Sunday, April 15, 2012

Breaking the Fifth Wall: The Beginning

The genesis for this blog is - of all things - a scene from the otherwise thoroughly forgettable Ocean's Twelve, in which a key plot point revolves around the fact that the character Tess Ocean looks exactly like Julia Roberts ... because she's of course played by Julia Roberts.

To give an example, in this scene, Tess (Julia Roberts) has to fool Bruce Willis (Bruce Willis) into thinking she's actually Julia Roberts (Julia Roberts) in order to blah-blah-blah-I-forget-the-rest-because-who-cares-it's-Ocean's-Twelve.

"So what's so special about that? Movies break the fourth wall all the time", you might be thinking.  And you'd be right, except this isn't the fourth wall being broken.  That's defined as the imaginary transparent barrier between the performance taking place in front of you and the audience, and "breaking" that wall is now so common that it's more of a stylistic choice for storytellers rather than the novelty it once was.

What happens in Ocean's Twelve is completely different.  There's no nod to the audience, no coy acknowledgement that what you're watching is an artifice performed by actors on a sound stage.  To the contrary, the plot asks you to maintain the illusion that Tess Ocean is not Julia Roberts playing a character, but rather someone who just happens to look exactly like Julia Roberts - so much so that she's actually mistaken for the "real" Julia Roberts who also exists in this same movie universe.

So stop and think about that for a second.  She looked just as much like Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven, yet it never came up.  Of course it didn't come up.  This could be either because (a) you don't often refer to what close friends of yours look like every time they come up in conversation, or (b) she wasn't supposed to look like a famous actor in the first movie.  (Or both, I suppose, but go with me here.)  I say it's the latter, because the first unspoken rule of any performance you'll ever see by any actor, 99.9999%, is this:

The actor you see right now does not exist as herself/himself in this fictional universe we just created.

(Apparently, this is true in Ocean's Twelve for every character besides Julia Roberts, since no one thinks to comment that the Brad-Pitt-character looks just like Brad Pitt, that the George-Clooney-character looks like George Cooney, that the Matt-Damon-character looks like Matt Damon, etc. etc. etc.)

This is an incredibly important rule, yet one so deceptively simple that it never occurred to me until Ocean's Twelve.  (Maybe I'm alone in this, and everyone else reading this just let out a collective "well, duh".)  This is why nearly every movie, TV show and play you'll see in your life isn't littered throughout with characters saying to each other when they first meet, "Wow, anyone ever tell you that you look just like Will Smith/Barbara Streisand/Emmanuel Lewis?"  And that is what I'm calling "The Fifth Wall" -- it's the frame that creates the stage or screen you're watching.  It's the context, the conceptual boundaries, the unspoken rules of storytelling that are necessary for everything else that follows to make any sense.  To borrow (and re-purpose) a line from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, it's a lie agreed upon.

And it's fascinating to me, perhaps the most fascinating thing about fiction (and culture in general).  So I set up this space to ramble on about storytelling devices, tropes, studio decisions and other observations.  Thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoy it.

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