Posted on November 29, 2022 in Technology

Explaining Content, Again and Again

Content creators have stumbled upon a new market: explaining movies the way online movie critics do. Why is that?

Ambiguity Is Tough To Accept

Some movies famously leave the ending ambiguous. You’re not supposed to tell if one ending was the ‘right’ one, although sometimes there’s more evidence for one ending over another.

 For example – American Psycho has a scene near the end where the main character nearly accidentally confesses to murder… but the guy he’s nearly confessed to provides him with an impossible alibi, saying he ate lunch with the murder victim too recently for the main character to have killed him, and so any confessing he might have done would have been calling him out on the lie. This could be read multiple ways: does the other guy know, and he’s covering for the main character because they’re all bloodthirsty hyenas in suits, and he isn’t motivated to do the ‘right’ thing because it doesn’t make him money? Is he deliberately lying to the main character, not knowing the guy he’s lying about was already dead? Or, was this whole thing a power-fantasy hallucination by a very bored, distressed businessman who’s struggling to find any joy in the life he’s spent living by other people’s rules?

Most people lean towards the first two – but there’s a case to be made for the third. This sort of ending deserves a deeper analysis. The content warrants a deeper analysis. Before the internet, discussing the different interpretations of this ending had to be done with letters to the editor and in real life with friends. If your local paper or radio show had a total snob of a movie reviewer, you may not hear an in-depth review of a particular movie from them at all.

American Psycho has the benefit of being popular, too – imagine trying to discuss an art house film with friends who only liked Die Hard, or vice versa. Before the internet really took off, there were movie deserts in small towns with no way to access and contribute to deeper discussions.

Explain the Ending to Me, Please

The internet has democratized movie reviewing. Now, someone who may not be a ‘professional’ critic can give thoughts and opinions on a show or movie based on their own unique movie-watching history, and you can find reviews of a movie from almost every angle. Cinematography? The plot’s following of the hero’s journey? Someone who knows what ‘camp’ is vs. someone who doesn’t? Someone who makes films themselves? Someone who only watches big movies vs. someone who only watches indie films? You can find all of these people online. However, with the good comes the bad – sometimes movie reviewers run out of content, and then they turn towards content that doesn’t necessarily warrant more analysis in a particular direction to stay relevant and near the top of user feeds. Not to mention the content farms. Discussion is interesting…discussion gets clicks… eventually, people who care more about the clicks than the discussion are going to try and get in on it.

This combined with the internet’s tendency to appeal to authority (“my favorite critic had this theory, so it must be right”) and its tendency to think in black and white (“my favorite critic had this theory, so it must be right”) leads to some very strange theories being genuinely considered and not dismissed, as well as over-analysis of endings that do make sense, that don’t have a lot of ambiguity, or have some ambiguity but not in the direction they took it.

Some endings warrant extra explanation, but not all of them. Content farms produce explanations where the regular, passion-project reviewers don’t for one reason or another, and so we get weird theories almost algorithmically produced to get clicks mixed in with more ordinary reviews.

If This is a Dream, Then Everything is

There’s an online joke that Ash from the famous kid’s TV show Pokemon is actually in a coma and dreaming the events of the show. The key word there is ‘joke’ – this was never a ‘real’ theory, just some crackpot idea strung together off of the typical TV show protagonist’s inability to age and the crazy, child-friendly world of Pokemon. When a forum is committing to the joke, they can point out dozens upon dozens of logical fallacies and plotholes that seem to strengthen the joke, and pass back and forth what scenes ‘really’ mean, who people ‘really’ are, etc. all in good fun.

‘Dream’ theories like this one get a lot of clicks and likes because they’re a fun novelty lens for the media, a bit of a thought experiment. However, when content review channels start taking the theory too seriously for the media the theory is about, they run into a problem: you can say this about almost any show!

