The Relevance of Fan Theories: Interpretations vs. Intentions
We all love, at some primitive level, to be told that we are wrong and, in turn, be manipulated into believing something completely different to what we did before. Simply look at the number of conspiracy theories still floating around the internet several years after the event (e.g. the Apollo 11 moon landing footage was faked). Whether it is a dangerous obsession or a brief curiosity, we all love to get our minds blown. This is exemplified by the plethora of fan theories about our favourite movies, television shows and so on, which force you to spend several hours in introspective pondering about your interpretations about a certain film or television series. But, at what point can a fan theory be considered an essential part or at least a potential aspect of a film or televisual text’s understanding? Is the text’s meaning within the intentions of its creator or the meanings imposed on it by the ‘interpretative community’ of film-lovers which surrounds us? Is there a point where we just have to say “It is just a movie!”? Overall, fan theories are not just stories made up by crack-pots any more (well, some are), but legitimate interpretations which should be taken seriously.
The catalyst for this piece was a theory posited by Jon Negroni, called ‘The Pixar Theory’, which suggests that all of the films created by Pixar Animation Studios were within the same ‘universe’ and each film is placed along a timeline. It is a very interesting read for anyone who loves the Pixar films. While it is hard to regard its hypothesis as irrefutable, it does demand that a question be asked: Where does a film’s meaning come from? In the seminal essay ‘What is an Author?’ by Michel Foucault, he essentially questions the role of the author in the production of a “work”, stating that the author is only the starting point or entrance into a particular discourse or discussion. Therefore, it is becoming more and more obvious that the intentions or portrayed ‘meaning’ should be challenged, or at least, periodically questioned.
It is difficult, however, to separate a work from its creator, especially since laws concerning intellectual property have been created. The very idea of art must come from some sort of origin, whether it be a single person or a collective. However, it is also pertinent to note that art can come from several different places at once, whether these be the influences which the creator drew on, the social, political or cultural dynamics of the time it was created and so on. Therefore, it may be posited that no piece of art is a creation of its “author” alone, but rather an infinite amount of influences. One can see a work as the work of a specific person, but, in doing so, subconsciously acknowledges that in terms of many other things, i.e. whether the author is a man or a woman, where they come from, what religion they ascribe themselves to, et cetera. Nevertheless, in any reading of a text, it is impossible to completely discount the intentions of the author.
However, some fan theories often do completely reject the author’s intended meaning and even altering one’s perception of a film forever. For example, a fan of the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off believes that the entire film is a manifestation of the shy Cameron’s imagination as he has no friends and the whole film is a subconscious push to get him to face up to his fears. Ultimately, this is a much more fulfilling interpretation to the film, which only adds to the message of living life to the full while you can. However, one could not interpret the film as such, if it was taken as a static text. Instead, as an interpretive community, we consciously search for extra “meanings” which are not intrinsically within the text. This can either help one or hinder one’s appreciation of a film or other text.
The process of creating one’s own unique theory about a text can allow for an increased respect for it, in that, in its deconstruction, those who consume these theories, view the text in a different light and create a new fan base for a text. In turn, it engenders the necessary view that a film text should not be viewed once and discarded, but, instead, a film should be constantly re-considered under different theories, environments and ideologies throughout one’s life. These theories can also be seen as a paratext (an ancillary product which originates from a text, while also directing one back to that original text). Unlike fan-fiction or creepypastas, a fan theory should always support its central concept with an explicit part of the film text. A good example of this is a theory that in Pulp Fiction (1994), the briefcase which Vincent and Jules holds Marcellus Wallace’s soul, which he sold to the devil, as is denoted by the Band-Aid on the back of his head. Therefore, a fan theory should only be taken into account into one’s understanding of a film if it uses something directly from the visuals or dialogue of the film in its central concept.
However, to accept the use of fan theories in mainstream film criticism would suggest that no films be taken at face value and that everything manifested on screen should be doubted. This would lead to detrimental effects on how we value the film medium. Ultimately, although film is a medium of art, it should first aim to entertain. In allowing film theories to be accepted as essential elements of a film’s understanding, it would make every viewing a solely active experience. While there are texts which essentially force one to speculate about its meaning (e.g. most of David Lynch’s works, most of Charlie Kaufman’s works), the majority of popular films out at the moment are just movies with the intention of entertaining and have only one meaning. To theorise about the deeper meaning of a romantic comedy would be pointless, in that its intention is to entertain. Therefore, there should be a limited acceptance of interpretations in how a film text is valued, so that those film texts which, seemingly demand to be re-evaluated under different interpretations are valued under this light. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the fact that interpretation is moving from an isolated experience to one where a film’s understanding is a collective and constantly growing thing.
