Fourth Wall, Schmourth Wall

Huzzah for the recent trend in television comedies to include direct camera addresses! For too long, TV and movies have been beholden to a strict dictate to be visual, to “show, don’t tell.” It is, of course, a lovely property of TV and movies that they have the ability to show things and all that visual jazz. But sometimes it can be awkward to show a thing and much easier to say it; for example, what a character is thinking. And if it’s easier to include voiceover or a direct camera address or intertitles or what have you, isn’t it awesome that film and television are flexible enough media to handle that too? Why shouldn’t film and television use whatever means are at their disposal to tell a good story?

There are two tarnishes on this silver lining of direct camera addresses. One is that so far is that it seems almost entirely the province of comedies. Why shouldn’t dramas have in on the fun? The other is that most shows seem to feel the need to explain the camera addresses to the audiences. Perhaps showrunners are laboring under the impression that a simple direct camera address would draw attention to the fictionality of the show. The audience, they think, would be roused from their absorption in the fiction when they are reminded that the events are actually only fictional. So we have multiplying mockumentaries so that the audience isn’t disconcerted by a character just suddenly turning to a camera and talking.

But the thing is, when a character does just turn to a camera and starts talking, it’s not disconcerting at all. Take the show Better Off Ted. The direct camera addresses in the show are usually done when the main character is walking from one place to another. He just turns to the camera and talks. And it’s not in the least discombobulating or confusing. There’s really no need for these massively multiplying mockumentaries, unless we really are supposed to think that these are the reality shows someone actually wanted to make (pretty implausible in the cases of, say,¬†Parks and Recreation and The Office).

Film history is littered with instances when filmmakers worried that audiences would not understand what was going on or be jerked out of their absorption in their fictional world. Filmmakers made a reach in guessing that an audience really would figure out what was going on and not be too distracted. Melies switched from scene to scene. Porter and others started to cut within scenes. Kurosawa left in lens flares. A dead guy does the voiceover in Sunset Blvd. Audiences usually figure it out.

The idea that audiences are so insanely absorbed in what they are watching that a direct camera address serves as an Brechtian abrupt break is really faintly ridiculous. Brecht thought that a direct address would completely disrupt an audience, and filmmakers still seem to assume that to this day. But it doesn’t.¬†Just as ridiculous is the postmodern obsession with drawing attention to the medium as well as to the content. Do you ever forget that you are watching a movie or a play or a TV show? Do you ever get so absorbed that you think the events are happening in front of you? Really, actually believe it? Or suspend your disbelief or however you want to phrase it? At least, that is, until some helpful postmodernist points out the medium through which the content is conveyed, and then, oh yeah, you remember? If so, why don’t you call 911 when Othello strangles Desdemona? Why don’t we get completely thrown out of kilter every time the camera shifts position in a film? What are we to make of slow motion? Non-diegetic music? Blood spatters on a camera? Shifts in focus? How do any of those make sense if we think we are watching through a “fourth wall”?

Peering through a “fourth wall” is actually nothing like what it is to watch TV or movies. We don’t really feel like we’re peering in on events that are happening at a completely isolated fictional world. When I watch an episode of Justified (not exactly a postmodern show), I am aware of what is going on in the fiction and emotionally involved in it. But I never forget it is Timothy Olyphant playing the lead, and my mind often marvels at the 10,000 Hairdos of Natalie Zea, and I will think about the fact that the female characters are underdeveloped, and that the show alludes to several Westerns. The fictional world and the actual world are not completely isolated from each other in our minds. We always know we’re watching a fiction. It’s not a shock if we’re reminded of it.

One of the reasons that the recent BBC show Sherlock is so appealing is its complete embrace of any technique whatever to tell its story, and its complete faith that the audience will figure it out. There are direct camera addresses. Text messages received by characters are sometimes shown as hovering titles in the air. The showrunners are not under the illusion that the audience is under the illusion that they are watching the events happen. They know the audience can handle verbal storytelling in a televisual medium. And, as it happens, while the show is arguably postmodern in its own way here and there, it is ultimately a seriously non-avant-garde entertaining detective show. It uses techniques that are supposedly postmodern, but really, they just tell a story.

The experience of TV and film is not an experience of temporarily believing that you are really watching these events occur. There could be more storytelling power at the hands of filmmakers and showrunners if they trusted that the audience could totally handle direct camera addresses and other intimations that the world is fictional. Because the audience already always knows it is, and still is absorbed in the fiction and still cares about the characters.

 

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

7 Comments

  1. People used to bitch that the voiceover narration on, for example, Magnum, PI was disruptive, fourth-wall-breaking, unrealistic, and all the things they call direct camera addresses now. “But how can we tell what they’re really saying and what’s just in their heads?”

  2. I agree that this sort of breaking the fourth wall is okay, but I can’t think of many shows that would benefit from direct camera addresses.

    If you’re going to address the audience directly, I’d much prefer a narrator.

    • An actual narrator could be a fun technique. An omniscient third party, not one of the characters in the show, but someone removed from them, watching the show like we are, nd cutting in occasionally to tell us something in a conspiratorial tone, or to joke about something we’re already thinking (“you’d think by now that everybody knows you should never split up when being stalked by a guy in a goalie mask, but these kids apparently never went to the movies”). It’d be a little MST3K like, and could easily be over-used, but done judiciously it would be great.

  3. Maybe breaking the wall is more acceptable in comedy because the character, performer, and even writer are often the same person (or persona) — think of Groucho, George Burns, and Woody Allen. Drama is often more plot-driven than comedy, making it harder to write ‘in character’ in an interesting (or convincing) way. Yeah, it’s hard to do well; that’s why god created narrators.

    I like the idea of engaging an ‘unreliable narrator’ as a main character who speaks directly to the audience, but that’s a special case.

Comments are closed.