Breaking the fourth wall in movies is an interesting technique to engage audiences. Letting your characters speak, or look, directly to your audience feels weird, destroying in a way the illusion of film and the way in which viewers anonymously follow the story.
It has been used to comic effect (like in Annie Hall (1977), Pierrot le Fou (1965) or Amelie (2001)) or more scary and disturbing effect (The Shining (1980), Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Psycho (1960)). Actually, just for fun, check out this montage to see it’s not completely uncommon for a director to break the fourth wall.
Thinking about a great shot of breaking the fourth wall, I was reminded of the classic final scene of the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998), where the evil spirit Sadako is seen crawling out of a television set. That shot was incredibly effective in disturbing me as a viewer. It’s not literally a fourth wall that is broken, as Sadako doesn’t really attack the audience, but attacks the hero (excluding that last shot of her eye looking at us). But to the hero it is a breaking of ‘a wall’ as a television character moves out of the confines of the TV and enters reality.
To me, when using this technique to frighting the audience, that is what happens. The audience, for a moment, feels as if the illusionary world of film is touching reality. In Ringu, Sadako might not literally approach us as an audience, but we probably are watching the movie through a (television)screen, so the idea of blurring the boundaries between illusion and reality works on us.
But my One Shot this time is not from Ringu. It’s another shot that inspired me to write this, and it’s not actually from a movie, but from a tv-series; Twin Peaks. In that series (episode 2 of the second season to be precise, directed by the show’s creator David Lynch) there is a shot, which in its design is so similar to Ringu, that as I’m comparing them now, I cannot see the ending of Ringu as anything but an homage to that Twin Peaks shot.
About the series
Twin Peaks is a classic series based around the mystery of the murder of teenager Laura Palmer, in the northwest small-town of Twin Peaks. It’s one of the first fully serialized tv-shows, where each episode was crucial for the overarching plot development. It also became a classic through its wonderful mix of subtle paranormal mystery with easily digestible soap-opera, all while staying constantly weird and surreal.
The series was known for its dreamlike atmosphere and strange visuals, like the backwards talking dwarf in the nightmarish ‘red room’ or the occasional appearance of ‘Bob’, the evil spirit that was connected to the murder of Laura Palmer.
Considering its creator’s full biography, this surreal touch is hardly surprising. David Lynch had already made the classic movies Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986), both entirely weird and freaky. Especially Blue Velvet signaled Lynch’s concept of mixing a top-layer of sweet drama, with a darker, more disturbing underbelly of nightmares and twisted ideas. Which is basically what also defined Twin Peaks.
Lynches’ talent for the surreal
David Lynch is probably one of my favorite directors of all time. I know of no other director who is as skilled as Lynch is in creating surreal, dreamlike and often disturbing imagery. He uses weird compositions, intense and disorientating soundtracks, great set-design and unsettling lightning to completely transform normal things into the surreal.
In my last post I talked about Janusz Kamiński’s work in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he constantly related his surreal imagery to the reality in which the story took place. In his work, David Lynch does exactly that. But even more, he often makes reality surreal without changing a lot about it. He changes it through small details. By filming from a weird angle, by focussing on a specific prop, or by composing a set in such a way it ‘feels’ weird.
In Twin Peaks, for example, he used a recurring image of a staircase leading up to Laura Palmer’s room, with a fan on the ceiling slowly
turning round. The way he filmed it, from a twisted low viewpoint, and the way he used sounds and music on top of it, immediately made the shot feel strange. Even worse, the shot becomes a threatening image, signifying the presence of some sort of danger. And yet, it’s just a staircase with a fan…
I think that therein lies Lynch’s genius. He rarely needs special effects to create his weirdness. He just knows how to twist reality in such a way it starts to feel unreal.
The One Shot
Which is exactly what happens in this One Shot. In this shot, one of the main characters, Madeleine (a cousin of Laura Palmer) is being stalked by the evil spirit Bob, while sitting in a normal living room. When you imagine how to visualize someone being stalked by an evil spirit, you may think of creepy made-up faces, flashes of weird lightning, maybe some moving furniture. But Lynch uses non of that.
When described literally, this shot is nothing more than a frozen frame of an empty living room, with a weird, grey haired man walking/crawling towards you. The man looks kinda creepy, but not through costume or makeup. You might not want to let him babysit your children, but he’s no ‘evil spirit’ either. Yet, just look at this shot and experience what you feel: (to focus on the shot, I’ve edited out the reaction shots of Madeleine, instead fading to black for a second each time).
To me, it’s an incredibly scary scene, really getting you. It is of course a great demonstration of how breaking the fourth wall can disturb you. Even though Bob is stalking Madeleine, he has his gaze directed to the camera, thus to us. And just as in Ringu, he threatens to crawl right through the television set.
But it’s not just the way this shot breaks the fourth wall. It also works because of its deliberate pace. There is hardly any movement in the shot. No zooming, no dolly movement, no flickering lights (all techniques which often help in creating tension). There is just a dull living room, and a guy who doesn’t even run, he just… walks.
But through its deliberate pace the shot becomes so intense. Almost like there’s an inevitability to Bob getting to ‘you’. And when you look back, just look at the way the set is designed. Lynch created this clear line in the middle by stuffing props in the sides of the frame. Even the pillows on the bed almost seem to invite someone in between them.
This shot really shows how a very, very strong and static framing can really make the shot and how you can manipulate a normal-looking environment and semi-normal looking guy into a nightmarish image that haunts the viewer long after its over.