A Taste of Cinema

Article published in 'Taste of Cinema' by A. A. Coburn

Link to article - Taste of Cinema

Some fan-theories, no matter how bizarre, are so well thought out that they add extra layers to a film, improving the viewing experience tenfold. Other theories, however, are so baffling that they may have been conceived by a deranged madman.

I have avoided some of the more baffling theories out there and have instead chosen fan-theories that, whilst bizarre, have incredible plausibility, gained online traction and highlight existing themes within a film.

Spoilers for the following films are obviously included: Punch Drunk Love, Taxi Driver, Once Upon a Time in America, Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Thing, The Dark Knight, Se7en, The Shining, and Enemy. I’ve tried to include a mixture of well-known films and lesser known films.

1. Punch Drunk Love

The theory: Punch Drunk Love is the story of Superman and Lena Leonard is an alien who came to Earth to find Barry Egan so to bring him back to their home planet.

Barry Egan is a complicated man. He’s someone who doesn’t quite fit in with his fellow humans. He’s socially inept, struggles with anxiety and prone to sudden bursts of violent rage. On the outside, he appears weak and bumbling, but within is a man who’s capable of facing-off against a group of hardened thugs and win. He also demonstrates the power to break an ‘unbreakable’ plunger, smash a concrete wall and tear up a bathroom as if it was made of paper without so much as a mark on him. Also, Barry constantly wears blue and red.

Now, who else disguises his super-human abilities within the persona of man who doesn’t quite fit whilst wearing the colours of blue and red?

Superman, of course. An alien from a distant planet who looks human but can never be.

Whilst Barry may not necessarily be Kyptonian, he does share the same story as Superman. He’s a man who isn’t like us but wants to be, and disguises his super-human strength behind the front of someone struggling with anxiety.

This is where Lena Leonard comes into play. In the story of Superman, it’s Lois Lane who makes Superman feel human, and some variations of the theory suggests that Lena Leonard is supposed to represent Lois Lane (notice how both share the same initials). However, the final scene of the film, in which Lena puts her arms around Barry and says “here we go” before a beam of light absorbs the two of them, has some fans suspecting she is an alien herself, taking Barry back to their home planet.

Whilst on first inspection the theory may seem odd, it does make you consider the roles of these characters within the story. Whilst they may not actually be aliens, Lena feels like one to Barry. She isn’t like the rest of us; she understands him (almost as if she’s of his species?).

Watching the film with this theory in mind adds something charmingly bizarre to an already bizarrely charming film, and thinking of Barry as Clark Kent helps us understand him as a person just a tad better, whilst thinking of Lena as alien makes us consider what her role is in Barry’s life (so maybe it’s not to take him to another planet, but she does take him to a sort of world he’s unfamiliar with.)

Also, if these uncanny similarities to Superman were intended then this theory is further proof of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ability to masterfully interweave story-relevant Easter eggs into his films.
Additional proof for this theory includes the film’s other-worldly soundtrack and the images of space which are hidden within the dreamy array of colours which transition many of the film’s scenes. If that’s not enough evidence for you, Chapter 12 of the DVD is called ‘Alien Abduction’. Unusual indeed.

2. Taxi Driver

The theory: Travis Bickle died during the shootout at Sport’s brothel, and what follows after his death is merely the utopian outcome Travis was hoping for.

There’s a slim chance anyone could survive what Travis survived during his shootout at Sport’s brothel. The moment Travis pretends to shoot himself with his finger had fans suspecting this was a symbolic for his death.

When the camera floats away from his motionless body, out of the brothel and into the sky, this could be us witnessing the spirit of Travis ascending to heaven (not that a man like Travis would go to heaven.) Also, what follows after this scene is almost an unrealistically ideal turnout for Travis, so unrealistic it spawned this theory.

However, whilst the theory is plausible, if the scenes after the brothel shootout are indeed figments of Bickle’s dying mind then they are pretty much utterly without meaning because they do nothing to serve the film’s story. All we’d be seeing is the outcome Travis wanted, but we already knew the outcome he wanted so why is it necessary to see it? It doesn’t tell us anything new about his character.

Also, what follows after the shootout is too important to be dismissed as imaginary. Those final scenes show that there’s a thin line between good and evil in the eyes of public. If Travis had murdered the Senator the same day, he would’ve gone down in history as a monster, but because he chose instead to unleash his violent nature on a den of primps; he’s hailed as a hero.

