So there was an episode of Lost that aired back sometime in the spring that bothered me. To expand upon what I wrote back then, I want to talk about the improper use of breaking the fourth wall.
You know those moments in films, they are there to shock you. They shake you out of your seat! They add to the realism of the film! They highlight the tragedy and/or humanity of a life lost by an explosive device and/or hand-made prison shank! They bring the experience of exploding death right into your living room! They can break the fourth wall.
The fourth wall is the boundary between the audience and the actors, between the stage and the seats. In film, it’s become the camera lens. The eye with which we view the events of the fictional world. It is part of the suspension of belief between the fictional work and the audience. Some works have characters break the fourth wall for dramatic or comedic effect. Breaking the fourth wall, when the characters address the audience, reveals to the audience that the characters know that they are fictional. I think instantly of Mel Brooks’s films, but this sort of obvious instance of characters addressing the audience does not bother me. Hell, Shakespeare even did it. I’m bothered by a far more subtle technique, but a far more dangerous one. It’s like the passive-aggressive younger sibling; the one who is actually more frightening than the bully because they touch a deeper, more insightful nerve. I’m speaking of the aforementioned lesser-acknowledged splattering-of-crap-on-the-lens. With that said, it doesn’t necessarily have to break the fourth wall.
It can work very effectively when done in the right context or style. These being:
1. The film or show operates on that premise; for instance, in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s main intent is to present the experience of the second world war in as realistic a way as possible. Enough films had romanticized war, glorified the violence, downplayed the true traumas (‘the horror, the horror’), that Spielberg believes that recreating the D-Day landings in as realistic way as possible was the only way to truly do justice to the men who experienced it. If those men had the balls to actually live through this, you better have the stomach to watch it. In this instance, the splattering of blood and water on the camera lens only heightens this experience for the audience. You react with a jolt, and a realization that, “wow, this is real.” It works.
2. The whole film or show uses that style; it is not an isolated incident. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, while the premise is a work of fiction, Cuarón effectively employs a style that is much more than an attempt at making this fiction seem fact. With his hand-held camera work, panning, Steadicam shots (absolutely amazing), dark grey, muted cinematography and colour schemes, and an overall ‘second-hand’ feel to the production design, Cuarón’s dystopia is instantly understood by the viewer as a clumsy, bleak, tough-as-nails place to be. Like most dystopian fiction, it serves as a warning; a lesson to be learned. When random things hit the lends, you react with a jolt, but rather than think “this is real,” you think, “wow, I’m so glad this isn’t real.” It works.
2. The whole film or show continually employs metafiction; (Hot Fuzz spoiler alert!) it’s not breaking the fourth wall, because, let’s face it, they’re pretty blunt about the fact that this is a film. With Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, anyone who’s seen the film remembers letting out a terrified gasp and squirming like a kid about to wet the bed at the moment the remains of poor Tim Messenger’s head splashed across the camera lens. Hot Fuzz, like Shaun of the Dead before it, is a fantastic satire of not only action films, but of films in general. Wright, and co-writer Simon Pegg have their clichés down. In addition to meeting every genre expectation in the book, Hot Fuzz brilliantly (and subtly) references everything from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet to Murder on the Orient Express to every buddy cop movie ever made. Because of these continual instances of metafiction, Wright has created a Film. Capital F. A breaking of the fourth wall doesn’t occur because you expect the fourth wall to be broken. The shock in this moment is not that blood splatters on the camera, or that Tim Messenger dies, or even that a church spire made his head explode, but all three put together. You know it is coming, the genre requires it. So when it does, the pay-off is incredible. You react with a jolt, thinking, “Wow, it actually happened!” It works.
When doesn’t it work?
There’s one easy answer. When it breaks the fourth wall; which is to say, the verisimilitude of the film is broken. This elaborate reality is shattered by the explicit acknowledgement of the camera lens. Before I go on, I’m going to clear up a few terms here. First, let’s not confuse Realism with Metafiction with Verisimilitude. “Realism” is a term that gets bandied about, when in actuality, the terms Metafiction or Verisimilitude would do so much better.
1. Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, i.e. it lets you know that this is a film, or that this is a written document. Sometimes you see the creation of the story, often through a frame narrative, take a journey behind the camera, or, in Metafilm, the film itself becomes a metaphor for the production of the film itself. Metafiction, while addressing the “reality” that the film is just a film, it not Realism.
2. Realism is the depiction of people and events as they are in real life. While this is often an idealistic aim, as in “what is truly real,” Realism is a warts and all approach to film. If a film refers to the fact that it is a film (Metafiction), it often breaks its realism. In order for Realism to be achieved through the medium of film, it needs verisimilitude.
3. Verisimilitude in its literary context, is defined as the fact or quality of having the appearance of being true or real. But even films with events that are wildly unrealistic, such as with Lost, the film or show creates its own verisimilitude, within the creation of its own mythology. The fictional world is true in and of itself. It has its own laws, its own style. While having the perception of being true and real, this is not necessarily Realism, because it is often discontinuous with the laws and style of our external reality.
This verisimilitude is what Lost had created brilliantly. The mythology of Lost is hard and fast. There are certain rules to the Lost universe, and even when something as outlandish as time travel is introduced, it must work within the verisimilitude and style of the show. However, when those guts and/or water splash across the camera, it is completely out of line with the visual style. Yes, the show employs the use of hand-held cameras, but this is used to create atmosphere and tension, rather than to create any sense of Realism. So, when that blood and water splatter across the lens, it gives you a jolt, and causes you to think, “Wow, that’s so wrong.” It immediately breaks the fourth wall, in a highly inappropriate metareference to the fact that there is a camera there at all. I hate, hate, hate it when films that have a wonderful fictional reality suddenly destroy it. Part of what works with Lost is the fact that this elaborate mythology works; that you believe it in and of itself. It is simply ruined when you throw in something that reminds you that this is fiction. It jolts you back to the “real world” of the filmmakers, carelessly reminding you that this is just something created by mere fallible humans. It doesn’t work.
It has happened before. Braveheart is perhaps the best example in recent memory. Admittedly, I never saw the jewel in Mel Gibson’s crown until a few years ago. I didn’t like it. I was told that my opinion was tainted by contemporary opinion of post-The Passion of the Christ, post-drunken-anti-Semitic rant Gibson; by the post-Lord of the Rings world, in which all other sweeping epics are rendered moot, and perhaps by the fact that I am English. All of which are somewhat true. The two former points in fact render the film anachronistic to contemporary audiences in a way that I fully believe this film will not stand the test of time like most “great” films. I do contest the latter English argument, as I realise Braveheart is a perfect example of a faux-history film. Its history, while based in fact (or legend), is a history grossly distorted, partially made-up, and twisted to fit the classic epic formula/1990s values and worldview. However, none of this was what made me dislike Braveheart. Yes, indeed, that moment was one of the battle scenes, where blood-and-other-bodily-fluids splattered across the camera. Braveheart engaged with far less Realism than Lost, yet like Lost, the style of the film does not allow for a breaking of the fourth wall. It was not a Realistic style, but it was not Metafiction.
The splattering of guts on the lens defied its own verisimilitude. That is when it doesn’t work.