What do the movies Animal Crackers, Blazing Saddles, Deadpool, Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fight Club, and Space Balls have in common? No, we didn’t run them at the St. George Theatre in 1976 (for those who have come to realize that this blog’s true north, metaphorically speaking is that theater which I helped to run in that year). The common thread that binds these films is the flaunting of a broadly–accepted rule. Their directors broke — at some point in each movie’s plot — clean through what has been called “the Fourth Wall.” You may have heard of it, the invisible barrier separating us, the watchers, from them, the actors/characters, who carry on blithely, as if we weren’t there. In traditional theater, it’s sometimes delineated by a theater’s proscenium arch. The wall is a little like the “willing suspension of disbelief” that makes it possible to read, say, a novel. (You’re not in your life anymore, but living somebody else’s). In film, that most dream–like of fictions, the moviegoer, as a long–ago teacher of mine once observed, “...sits in the dark, forgetting the rent, a toothache, even a lost love.” If this is so in the mere act of watching a movie, it is doubly so in a movie palace, like the St. George, where every on–screen character is two stories tall.
To my knowledge, the only movie we showed at the St. George that flaunts the fourth wall is Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. It achieved fourth–wall demolition many times, most notably in its ending, when the characters brawl their way out of their own set, spilling over into the set of a Busby Berkeley–style top hat movie, disrupting a cafeteria full of actors on break and ending up on the streets of Burbank. That the set’s wall is literally knocked over is half the fun.
Annie Hall came out late in 1977, after we’d left our temple of dreams, so I never had the privilege of watching it in the St. George’s cavernous dark, taking in Alvy’s (Woody Allen’s) confessions about Annie. Another movie I really wish I’d seen at the SGT, also a Woody Allen flick, The Purple Rose of Cairo, actually features a character coming clean through the movie screen in a fictional New Jersey theater, to have an affair with a movie–watcher. Is that a double breaching of the wall? The movie within the movie? (See also last week’s post, “Location, Location,” for Purple Rose in another context).
If you stretch the definition of fourth–wall penetration just a little bit, you could say that, in the year we spent at the St. George, we woke the audience up from their collective dream a few times accidentally, when the sound head on a projector began “motor-boating” (The Exorcist) or when screams from behind the screen revealed pranks staff members were playing on one another (Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Could this qualify as performance art?
Assaults on and/or addresses to the audience have been going on a long time. Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought of the fourth wall as, more or less, a scrim, a flimsy one at that, with actors sitting in the laps of audience members, running the aisles, handing props to watchers and addressing the entire audience with an eye to advancing the plot.
It is my lady. O, it is my love! (Romeo is telling us)
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
(Juliet has no clue, we do.)
Fast forward to Matthew Broderick’s asides in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), so numerous they affect a kind of conspiracy between this truant teen and the audience. Fight Club is virtually narrated by the Edward Norton character. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan addresses us early and often, usually in a highly ironic tone: “Look, I know you’re not following what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s okay, that doesn’t matter. The real question is this — was all this legal? Absolutely fucking not. But we were making more money than we knew what to do with.” Without these confidences, I don’t think I could have stayed in my seat for the whole debauch.
You may have been almost grown–up when Hamlet or Ferris Bueller or some other character addressed you directly, but animated characters (Warner Brothers/Looney Tunes) had been talking to you all along. Bugs Bunny chaws on his carrot, twinkles at the metaphorical camera and confesses, “I’m a stinker.” “It's wabbit season,” Elmer Fudd informs us, putting a gloved finger over his lips, “and I’m hunting wabbits, so be vewy, vewy quiet!”
I wish we’d run cartoons at the St. George, but they cost money, and we were always broke. There might have been some solace in watching Road Runner, whose forward momentum always got him over the cliff. Stylistically, we more resembled Wile E. Coyote, and you know what happens to him.
I’ll give the last word to Porky Pig, speaking directly to all of us:
“That’s all folks!”
Afterthought: There are many lists of fourth-wall breaking movies, but here’s the one that got me started. Check it out!