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When “House of Cards” debuted on Netflix last month, one of the storytelling elements that may have surprised those who never saw the series’ BBC predecessor was the repeated use of a fourth-wall break. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) would occasionally address the audience directly, either to give a character’s backstory, justify his own actions or just tell a bunch of people how much he hated someone’s chief of staff. Not to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t gotten through all 13 episodes, but that direct Spacey-audience connection gradually disappears for most of the latter third of the season. So, in case you’re hungry for more people staring into the camera, the fine folks at Press Play have a new video compilation of some film’s most notable uses.
Leigh Singer (no relation to our Matt) put together a finely edited, concise eight-minute cut that I dare you to watch less than once.
Maybe it’s because Singer frontloads the supercut with a lot of comedic examples, but after watching this, it seems like breaking the fourth wall is a convention that’s inherently funny. Disrupting that divide between film and viewer prompts that kind of instinctive reaction where you laugh at something rather than parse out what might be going on. So, for those moments to rise above just an attempt to be clever and to actually become a chilling filmmaking device, they need to be married with impressive technical work. Take that preview screengrab of Norman Bates from the end of “Psycho.” If you showed that image to someone who never heard of Hitchcock (or Gus van Sant, for that matter), there’s a chance that smile wouldn’t come across as menacing. You need Bernard Hermann’s score, “she wouldn’t even harm a fly” and the final shot of the car being pulled out of the water to give it the context to make it as disturbing as it is. Breaking the fourth wall doesn’t necessarily signify genius, but it can certainly be a tool of one.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of these examples are self-referential. Singer’s cut has the “cigarette burns” explanation from “Fight Club” and Amelie’s love for watching the reactions of a movie theater audience. There’s something about scenes explicitly about movies that lend themselves even more than usual to an effective break. If you’re already watching a movie, why not draw attention to it?
What really elevates this above a simple montage of people looking into the camera are Singer’s more subtle, less obvious choices. OK, maybe the end of “Blazing Saddles” isn’t a paragon of subtlety, but there are instances like the “It’s up to you” line from JFK or Gloria Swanson parading down the staircase at the end of “Sunset Blvd.” where the camera just happens to be in a character’s line of sight. Given that those moments come at their films’ respective climaxes, it’s no wonder that Oliver Stone and Billy Wilder would want to let their audiences share in the proceedings.
(And extra kudos for using Spoon, Mr. Singer.)
Read more of “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” complete with a fun intro from Matt Zoller Seitz.