Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me: Breaking the Wall

movies that break the fourth wall

They say you’re either Beatles or Stones, Hellman’s or Miracle Whip. When it comes to breaking the cinematic ‘4th wall’ between screen characters & the viewers in their seats, I’ll fall on the audience talking to the screen side of the fence any day.


First let me differentiate the meaningful interactive dialogue I refer to from several other forms of crowd-to-screen interaction. There is the ROCKY HORROR phenomenon, an interesting low-budget '70s curiosity-turned-worldwide freak flag  phenomenon. This spectacle relies on mob-tested retorts voiced to on-screen lines, shouted & sung by thematically-costumed ‘enthusiasts.’

Then there is the scourge of the modern ‘scoff at the primitives’ epidemic, in which a 21st-century jaded filmgoer snarkily guffaws at the earlier cultural standards of an older film, or simply at their rotary phones. Can you believe they used to use those things to call people?! Just try to watch a '50s Hitchcock in the theater & not encounter this annoyance. I’ve got news for you- we are not smarter now, and you’re not on MST3K (a funny show).

Back to the screen side: When a director intentionally uses the character-addresses-audience trope, the effect, while first attention-grabbing, usually becomes cloying & distancing - to the point of ‘shut-the-fuck-up Ferris!’ I don’t need my story translated by some ‘relatable’ schmuck teen. Just show me what’s happening with your camera, dick.

No - the most fascinating participatory phenomenon for me happens in a singular spontaneous setting, when a single audience member is compelled enough by the film to stand up & join in the action. Back in the ‘90s (those were different times), I was a movie theater employee, popping corn and serving drinks in exchange for s few dollars & some free entertainment. Even the seedy grind-house theater downtown took our passes, so a friend and I took in an afternoon screening of ANACONDA


Along with the compelling HEART OF DARKNESS setup as J-Lo, Stoltz, Ice Cube & the gang assembled, I began to notice a silhouette in the darkness. A man seemed to be unpacking a duffel bag methodically, taking advantage of some down-time for organization. As the action picked up & characters began to get swallowed by the undulating bad-CGI serpent, the man became more emphatic, shouting encouragement to the characters - ‘Get that snake, Cube!’ & ‘Take him out’ (the Salvadoran bounty hunter masterfully played by Jon Voight). What could have been a tedious exercise in Hollywood formula was en-livened by the setting and identification of the (sparse) crowd. It felt like we had been ‘a part of something.’ (though on leaving we discovered my friend’s bike had been jacked).

At today’s Obsolete screenings, it is always interesting to see which audience members are affected enough to become ‘a part of the action.’ In Obsolete World, Everybody is a Star.