Meat, Milk and the Fourth Wall

I prefer fiction to fact.

Actually, without wishing to expose my philosophical ignorance too completely, I’m not sure what is meant by fact. The quest for objective truth always seems to me like a pretty futile one.

As I was reminiscing to a pal a few days ago: I remember from my time in bookselling the glorious period when the (then) three remaining Beatles got together to write a definitive account of their history.

It turned out that whilst they could agree on very general things, the details were maddeningly elusive. They could remember the same meeting for instance, but they each recalled different people being there, or it taking place in a different country. They could piece a lot of it together from documentary evidence but there was a lot of stuff that just seemed to have no readily discernible objective truth.

I feel that this is the case for everything that is presented as fact. Really you’ve just got points of view occasionally corroborated by physical evidence which may be interpretable more than one way.

To use another example from my own life, my niece Poppy has a clear recollection of the shocking incident of Uncle Feexby throwing a Frisbee over the hedge into the next-door neighbours’ garden. She is very clear on the details. The only trouble is that this never actually happened.

I am the patsy in the case.

I will concede that I threw the Frisbee on to the top of the hedge, but I then retrieved it non-controversially with the use of a handy set of stepladders. Granddad subsequently chucked the damn thing over the hedge into the other neighbour’s garden, but you never hear about that. Oh no.

I am the victim of a concerted propaganda campaign. History does not belong to the victors so much as it belongs to the people with the loud and persistent voices.

It’s all very unjust.

Anyway fiction, lacking the distracting, self-important burden of having to be accurate can tell us a lot more about things a lot more easily I have always felt.

It’s a strange colluding relationship we have with fiction though, we consumers of it. There is a necessary suspension of disbelief which cheapens us slightly but we go along with it. It’s the price we pay for the journey. When it is taken for granted by the storyteller though, that can be a real slap in the face.

I am a massive fan of Die Hard (1988), the progenitor of the modern action movie. It has wonderful, terse dialogue, intelligent and unobtrusive foreshadowing, beguiling characters and a very elegant structure with a beautiful reverse half way through. It struck the template, and for about a decade afterwards every action movie was pitched as “Die Hard on a…” Train, mountain, bus. Canoe on one memorable occasion, thank you Curtis Hanson and The River Wild (1994).

What I can’t stand though is the feculent Die Hard 2 (1990). Apart from the appalling, crass direction of Renny Harlin (“First act: whammies. Second act: whammies. Third act: all whammies.”), what gets my very-hard-to-get goat is the fact that the central character acknowledges TO THE AUDIENCE the sheer preposterousness of what’s happening to him. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he says, or words to that effect. I’m not even going to dignify it by checking the quote. If you’ve seen the film then you know the bit I mean. If you haven’t then, well done you!

Bloody hell Harlin, the less polite of us squawked at that point. We are working hard to get through this. Don’t make this more difficult for us than it has to be.

It is called breaking the fourth wall, this bit when characters acknowledge the presence of an audience and, by extension, accept their own fictional status. We have, apparently, Diderot to thank for the idea that the proscenium arch on stage (or the screen at a cinema or on a television) represents a wall through which we can see the characters, but through which they can’t see us. Diderot also coined the phrase “l’esprit d’escalier” (the spirit of the staircase), meaning the witty thing that you think of to say, but it’s too late as you’ve already left the room.

I like his style.

Anyway, breaking the fourth wall, or having the characters recognise the audience or in some other way trespass on the viewers’ territory: you have to use it pretty carefully if you’re going to use it at all. You’ve really got to have a point.

It works brilliantly in comedy. For example the frame-fucking antics in Hellzapoppin’ (1941) or the awe-inspiring Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck (1953) where Daffy tries waging an unwise war with his animator. Even in the 70s and 80s in the Airplane/Police Squad (Naked Gun) movies and Mel Brooks’ final sequence in Blazing Saddles where the action wanders off the Western set and through the film studio it is never less than an amusing device.

