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Breaking the fourth wall

Wayne’s World breaks the fourth wall, then kicks the pieces around so that it can’t be rebuilt. Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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Hey! You! You're reading Three Easy Pieces, where I break down a pop culture trope from its birth to how it looks today. This month, you'll be boning up on breaking the fourth wall; what started as a theatrical term has come to be defined, in film, as tearing down the invisible barrier that separates the art from the audience. The most famous early example comes from The Great Train Robbery, which ends with a man firing a gun straight at the camera. These examples of breaking the fourth wall may not be as violent, but they all boldly call attention to the artifice of film, and invite us onlookers in for a closer perspective.

BIRTH: Blazing Saddles
Honorable mention: Annie HallMonty Python and The Holy GrailThe Holy Mountain

Because we're trained to watch movies in a certain way -- we make an unspoken agreement with every film we watch about our respective roles in the process -- breaking the fourth wall has the innate feeling of violation. Perhaps this is why breaking the fourth wall is frequently seen in comedies; the audience is able to be taken out of the reality of the film, without the viewing experience being tainted. For this first selection, I could've picked just about any Mel Brooks movie, seeing as the man never had much interest in maintaining in-film reality, but Blazing Saddles does it best. Apologies to the Spaceballs fanatics.

Blazing Saddles reaches its climax when our Wild West cast busts through the wall of another soundstage on a studio lot, interrupting the filming of some sort of Busby Berkeley musical. While this scene puts a fine point on the movie acknowledging that it's a movie, those seeds had been planted all along the way in goofy throwaway gags. Brooks closes things out by having stars Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder go to the Mann's Chinese Theatre and watch the happy ending of their own anarchic film.

DEVELOPMENT: Wayne's World
Honorable mention: Ferris Bueller's Day OffGremlins 2: The New BatchThe NeverEnding Story

Speaking of fourth-wall-breaking as a risk for removing the audience's investment in a movie, Wayne's World is here to show that you can still keep hold of a movie's emotional core, while also frequently, ingeniously obliterating any notion of reality. Within the first minutes, Mike Myers is speaking directly to the camera, and from then on it's a free-for-all. Soon, Dana Carvey is narrating to us, Ed O'Neill's minor character hijacks the camera for a monologue, and the movie ends with every character having their moment to talk to the viewer about what they learned.

This is not even to mention moments like a chyron announcing a scene as an "Oscar clip," jokes about subtitles, Chris Farley getting called out for providing stilted exposition about a crucial plot point, three separate endings, and a scene spoofing the desperation of product placement. After getting too angry in one scene, Myers has to actually chase the camera down to convince it to stay around. And, with all of this, Wayne's World still works as an (admittedly light) examination of friendship, love, and the risks of selling out.

TODAY: Deadpool
Honorable mention: Funny GamesHigh FidelityFight ClubI, Tonya

For those interested in seeing how the method of breaking the fourth wall can be used in more serious contexts, I'd hesitantly advise you to check out Funny Games -- a brutal home invasion thriller that casts the viewer as an accomplice in the crime, with the reprehensible criminals frequently making Bugs Bunny-esque asides to the camera as they do unspeakable things.

In terms of pure metric tonnage, though, nothing in recent memory approaches Deadpool's fourth-wall-breaking mania. A superhero movie starring a character who is literally aware that he exists in a movie, Deadpool nearly collapses under the weight of its self-awareness. Because its studio had low expectations for a relatively cheap, hard-R Marvel movie, Deadpool is able to deliver withering, ultra-specific commentary about the state of superhero movies in general, and Marvel properties in particular. Add on top of that the desire to subvert expectations of established cinematic formulas, and Deadpool lands itself a spot as one of the more unique fourth-wall-breaking machines of all time.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Supergroups. 

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