The fourth wall comes from the traditional, three-walled box set stage production where there are three walls on stage – two walls at either side and one at the back – and the fourth is the front of the box, or the invisible wall through which the audience can see.
I’ve been watching House of Cards. I’ve been meaning to watch it for ages. I’ve been fascinated by the fourth wall break every time Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood talks directly to the camera. It had me thinking because my girlfriend, after watching it, told me she didn’t like how it took her out of the story. Out of the fictional world you’re supposed to be part of. And I agreed, that’s why we read books and watch films, it’s escapism. To escape the world in which we are is to experience that in which we are not. So what was it that I liked about it?
I wasn’t sure at first and I carried on watching to see if I was affected by the constant fourth wall breaks. Since studying English Literature I find it hard to read a book or watch something on TV without critically analysing it – sometimes as though I’m a critic, sometimes as though it were my own work. Why does this happen? Why is this here? Who is this person and what’s the point in saying what they said? I’d read House of Cards had been compared to Shakespeare in the way it resembles a play. I found Frank and Claire Underwood to resemble Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and I’d read about comparisons with Frank as Othello’s Iago. When Frank turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall it sounds like he’s reciting a soliloquy. This reminds me of a play, but it’s this which is far less removed from a fourth wall break than in other instances. In season 2, episode 1, after something terrible that had happened, Frank is at home looking in the mirror, talking to his wife, Claire. As she exits, his eyes fall on us as he says, ‘Did you think I’d forgotten you.’ It’s extremely unnerving and almost frightening, knowing what he’d done and this almost brings me into the scene rather than out of it, as though I am a character. But I am the audience and he’s merely narrating – in my opinion, internally – to dramatic effect.
One of the best fourth wall breaks came in the Monty Python films. In my favourite one, The Holy Grail, we’re almost always reminded we’re an audience watching a film and that none of what we’re watching is real. One of the funniest ways this is used is when there’s a battle in a medieval times setting which is stopped by the police from the 1970s, and now it’s obvious we’re seeing this through a camera on a film set. The particular hilarious nonsense from Monty Python positions our view, taking full control of what we, as an audience, perceive from a seemingly out of control film.
An extreme example of the fourth wall break is in Space Balls in the scene were they playback the actual film Space Balls. The fact that they’re viewing the film we’re viewing makes no sense at all, but one step further is that it’s meta-narrative now knows it’s playing itself within itself and as they fast-forward the tape they reach the scene at which they are. They see themselves moving in real-time on the screen. ‘What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?’ It’s a funny yet confusing meta scene that allows the characters to be aware of themselves as characters.
In other instances, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off often has Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller talk directly to us, looking right into the camera as though he knows there’s an audience. However, he’s not aware of himself to be in a film nor does he know he is fiction. In this case, it’s similar to House of Cards in that Bueller is narrating. He’s telling us the story in the same way Frank Underwood is reciting a soliloquy. I find it interesting that Bueller does these narrations alone, away from other characters, to indicate he’s speaking to himself and not to a camera. The same can be said with Underwood, although he does speak to us while in the presence of other characters – those characters seem to pause for a moment as though time itself has stopped, and what he’s saying is purely internal monologue. In a scene in Annie Hall, Woody Allen as Alvy Singer stands in a queue at a cinema and gets annoyed with a man behind him who arrogantly criticises films he’s seen, mentioning Marshall McLuhan, a professor of English. Singer moves out of the queue and speaks to us, venting his frustration, ‘What do you do in a movie line with a guy like this behind you?’ he says to us, and, like with Underwood, no one notices, as they’re still in the film, unaware they’re characters. However, this scene has the man who was talking in the queue notice Singer and leave the queue too. His eyes on us while arguing with Singer, ‘Why can’t I give my opinion? It’s a free country.’ No one else sees them and it seems they’re both sharing an internal monologue (although, it’s probably all Singer’s internal monologue). They’re hilariously arguing, as though the other man – as a character – becomes self-aware and tries to defend himself from what’s scripted in the film. It is fundamentally Woody Allen writing a character and then writing that character arguing with him about what he’s written. A manifestation of his writer’s internal demons and self-consciousness mirrored through comedy. (It’s taken even further when Singer brings the actual Marshall McLuhan to strengthen his own argument, completely removing us from the film Annie Hall for a moment, and almost putting us in a sketch show where the cameras and studio audience are obviously there).
Breaking the fourth wall has happened in literature as well. I remember when I bought David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, and my friend was ahead of me and told me about chapter 9. When I reached chapter 9 I thought it was hilarious. He’d just put his Author’s Foreword in there. Right in the middle of the story. It didn’t make any sense. You get into the story and then you’re hit with:
‘Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Foster Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.’
What’s interesting is how he’s emphatic, almost pleading with the reader, for us to know he’s writing it. That he states his name, address, social security, and the date exposes him as the author of this work. He’s not hiding. He’s confidently saying “I’m the author and you’re reading my book.” Again, in chapter 24, he repeats, ‘Author here.’ He explains in a footnote that he’s doing this simply to ‘help you keep the book’s various sections and agonists straight.’ He’d stated in the foreword that the only piece of fiction in the book is the disclaimer, which paradoxically states the entire book is fiction. I suppose this gives him free range to say whatever he wants, since the story is a comical account of his time working at the IRS. Strangely, he distanced himself by writing as the author and creating an actual, separate character called David Wallace. David Foster Wallace (the author) is self-aware and plays with his fictional world – pretending it’s non-fiction is pretending it’s real, which contradictorily puts it back into the story rather than out.
Another book which plays with the fictional world is Martin Amis’s Money. The main character is called John Self, a name in itself just asking to be existential. Amis plays with excessive consumerism, leading to an existential and identity crisis at the end. However, Amis puts himself as a character in the book.
‘I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground, and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?’
It’s weird because the character is seeing the author of his world. It’s he’s like meeting his God. His creator. What’s funny is how John Self sticks his fingers up at Amis and says he’s never heard of him. Self-depreciation by proxy as the whole thing is Amis himself. Amis is an arrogant character with enough money to ‘live like a student.’ His existence as a character is as a Marley’s ghost to warn Self he is heading for self-destruction. What’s interesting is that Amis (the author) wrote Money after working as a script writer for the film, Saturn 3, and it’s possible he used Money as a vehicle to remind himself not to go down that road of excessive living – drink and drugs – or end up dead. The subtitle for Money is A Suicide Note, so as a dire need to stop what’s happening, the fourth wall is broken and Amis is, in fact, talking to himself when talking to John Self.
There are two type of fourth wall break. One mainly used for comedy and another for dramatic effect. The former, generally making fun of everything in and out of the piece of fiction. The latter mainly as a soliloquy, seen as an internal thought, by which the story arc can be narrated and told as though we were reading a book. In both cases it’s used as a kind of creative freedom, as David Foster Wallace – ever the humorist of hysterical fiction – breaks the boundaries because he can, because he further relates fiction into humanity. He famously said, ‘Fiction is what it means to be fucking human.’ You can then see the fourth wall break merges fiction with reality.