The Fourth Wall: An aspect of storytelling that involves a character breaking the theoretical “wall” that exists between the actors and the audience to speak directly to the audience. It is a technique that has been used for ages as way to bring the viewers into the character’s mind and to reveal the intimate thoughts of the individual.
Originating from 17th century theatre, the term refers to the box sets that were constructed with only three actual walls to be moved in any way that the production needs, with the fourth wall being the imaginary wall separating the stage and the audience. Breaking this fourth wall, a technique utilized countless times in film, television, and theatre, can often help the audience connect directly to the character and allow the viewer to become more than just an observer. When a character seemingly stops the action to address the viewer directly, there is a psychological boost that happens as a direct response to having a “star” address you specifically.
Movies, especially, have taken this technique to the next level, manipulating it to allow their films to stand-out and become endeared in the hearts of viewers across the globe. Since the beginning of filmmaking, the fourth wall has created a number of cult classics and infamous movies that have utilized this tool to garner fame and world renown.
Here are my top 5 favorite films that break the fourth wall to talk to the audience:
This 1986 film by John Hughes brought the classic character of Ferris Bueller to the forefront of pop culture as this conniving, school-ditching, teen won the hearts of audiences around the world. Throughout the film, he often addresses the viewers, drawing them into his schemes and allowing them to see the genius behind his plans.
Directed by David Fincher in 1999, the film is narrated by by Edward Norton’s character who breaks the fourth wall constantly when he starts addressing the audience directly. Whether during a story about Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, or pointing out aspects of film like cigarette burns and sound tracks in the movie itself, the shift that the narrator takes stands as a cheeky reminder that the fourth wall can always be broken.
One of the most recently recognized movies to break the fourth wall, Martin Scorsese allows Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to address the viewers directly and ‘pitch’ the audience his lifestyle and extravagance. His speeches are filled with his signature sales techniques and they allow the viewers to understand his motives and his greed for success.
Another infamous Scorsese film, although shot two decades earlier than The Wolf of Wall street in 1990, breaks the fourth wall as the film ends to bring closure and emphasis to a dramatic finale. Ray Liotta’s narration goes from offscreen to the courtroom as he directly addresses the camera and closes the movie with a somber nod to the end of the scene.
Closing this list with a classic, British comedy, this 1966, Lewis Gilbert film opens with Michael Caine as our galavanting, cohort, Alphie, who readily imparts his womanizing talents and sexual conquests with the viewers. His nonchalant and unassuming attitude towards his bachelor lifestyle draws the audience in as he breaks the fourth wall to reveal his suave tactics with the world.
Ever think of the colour purple without thinking of Prince? Impossible. Seductive, erotic and hypnotising, Prince was the walking definition of this colour. The life and soul of Prince represents true artistry and individuality between 1958-2016. It has been said he “lived life like movie”, his head being a constant radio, forming melodies and rhythms – a procedure he used for the “one take” process of his music. He is an iconic symbol of a man who did not go by social norms, he played and performed the way he wanted to completely within his own vision. It seems as if he was obsessed with this controversial colour, making it his total theme for music and art as if he really did adopt it like his own. The newly released book by Mobeen Azhar ‘PRINCE Stories from the Purple Underground’ gives an ultimate pictorial tribute to the artist in the truest form of his life, evolution, career and death. For the first time we see key members of Prince’s ongoing legacy give a first-hand account of the artist in a light never seen before. Author of the piece Mobeen is a fanatic of Prince, even appearing on stage with the man himself, who evidently is the perfect passion and person for the making of the book.
This is a beautiful record of Princes life, it features photos all the way back to when he got his first record deal at 19 years old, to performing at Madison Square Garden decades later. The photographs are bold, powerful and heroic, helping us understand the real Prince on and off stage. It is an unbiased, yet honest portrayal of the artist, making the pages personal and sentimental to the reader. We witness how much of an inspiration he was to many, even teaching one guitarist to only love the way they play guitar and no one else, to fully embrace yourself (without being arrogant). These personal monologues prevent the Purple Underground book from being a cliche autobiography, making us hear the different voices and experiences from many who feature in the book. One story in particular comes to mind which mentions having to share a an awkward moment inside of a lift with him.
Left: Prince in Canada, December 1996. Top right: On stage during the Parade tour, 1986. Bottom right: Photoshoot at Kemps Ice Cream building. Minneapolis. 1997.
What comes to mind when imagining the colour purple? Perhaps a smoky jazz bar or even the only two flags in the world that contain this colour. Although it is seen upon as a colour of spiritual awareness in China it is somewhat a controversial tone, even to be seen as a negative, unlucky or a forbidden colour in some cultures. As a powerful member of the rainbow, it’s a colour that represents a strong level of power which is particularly used by royals or emperors. Considering it to be culturally controversial and neglected in some areas, Prince saw it as the ultimate colour of inspiration (as do some others) which could still quite be an unusual choice to make in the world today.
Demi Bailey Paul
Antonio Pagano is a photographer. He contributed to the ‘Landscape’ issue of .Cent, guest-edited by Sam Hecht.
Karina Taira is a director and stills photographer. She contributed to the ‘Landscape’ issue of .Cent, guest-edited by Sam Hecht.
Minnie Weisz is a photographer, curator & filmaker. She guest edited the ‘Seeing Stories, Telling Pictures’ issue of .Cent Magazine
Megan Spencer is an Australian filmmaker and critic. She contributed to the ‘Intoxication’ issue of .Cent Magazine guest-edited by Richard Milward.
Elise Dumontet is a hair and beauty photographer in London. She contributed to the ‘Contradiction’ issue of .Cent Magazine.