However it is a difficult one to pull off in serious (by which I mean non-comical) drama. The only effective example I can bring to mind is the genuinely unsettling sequence in Ringu (1998) where Sadako, the damp antagonist of that creepy film, is shown coming through a TV screen, shockingly breaching the impermeable barrier between viewer and viewed. Any other good examples? Please let me know.

Daffy Duck shows, as usual, how it's done

This is all in my mind (or what, laughably, passes for it just now) because The Archers had one of its fumbles of contemporaneousness today.

The Archers, for you few benighted souls out there who are unfamiliar with it, is a 15-minute daily soap opera on Radio 4. (Actually it is only usually 13 minutes long, and it doesn’t air on Saturday. How pedantic are we being today?)

It started life as a spiffing way for the government, specifically the Ministry of Agriculture, to provide pertinent information to farmers and people with smallholdings in the austerity years after the war when productivity was of immense national importance.

This role has diminished over time, in fact has become inverted as the programme now, whilst never denying its principal dramaturgical purpose to entertain, acts as a way of keeping city-dwelling consumers, such as me, abreast of the realities of life in agriculture (or agri-business) in the 21st Century. There’s a dedicated Agricultural Story Editor and everything.

All sorts of stuff has been covered, and always with more sensitivity and attendance to reality than any TV equivalents would have managed. TB outbreaks and the possible culpability of badgers; protests against GM crops; rural isolation, depression and suicide; alcoholism, gambling and drug addiction. It’s all there, and it’s all been done well, and it’s all the more convincing for its quiet consistency, and the fact that the hysterical drama is massively, massively outweighed by the convincingly quotidian.

Hell of a jaunty theme tune too. Barwick Green by Arthur Wood. Check it out. It’s frequently touted as a possible replacement for our racist dirge of a national anthem. Count me in.

The problem today (August 4th) has been that whilst it is generally easy to accept that Ambridge is a real place, and that the characters are real people, every once in a while an “actual” news event catches the programme out at short notice.

Often in cases like this there is a hastily inserted micro-scene where two random characters (whichever actors were available on the day) bump into each other in church or on the village green and say “Ooo, isn’t it terrible about Princess Di being in a car crash?” Or, “Ooo, isn’t it shocking about that terrorist outrage on the World Trade Centre?” Then we cut back to the rest of the village drinking, fretting, carousing and putting on pantomimes as usual.

Today though, when the UK news has been full of a farming story, not one of the villagers mentioned it.

What has happened in the real world is that some stuff has found its way into the food chain that shouldn’t have. Meat from two bulls which were the offspring of a cloned cow has, through some embarrassing but understandable confusions of jurisdiction, made it into peoples’ fridges. There have been allegations that milk from cloned cows has done so too, but these are vigorously denied by everyone who knows anything at all about it.

There are legal restrictions on the selling of meat sourced from cloned animals in the UK.

The nation is ablaze!

“Tsk tsk,” it said.

Personally I would have thought that any unapproved meat of this ilk would be a hell of a lot more yummy than the macerated organs and pulverised “spare bits” of animal that constitute most burgers, but then I am a fairly relaxed consumer of food. As long as it’s tasty on the way in and reasonably painless on the way out and is produced with joy and without misery and cruelty then I’m up for it.

The only distress I feel about the cloned cattle story is that the whole issue has gone unremarked in Ambridge. My sense of betrayal is immense.

7 comments on “Meat, Milk and the Fourth Wall

  1. What’s your opinion on the fourth wall in comics/graphic novels? I guess Animal Man is the most cited example… but as I’m pre-morning-coffee and don’t have access to to a decent comic stash I can’t come up with any others right now. Interested – as always – to hear your opinions 🙂

    • Hi Kirsty.

      I remember being really excited about the end of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man in which Buddy trudges his way through comicbook limbo and ends up at Morrison’s home having a conversation with the author. But, transgressive as it was at the time, it didn’t do much other than highlight an author with no more ideas left for that series.