Those final scenes suggest no matter what happens, Travis is doomed to kill again; it’s who he is, and the cycle of violence will continue on and on until one day he kills the wrong person. It’s an important message which can’t be dismissed as imaginary to hold any significance.

3. Once Upon A Time In America

The theory: Max was killed in his shootout against police and the world in which he faked his death is just an opium dream Noodles has.

This theory is very similar to the Taxi Driver theory in the sense that the last act of the film is imagined in some way. I put these theories together to compare the differences between the two, because whilst the Taxi Driver theory negatively impacts the story, this theory does the reverse.

The film isn’t linear, so here’s a brief explanation of the important events that led up to the final act: Young Noodles, traumatised by the death of his friend ‘little Dominic’, and having spent 12 years in prison, is sick of violence. After being released from prison, he finds that Max and his other childhood friends have continued their criminal activities and want Noodles’ involvement.

Noodles, worrying for his friends safety and wanting the cycle of violence to end, calls the police before Max can enact his plan to rob the New York Federal Reserve. Max, furious with Noodles, knocks him unconscious, but when he recovers he finds that Max and the rest of his childhood friends have been killed in a shootout against the police. Mournful from the loss of his friend, he enters an opium den to gain a moment’s relief from his grief.

The theory sees everything beyond this point as an opium dream Noodles has in which he imagines that Max survived the shootout and continued to live a violent and tortured life. Once the dream ends, Noodles smiles, knowing that he made the right decision by calling the police since he cut short the cycle of violence they have known since childhood.

Not only does the theory explain why the film emphasises the opium den as important by using it to open and close the film, but it also gives us a deeper look into the psyche of Noodles. It paints him more clearly as someone traumatised by violence, recognising the immorality of it.

Whilst the Taxi Driver theory, if true, would provide further insight into the titular character’s psyche, the insight is unneeded since it tells us nothing new about the character. This theory, however, highlights a layer to Noodles that the film hints at throughout. Also, unlike half the theories on this list, it feels as though Sergio Leone intended for this theory to come into fruition from the clues he left buried within the film.

4. Spirited Away

The theory: The Bathhouse Chihiro works for is actually a brothel, with the true story of the film concerning Japan’s sex industry.

This well-known theory may seem bizarre on first inspection but there’s ample evidence to support it. Hayao Miyazaki himself has, in a way, supported this theory by noting that he wanted the film to draw attention to Japan’s supposed gross sexualisation of youth and defined one of the characters (No Face, one of the bathhouse clients who has an obsession with Chihiro) as the embodiments of man’s darker libidos.

The fact that bathhouses were commonly used as brothels during Japan’s Edo period is considered evidence for the theory by fans. Also, the fact that most of the bathhouse employees are women who serve male clients and how Chihiro is forced to cast aside her identity so to work against her will like many sex workers do.

Whilst the theory does have plenty of evidence to support it, how does it make us approach the story any differently? If you think about it, the story remains exactly the same if it was explicitly clear that Chihiro was a child sex worker instead of a washer woman. This highlights how sinister Chihiro’s story actually is and because of this, it makes us consider the things Miyazaki wants us to consider; how a world constructed by adults damages the innocence of children.

Many fans take the theory too far, comparing every aspect of the film to prostitution. For instance, some fans suspect that the scene in which Chihiro washes heaps of muck away from a river spirit represents something grossly perverse instead of what it’s meant to represent; the negative effects of man-made pollution. The film has many different messages hidden deep within, so relating every aspect of the film to prostitution damages our overall experience of the film.

5. Pan's Labyrinth

The theory: All of the fantastical moments within the film take place in Ofelia’s mind.

Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away both concern the loss of innocence in a cruel adult world and both use fantasy to tell this story, only Pan’s Labyrinth does so in a more obviously brutal way.
Because Ofelia is the only character to interact with the fantasy world, fans theorised that she may have created it within her mind so to escape the horror of the reality she lived in. At the end of the film, when the fairy-tale concludes with her returning to the underworld as a Princess, we pull away from her eye as if to imply that what we saw was happening from within her head.

Also, several aspects of the fantasy world could be seen as representations of things that are happening to her in the real world. For instance, the terrifying Pale Man may represent Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s abusive father-in-law, who both have scenes in which they sit at the head of long tables covered in expensive food.

