the social network: breaking on the fourth wall vs. breaking the fourth wall

A quick post today; I’m in the middle of studying for my econ final. (Or playing Carcassone online against Germans. One of the two, at least.) I want to talk about a single shot from The Social Network that seems to break the fourth wall of cinema viewing without ever actually doing so.

It starts like this: Jesse Eisenberg, playing Mark Zuckerberg, has just let into his rental Justin Timberlake (playing Sean Parker) and his sort of anonymous-y companion. (“This is my…Sharon,” JT says, flustered by the immediate need to introduce a woman with whom he has a nebulous, possibly sex-based relationship.)

Eisenberg tosses JT a beer without incident. Then he throws one to Sharon, but it goes wide and smashes against the wall.

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 3 first crash

You can see the beer in mid-explosion on the white wall to the far left, looking like a burn mark on the paint.

Anyway, Eisenberg prepares to toss her another beer, but she’s not ready.

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 4 first sorry

Eisenberg tosses the beer, which you can see at the beginning of its arc here:

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 5 in midflight

…and shattering on impact less than a second later, in the same shot:

2014-05-02 social network flying beer 6 crash

For a long time, I assumed that what was happening in this shot was that the beer was supposed to be breaking against the camera, which for this split second was assuming the role of wall.

So often, the camera is a non-presence in movies; it has a perspective but no weight. It’s a window, not a door, into the universe of the film. Even when it takes on the POV of a character (literally or figuratively), the camera/perspective is not a thing itself in the world of the story, but more like a passive receptor of the image. For director David Fincher to suddenly make the camera a physical presence meant the audience was suddenly aware that the camera was there, taking up space in the room along with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker.

To get what I mean viscerally, just compare the broken beers. The first (from the first shot above) illustrates how it feels to watch a beer smash up at a remove, when it’s breaking apart on some remote object. Then, in bold contrast, the shot of the beer coming at us – and losing focus as it does – creates a fuzzy space of indeterminacy right in front of us as the beer attacks us, smashes on us, interacts with us.

In any event, now that I’ve had to watch this scene several times, I’ve finally realized that the beer breaks not on the camera-as-wall, but on a sort of overhang at the top of the frame.

This is even sublimely better, in a way, since it means that Fincher is getting the best of both worlds: The camera is still, in theory, a passive window without substance, but there’s still the psychological effect of having the bottle break on our own faces. In the end, the viewer is tricked into feeling that the camera – and by extension, the viewer herself – is part of the scene, but without having a justification for it.

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