A little while ago on Vine (my social media app of choice) a trend developed, started by Tony Oswald called ‘Besides’. This grew out of his starting a second account for ‘B-Sides’ vines. Instead it developed into a narrative using a verite style of still shot video combined with a third person narration in the description box. This got very popular very quick and has been endlessly homaged, copied and lampooned. For my part I created an account called ‘Leo’s Asides’ where I spoke directly to the camera within a similar shot which was a pun on the idea of A-Sides and the theatrical technique of an Aside. I thought this was a highly witty but was little more than a one off gag and didn’t really ‘have legs’ so I abandoned it. I later returned to the account and turned it into an homage to Jackanory, a favourite kids TV show of mine, that revolvese around people telling stories directly to the camera.
An Aside is a very old theatrical technique whereby a character on stage turns to face the audience and express a short quip or thought. It is similar to a monologue or soliloquy but shorter. This is still popular in theatre but has always had a shaky relationship with television and film, in those mediums it is referred to as ‘breaking the 4th wall’, the fourth wall being the one that the camera points through and in a studio doesn’t even exist. It has come back somewhat tentatively in recent years, most successfully thanks to Kevin Spacey’s grounding in theatre on House of Cards, but is often seen as cheap or lazy unless done with purpose and I’m interested in why.
On the stage the audience is present in the room with the actors, we are part of the fiction, we are sat in the theatre and interactivity is encouraged be that simply through applause or laughter so an actor turning to face us as an audience seems natural; why wouldn’t our hero want us to be on his side and so explain his reasoning? Or a villain attempt to justify his actions? The falsity is apparent throughout a theatre experience and the amount of tools available in theatre (originally at least) are far less than those in cinema so it is useful to explain the motivations of a character especially when done so eloquently as when Shakespeare does it. In film or television however you have things like score, editing, voice over/narration, CGI and many other tools to help make a character’s inner monologue or motivations apparent on screen but for some reason a wink to camera or an aside can induce a wince from an audience. Most of the time this sort of expository stuff is handled through conversation, normally quite clunkily, so you would think a quick aside might speed things along but apparently not, they just seem cheap or cheasy. Can you think of many moments where this is done successfully in a film or TV? I struggle. Why is this? I think the real problem lies in one big question it poses that should not be posed whilst watching a film or TV show: Who are you talking to?
In the really rather excellent opening to series 2 of Netflix’s House of Cards (not the original BBC adaptation) the whole episode goes by without an aside and so much happens in that hour you are totally engrossed so it is with genuine shock and deep unease that you watch Underwood look into the camera through his mirror and ask “Did you think I had forgotten you?” This question comes loaded with a great deal: Who is this ‘you’? In the internal logic of the show why would he have not found time to talk to me/us/you? Another episode later in the 3rd series ends with him glaring at the lens and saying “What are you looking at?” a directly confrontational line that initially uses an old phrase people use to dismiss people who have witnessed something unpleasant but underlying that: what are we looking at? Are we voyeurs? Does Underwood know this is all fiction, a game? Or is this Spacey adding commentary to the events (an unpopular point of view as that robs the show of its painstaking lengths to get an audience invested)? For me I have my own theory on who Frank Underwood is talking to, along with every other aside or monologue I have seen.
All monologues/soliloquy pale in comparison to Hamlet’s now cliched ‘To Be or Not To Be’ but love it or loathe it, its a fucking BARNSTORMER. At once revelatory, prophetic, poetic, beautiful sad, witty, insightful, profound and completely baffling it conveys enough thought and emotion to have sustained it for centuries and centuries to come but with every production of Hamlet comes the question that all directors and actors fear: how do we do this? Who do you say it to? Ultimately you choose one of two ways, to the audience or to themselves. For me that is who you are talking to in film or TV when performing an aside: you are talking to yourself. More often than not a soliloquy is an attempt to justify their actions and we feel and understand and sympathise with this because we all do this everyday. We all attempt to explain or justify our actions or reasoning to ourselves every time we do anything, for theatrical purposes a monologue/aside/soliloquy is an effective way of expressing that. In literature, certainly from a first person perspective, it is nothing but a long open monologue on the part of the author.
For me it boils down to immersion, how deeply immersed do you want your audience? By adding the internal conflict or reasoning of a character you allow insight and by extension identifiable emotions or logic and it allows for greater understanding and sympathy for the person. This is why some of the most memorable or effective chats with the audience are with “villains”. To sympathise with a monster is an unsettling feeling but one that can only be achieved to that extent through a whispered, private conversation between you and them. When you do not have this you are projecting your own feelings onto the character’s words and deeds which can be equally affecting but seeing the depth of character that can be achieved and how memorable a good aside can be I’d hope this is a trend that will return. True Detective 1 achieved a certain level of soliloquy with Rust as he explained his rationale and philosophy to the two detectives interviewing him in monologue form but House of Cards use of a direct to camera soliloquising far from distancing the audience by confronting us with the reality (or falsity) of our watching position it draws me deeper in and engages me directly with someone whom I would consider a monster but 3 series in consider to be a well reasoned man.
In an age of snooper’s charters, wikileaks, Snowden and every other threat to our privacy not least our compulsion to tweet, facebook or vine every thought we have to the world, the intimacy and even comfort of a private word, one to another, is a rarity I’d like to see less turned aside.