This theory does a similar thing as the Spirited Away theory in the sense that it highlights the dark nature of Ofelia’s story, which in turn makes us consider the grim war-torn reality she lives in. Juxtaposing the horrific adult story alongside the fairy-tale Ofelia has constructed shows us the grim effects the acts of adults have on the mind of a child. Watching the film with this theory in mind makes the story all the more tragic and poignant.

6. The Thing

The theory: The Thing disguised itself as Childs at the end of the film.

During the film’s first act there’s a scene in which MacReady loses a game of chess to a computer (little did MacReady know that he’d be playing a variation of chess for the rest of the film.) Annoyed, he pours whisky into the computer, destroying it. This scene mirrors the film’s concluding scene in which MacReady offers Childs some whiskey, much like he did the computer.

The theory uses this as evidence that MacReady believed that Childs was the Thing at the end of the film, and offers the creature whiskey as a way of accepting defeat. Another similar theory suggests that MacReady actually gave Childs gasoline in a whiskey bottle to test if Childs was human. Because Childs didn’t react to drinking gasoline, like any normal person would, MacReady laughs both victorious and defeated, knowing that whilst he managed to deduce who the Thing was, he will inevitably perish due to the cold and the Thing will have won.

Is Childs human? Is he something else? The theory, true or not, does exactly what the film wants you to do throughout; question who is friend and who is foe and the existence of this theory proves we’re doing so long after the credits have rolled.

7. The Dark Knight

The theory: The Joker is an army veteran who’s the true hero of the film.

This theory will occasionally popup on social media every once in a while and has gained significant traction because of it.

If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice’ is something the Joker once said in the comics, and the film lays out multiple options to choose from. One of these options, fans have found, is that the Joker may have been an army veteran who obtained his scars during combat. The theory is that his time as a soldier gave him a grudge against society, considering it totalitarian. Because of this, he makes it is mission to break society apart and create a world without laws.

This would explain how he has such a deep understanding of terror and weaponry but the only true piece of evidence to support the theory is based on a quote from the film in which the Joker explains how nobody would panic if he blew up a truck-load of soldiers. Another faint bit of evidence is how the Joker practically wiped out organised crime and the majority of Gotham’s corrupt police by the end of the film, doing more for Gotham than Batman ever could with his no-kill rule. However, the Joker did plan on blowing a boat full of innocent people to smithereens, so his heroic purpose is somewhat questionable.

Removing the ambiguity behind the Joker’s origin kills a good portion of what made him so terrifying in the first place; the mystery of his past. That being said, the idea that the Joker may have had heroic intentions underlines his complexity and that of his relationship with his arch-nemesis; Batman. Like the Joker, Batman also has heroic intentions, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a hero. His actions do break the law (no, he doesn’t bend the rules; the breaks them) and past trauma has twisted his mind as much as it has the Joker’s.

Batman clearly favours authoritarianism over anarchism (evidenced through his creation of a technology which spies on every citizen in Gotham and his brutal dedication to the law), which, in its own way, is just as terrifying as pure anarchism. Through blurring the lines between good and evil, the film puts forward the argument that Batman’s one rule is the only thing that separates him from the Joker and the fact that Batman’s grim worldview happens to have the law on its side.

The day Batman decides to break his one rule would be a dark and terrifying day indeed.

8. Se7en

The theory: Somerset helped John Doe with his killings and may be a serial-killer himself.

This theory is the reverse of ‘The Dark Knight’ theory in several ways.

Somerset, being an experienced Detective, knows the ins and outs of both the methods and psyche of a killer. Because of this, he would be able to masterfully pull off the perfect murder, just as John Doe is able to; a man who presumably had no experience killing before the first of his masterfully executed murders. Also, Somerset has demonstrated that he is able to find where people live through a database, which also provides knowledge of who potential mass-murderers are. Not only would this allow him to know who best to target, it also gives him the ability to contact potential serial-killers.

The motive is clear; Somerset frequently shows distain towards his fellow officers and has a dark outlook on life due to his many years dealing with the worst of the worst. Look closely at Somerset’s face whilst John Doe explains his motives; he says nothing and almost looks as though he agrees with him.

All the evidence is there, but how does the film benefit from this theory? The answer is that it doesn’t.

