If grown men have shed a tear in the cinema these last few weeks, it is not for nothing. Even those who manage to maintain their proper place in the audience without playing “Is it him or his brother?” during the first two hours of (Fast and) Furious 7 will have a hard time not being sucked through the fourth wall to join Vin Diesel and friends in their sad tribute to a lost friend during the final scenes.
And it is indeed the actor Vin Diesel they will join. Not his character Dominic Toretto. But the wall-breaking in question is unprecedented: A strange mélange of perceptual positions, a reflection of the human need to idolise and the sad story of every young man who wants to go just a little too fast.
Breaking the fourth wall is a storytelling tool we have seen many times before in the movies.
When Ferris Bueller and Jordan Belfort look the audience in the eye, they are giving us permission to sympathise and join them in their comedic or tragic story. They are looking out, talking to the audience, as if they too were a spectator of the story, sitting right there next to us. But of course, they are not even in the room. Only the audience is. The rest is just moving pictures.
At the theatre, things are different. Actors are actually there. But their physical proximity on the stage is no burden to the suspension of audience disbelief. Although we could stand up and touch the actor at any time, it is not the actor we are looking at, but the character in the play. The wall remains intact. It is only when the final curtain falls and the cast steps out from behind to take a bow that the distance is broken and we can make contact with the actor.
In today’s era of “view-with-commentary” Blu-Ray and social-media friending of the stars, we may feel closer to our favourite film stars than ever before. But we know it is not really true. They are not talking to us at all, but to another studio microphone or iPhone keyboard on the other side of the Atlantic. We remain the audience.
But Furious 7 is different. The men sitting in the cinema are as much a part of the tragedy as the men on the screen. What makes the fans cry during those final scenes is not a cheeky wall-breaking wink from Ferris Bueller mid-scene, a handshake with the leading actor backstage, or a revealing DVD-commentary from a sad co-star. It is a true fusion between cast, character and audience that we are not accustomed to in modern cinema, proper to our human need to idolise and fundamentally linked therefore to the tragic story of Paul Walker and our relationship with him.
Idolising others is normal human behaviour.
As children, the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is inevitably the result of our relationship with some hero-figure we would like to emanate. I still want to surf because Johnny Utah did; and every one of my guitar-faces has been subconsciously replayed and rehearsed whilst watching concert footage of Steve Vai.
As adults, we may be less outright in our expression of idolisation, but we still hold the image of successful others on a pedestal and we still strive with more-or-less effort (and success) to be something we are not.
This has probably been the case forever. As Alain de Botton explains so well in his book “The News: A User’s Manual” we have always idolised. Romans did it. The church does it. The role of an idol in any society is to give us someone to identify with, look up to and learn from.
The success of our favourite movies depends on such identification. If you can’t empathise with Cooper‘s promise to his daughter in “Interstellar”, there is no investment or reason to stay with him on the 80-year journey home.
In the Fast and Furious franchise, we are given double reason to idolise.
The first is Paul Walker himself. A handsome, successful strong man, women want him and men want to be him. Poster-boy for Davidoff’s “Cool Water”, humanitarian and father, any near-middle-aged movie fan could be forgiven for having a man-crush on Walker. Most do not have the triceps to be Vin Diesel, nor the Humvee to be The Rock, and Bodhi died already in 2009. And Walker gets to drive really fast cars, which is probably what we all wanted to do when we grew up. The man was a walking success story.
The second reason is Walker’s Fast and Furious character Brian O’Connor, who through his own idolisation of Dominic Toretto gives us permission to idolise in the first place. In the original episode, we are introduced to young man who just wants to be cool. Submerged in the world of fast cars and booty, we see the action through the eyes of a child who cannot believe he is really there. And in fact, he is not. O’Connor is undercover as Spilner, pretending to be something he is not, just as we all do. When O’Connor/Spilner nearly beats Toretto in his first quarter-mile race, his “I almost had you” is akin to the feeling of placing a beautiful triple-word score in Scrabble against your father. “I fooled you”. You thought I was just a child, but the boy has become a man. Almost.
This strive to identify and subsequent idolisation is the foundation for what is happening today in the cinema.
And it happens in a very special way. The wall is not broken, but transcended by our double identification with Walker/O’Connor and our own confusing place in his story.
And so, in the final scenes of Furious 7, the tearful man on the screen is neither character nor actor. He is both and we can no longer tell if we are looking at Dominic Toretto or Vin Diesel.
And neither is he talking to character Brian O’Connor, nor to the lost actor Paul Walker, but again, to both.
As the soundtrack reminds us that our hero and star is gone, we being to wonder: Who are we exactly? Are we still the audience of these fictional characters? Or the mourning fan? And are we mourning this unknown film-star or have we by now become the man himself? As we consciously realise the extent of our own childish idolisation, we mourn for the person we have never known and for the man we will never ourselves become. And just as this confusing process of self-identification is nearly complete, the camera pans full out to leave us planted back in our seats unsure of exactly what is happening, who we are and who we want to be.
Fast. Furious. And emotional.