters. It allows him to bring the very heady book to life in a way that should not work at all, but it somehow succeeds so gracefully that you hardly even notice how difficult a feat it is to pull off.

I’m not entirely sure this counts, but Nicolas Cage’s constant narration as Charlie Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation leads to one of my favorite cinematic jokes. I’m calling the narration a fourth wall break as it seems he’s narrating to and for us, the audience, specifically. This only becomes fully clear when, kind of late in the movie, Robert McKee (Brian Cox) tells his class of burgeoning screenwriters “Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character!” at which point the narration stops completely and is never heard again for the rest of the movie. It makes me laugh every time I watch it, and leads to some really interesting thematic debates one could have about the movie and which Kaufman brother wrote which parts, but that’s a debate for a different column.—

As a Muppet fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Muppet Movie (I mean, all of the Muppet films break the fourth wall liberally), which has a great example of Doctor Teeth reading the script in order to get the main characters out of a jam.

But I’m also going to pick a Mel Brooks film, and it has to be Spaceballs. It is basically the same gag, where Rick Moranis’ Dark Helmet are looking for the heroes of the film, so they use a copy of Spaceballs on VHS to find them. Besides Moranis’ impeccable comic timing, the visual reference to Brooks’ previous films, seeing the entire movie prior to this scene played on fast forward (which means they filmed it sequentially? I would love to know how this gag was even made), and  the use of the screens to create an infinite image of these two idiots while watching themselves at “now” just adds a few more layers to this hilarious bit. Ryan Silberstein

Tyler Durden explaining cigarette burns while splicing pornography into children’s movies in Fight Club is one of my favorite moments in a movie ever. Theres something beautiful about the “bleep” as he points to the edge of the actual screen and makes a cigarette burn appear in real time. The entire film is gleefully antagonistic to the viewer, but that moment brings me so much joy.—Jenna Kuerzi

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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