The film purposely refuses to follow convention, breaking many of the rules that murder mysteries usually follow. There’s no twist reveal for who the killer is. In the end, the killer ends up being someone we don’t even know, despite the first half of the film setting up his identity as a mystery. Also, the killer isn’t thwarted because he left some convenient clue at the scene of the murder; he willingly hands himself over to the police knowing he has already pulled off his master plan.

The film wants us to be revolted by what we’re watching, not enthralled. The conventions of a detective story are all there to be shattered. Once the credits roll, we’re left with a bitter taste in our mouth having witnessed something truly horrific. This is more poignant than any shock twist ending and having Somerset be the killer all along removes the realism and some of what made the film so powerful.

9. The Shining

The theory: All of the film’s supernatural elements are imagined by the characters.

Stephen King fundamentally disagreed with Stanley Kubrick’s approach to the story of The Shining, with one major disagreement involving how both men interpreted the story’s supernatural elements. King believed that whilst he saw the ghosts as supernatural forces belonging to the hotel, Kubrick instead saw them as Jack Torrance’s inner demons.

This has led to speculation whether or not any of the ghosts in Kubrick’s take on the story even existed, or if they were instead figments of Jack’s decaying mind. Evidence for this theory includes the fact that in every scene in which Jack converses with the malicious spirits there’s always some sort of reflection present, suggesting that he is in fact conversing with himself.

This would suggest that Jack was going mad long before becoming the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. He even confessed to one of the spirits (or himself) that he beat his son previous to his stay at the Hotel. There’s also several hints throughout the film that Jack may have sexually abused his son, which would further imply that Jack’s mental state wasn’t stable previous to this story. This provides evidence that it wasn’t the ghosts that twisting his mind.

However, the theory does have several critical weaknesses. For instance, the spirits are seen to interact with the physical world, even going so far as to open a firmly locked door. How could spirits possibly adjust their surroundings if they were all in Jack’s mind? Also, Wendy sees the spirits for a brief moment during the film’s final act and nothing is able to explain away how Danny has psychic powers.

Clearly there are supernatural forces present within the film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Kubrick was telling a ghost story. The true story is that of an abusive father isolated within a constrained setting. Whilst the theory does have its holes, it succeeds in recognising that the film isn’t really about ghosts or ghouls but instead something far more terrifying; something human and real.

10. Enemy

The theory: The giant spiders aren’t representations of how Adam views woman, but are instead aliens plotting to take over the world.

It’s hard to define what exactly qualified as a fan theory in regards to a film like this. I’ve decided to label this particular interpretation of the film as a fan theory due to it being the minority interpretation against the general consensus.

The general consensus is that Adam and Anthony are one and the same, using both personas to lead a double life in an attempt to escape committing to his pregnant wife. The spiders therefore represent his fear of being controlled by the women in his world. Also, Adam is someone who is obsessed with control. This is made obvious by his job as a lecturer with expert knowledge of the methods totalitarian forces use to control the masses.

The fan-theory is that the spiders actually are exactly what they are shown as; giant monsters plotting to conquer the world. The theory is based on something Adam tells his students whilst lecturing about totalitarian Governments. He says that these governments use tricks and sideshows to distract society from realising that they are being controlled and by the time they realise; it’s too late. The theory is that this is exactly what is happening in the film; we’re being tricked with sideshows such as Anthony’s relationship with his wife and Adam’s relationship with his girlfriend, to distract us from what’s really happening.

Anthony is actually a spider who’s imitating Adam who impregnates his wife with an alien seed, which would explain why she becomes a giant spider at the end of the film; the egg has hatched and burst through her. When Adam sees the spider, he realises what is happening but by then it is far too late.

Before Anthony dies in a car crash, he shouts; “You don’t think I’m a man?” which is used as another piece of evidence to support this theory. He, in fact, was not a man; he was a giant spider!
Whilst I don’t necessarily believe the spiders are meant to be aliens plotting to take over the world, I do believe that the spiders don’t necessarily represent Adam’s view of women. I believe the spiders are meant to represent totalitarianism itself, be that in the form of controlling mothers and pregnant wives, fascist governments or world-dominating aliens. Whichever theory you choose to believe completely changes our view on Adam. If the spiders are aliens, then he was right to suspect so. If the spiders are meant to represent his fear of commitment, then he is a man who is his own worst enemy.

Posted by Adam Coburn

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