      I love Grant Morrison’s work (Filth, The Invisibles and so on) but his story arcs do have a bit of a tendency to disintegrate towards the end. It’s like all those bloody meta-ficitonal books about authors writing books. Paul Auster, take a bow. Calvino’s “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” has a lot to answer for.

      Perhaps the existence of the fourth wall and its facilitation of the whole of fiction is more exciting as a convention than the breaching of it can ever be.

      Also, the intended seriousness of the narrative has some importance I think. It’s not a problem when the Bash Street kids direct comments at the reader. It would be a bit more weird if Batman started doing it.

  2. I love Die Hard 2, it’s one of my favourite Christmas movies…

    And as for the cloned meat thing, it’s answered a question I’ve had for a while. Is it just cows we eat or do we eat bulls too. The answer = yes. I don’t care about the rest of the story. What do people think clone material will do? Killer zombies?! It’ll probably fix the prions we ate in the 80’s.

    • Hey Dave.

      Facebook keeps prodding me with the message that many people who like Die Hard also like Die Hard 2. I accept that this is true. Probably won’t click on the thumbs-up icon though. I think it’s a pale imitation of the first one. Interestingly John McTiernan seems to have directed Die Hard With A Vengeance as a sequel to Die Hard, and disregarded everything that happened in Die Hard 2 as non-canonical.

      Die Hard 2, it’s the Predator 2 of Die Hard movies!

      There are two more bits of fourth wall breaking that I have remembered since writing the blog.

      1) The Doctor, Steven and Sara Kingdom raising a toast to the viewers at home in the Christmas episode of the Doctor Who story The Daleks’ Master Plan.

      2) George Lazenby’s Bond quipping “This never happened to the other fella” after getting duffed up at the beginning of the otherwise faultless OHMSS.

      Writers, don’t do it!

      • OHMSS has one other fault. The horrible horrible horrible Scottish Laird bit. It’s a touch atrocious. Other than that though I like it a lot and was going to use that very example until you beat me to it.

        Staying on a Bruce Willis theme, Moonlighting did a lot of 4th wall defying mischief if memory serves? Comedy though, so they get away with it.

  3. There’s the bit in Magnolia where Philip Seymour Hoffman is on the phone looking for help saying to the person on the line if this were a movie this is the bit where you’d help me out. I love that film.

    Re the Archers I too was surprised not to hear the word ‘clone’ crowbarred into tonight’s episode. Maybe they record the episodes in batches so it’ll eventually appear when we’ve all forgotten about it.

    It reminds me of the time Radio Scotland tried doing a soap – Linton Bay. Like the Archers but set in a fishing community. Somehow it didn’t work. Only the barking mad British anachronism that is Radio 4 can get away with these things.

    It also reminds me that Fred MacAulay and Greg Hemphill used to have a comedy soap called Pelican Crossing on Eddie Mair’s Radio Scotland show. Most episodes ended with some guy called Rusty Nail forgetting to take his medication and going on a ‘destructive rampage and reign of terror’. Yippie ki-yay.

  4. Hey John, I thought of another non-comic fourth-wall transgression, though I must add the caveat that it’s also not dramatic and therefore not strictly apropos. ‘Man With A Movie Camera’ has repeated sections where the viewer (or at least me) is rapt at a scene before one is drawn back ten feet to see the semi-protagonist filmaker at work.

    I guess how much you view that as a fourth wall thing is dependent on how much you buy the token of the film being a ‘story’ about a guy filming things, which I don’t. I view it as a lot of nice shots with some occasional reality-flipping for good measure. I’m probably wrong to do so.

    In the interest of further topicality:
    I have never seen either Die Hard or any of its sequels. I have the unshakable notion that I’m not missing much.
    I abhor The Archers. For me it has Radio 4’s equivalent to Radio 1’s Florence and the Machine effect, i.e. an instant reason to switch off. I can’t event connect with it on an ironic/pity level. Meta-farming is still too farm-centric for me.

    To summarise: I may be a grumpy old bugger in training, but your blog is good and you should post more.

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