With the growing popularity of sites like reddit and Twitter, it is evident that the often insular experience of sitting down and watching a movie at home by yourself is becoming more and more irrelevant. This is the age where the expression of one’s opinion is central to a film’s commercial and critical success, in that the maintenance of hype surrounding a film will ensure its long-term life both as a product and a work of art. As such, the multitudinous interpretations of a film text are what imbues it with its value; not intrinsically, but as an additional element. It is inevitable with the growth of popular response to film that it will become a medium where its evaluation is not exclusive to professional critics. For example, the popular film website Rotten Tomatoes shows both the rating of professional critics and casual watchers. Therefore, it is not possible to completely discredit the several interpretations, simply because they take up the majority of the voices in the interpretative community.
Nevertheless, there has to be a point where a movie is just a movie, right? The answer to this question is dependent on several factors, most of which are highly subjective. These vary from whether one sees film as a reflection of life or as a vehicle for escaping one’s life, as a product of entertainment or a work of art, among many other things. However, as posited by Doug Walker (a.k.a. the ‘Nostalgia Critic’) within a video titled ‘When is a Movie Just a Movie?’, how one should value all depends on whether or not you enjoy it. Therefore, if creating insane theories or looking through film theories gives you pleasure or enhances your enjoyment of a film text, then you should do so. However, there are also times where this passion can go too far. This can be seen in the impact of the 1999 film Fight Club, where several real-life “fight clubs” were founded, as well as attempts at terrorism being made, with the express intention of imitating the actions of “Project Mayhem” within the film. In one case in Australia, a fight that broke out even led to a person’s death. While this was obviously not intentional, it discredits the argument that film is just a way of escaping reality. While some films have indelibly changed the way we see life, it should not be the only thing which directly dictates what we do. There are an infinite amount of considerations which are necessary in our day-to-day decisions and actions (e.g. the law, moral principles, familial obligations and personal intuitions). When a film solely dictates who we are (say, if one was to believe he/she was a character from a movie) or what we do, then our interpretations of what is essentially fiction goes too far.
As we have seen, fan theories are undoubtedly a massive part of who we are as individuals and as an ‘interpretative community’ and in saying that, they could never be deemed as completely ‘irrelevant’. Regardless of how crazy they may seem or how many inconsistencies may be found, they are a necessary part of how we understand a film. However, a necessary distinction to make is that they should not directly influence how you view a film. To be made aware of a specific theory concerning a film you wish to see would impact on one’s viewing experience. While it is realistically impossible to keep all theories out from one’s initial interpretation, one’s first watching confrontation should be as free as possible from outside influences. At its most basic, all art, including a film is experienced in order to benefit ourselves and in fulfilling that purpose, different interpretations should add or shape your own understanding of a text. Therefore, a fan theory or some academic theories should be naturally applied to your own understanding or, at the very least, be seen as one of the many parts of a text’s interpretative history, given no more weight than what rating a film critic gave it. Art is a subjective experience and, while this is never unsullied by several different factors of the viewer, fan theories should be valued as much as the viewer wishes.
However, in terms of the wider community, it is inevitable that fan theories will grow in their popularity and if so, there needs to be some serious re-consideration of what a meaning of a film text consists of. While some theories are just fun postulation, others, like the Pixar Theory use a considerable amount of work and actual evidence within the films to support its argument. While we can conclude that there is no way to completely ignore the intentions of the author, there is no way to definitively decide whether a fan theory may have meaning. This is based on the theory that no piece of art can have one meaning, because every person places their own filter of cultural, social and political beliefs on their own interpretation. Therefore, the collective meaning is constantly changing, as well as dependent on the religious, political or social beliefs of different interpretative groups. For instance, while Monty Python’s Life of Brian may be seen as a funny, but not necessarily harmful, satire of religion/hysteria in a liberal nation (e.g. Australia), but seen by others to be detrimental to the sanctity of religion in conservative religious communities. However, there should not be an active search for connections where there may not be. This would diverge into the territory of ‘conspiracy’. A theory should only be suggested if it came as a natural part of the viewing process. While it may be interesting to see if a certain kids show has hidden pro-communism messages, it is just unnecessary assumptions. Perhaps, they are just fun to think about and share around our friends and do not need to be seen as a better or worse interpretation of a film text. It would appear unfair to assume a fan theory as the only meaning that a text can have. Yet, as long as there is a considerable amount of reasonable evidence, with all things taken into account, within a certain theory, it is reasonable to conclude that, regardless of who wrote the hypothesis, it should be seen as a possible ‘meaning’ of a film text, and thus, the film should be re-evaluated against this theory.
So, have fun looking at all the crazy fan theories out there at the moment and the amount of new ones conjured every day, but just remember to not assume what you see as fact. Most are just extremely imaginative and show the passion which films and movies stirs in our hearts. As said by Albert Einstein, “The truth of a theory is in your mind, not in your eyes.”
What do you think? Leave a comment.