The characters don’t age because this is fiction. The protagonist has trials and tribulations they’re always just barely good enough to beat because this is fiction. The power of friendship saved Ash from freezing to death in an ice cave because – you guessed it – this is fiction. You can dismiss almost any story as a hallucination, or an overactive imagination, or a dream, or any sort of mental gymnastic, because that at some level is what fictional stories are. They’re made up. If you’re not going to accept the most basic premise of the story – that the main character is experiencing the story, even if they may sometimes be an unreliable narrator in the story – then you’re going to spend your entire movie-watching career dismissing valid criticism of plot holes and genius moments of Chekhov’s gun set-ups alike as ‘dream logic’.  

While this is a fun idea to examine some media with, it can’t be the dark, edgy ‘secret truth’ to every show. A reviewer has to suspend some disbelief for fiction! Content farms like these theories because it means they can make one ‘serious’ video and one ‘dream theory’ video off of a community’s in-joke about a show. It’s double the content for the machine.

Why Are We Getting Weird With The Theories?

Alongside the ‘dream’ theories, there are theories that defy Occam’s Razor just for the sake of being different. I mean different different – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a bouquet of ideas about an ending, or several different theories that wouldn’t overlap but all make sense (see the American Psycho endings); but it’s verging on ‘interaction hound’-ing to make a thumbnail that says “Phantom of the Opera set in Post-Apocalypse? Ending Explained!” The reviewer doesn’t have new things to say about the old theories, so they have to make something new to get clicks. This is, again, probably the fault of the content generation machine, which is always demanding new and exciting things to show to its viewers. Some of these channels feel like they have to get as far off the wall as they can when they make their theories, or else nobody will watch or read their content.

Again – post-apocalypse stories or other off-the-wall reimaginations are a fun way to reframe a show, and sometimes they end up being right about it (Adventure Time, a popular kid’s TV series, actually was set after the world ended) but just like the joke theories, it’s not meant to be taken as though it’s just as valid as every other theory. Just because the author ‘died’ when they released it doesn’t mean the context and intentions they wrote the story with are now totally moot.

The Ending Made Perfect Sense, Why Are You Explaining It?

Sometimes this is just a movie critic pitching the ending of a popular movie in their normal “X Ending: Explained” format. They may only have one series for reviewing movies, and they want to make it clear that this is part of that series. For example, the ending of La La Land is definitely not ambiguous unless you were doing something else distracting while watching it – to explain it as though it was ambiguous would be assuming quite a bit of literacy failure from the audience. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing, it just means it’s not ambiguous.  

Describing the ending as though it needed to be explained instead of just discussed is strange, and possibly one of the most direct results of the content machine. While I’m sure some of the demand for these videos is from people looking for more content of their favorite media (which I do too, it’s fun to talk about the things you like) it seems strange that there’s a market for these videos at all.

Honorary Mention: Complicated Things Get More Discussion

You can say what you want about Tenet – the reaction online has been confused. The audio is low and often muffled to the point of needing subtitles just to understand anything the characters are saying. Potential plot points are introduced and then dismissed without being realized. The walls are practically lined with Chekhov’s guns that never get used. But everyone was so excited for this brilliant, mind-bending movie that I was sure I missed something. I read discussion threads about the movie. I watched it twice, once with subtitles after it was released to home streaming, and I realized the problem wasn’t that the plot was too complicated for me to follow, it’s that the movie itself is assembled weirdly. When you can’t hear a third of the dialogue, of course you don’t understand what’s going on, even though the characters are discussing what’s about to happen. When the backwards-forwards time travel mess is inconsistent, of course you can’t tell what’s going to happen next, because the rules are all wobbly.

But here’s a theory – what if it was made complicated and confusing? What if Nolan realized the script wasn’t doing what it needed to do, and tried to salvage it by masking its dialogue with audio mixing ‘mistakes’ so nobody can hear major plot points? What if Tenet starts trending on Twitter and gets 4K comments on its Reddit thread, if only because people are trying to figure out what the plot even was? And what if that means that one-time viewers rate the movie based on the special effects and not it’s overall structure? Don’t get me wrong: just like the ‘dream’ theories from before, this is just a conspiracy theory, a way to view the movie that makes you evaluate its parts differently. Just like those dream theories, I can pick and pull pieces of evidence that support it. However, I do think that the online buzz about the movie was more positive than it would have been if the movie had been easy to understand, both audibly and writing-wise.

Digital discussion spaces have unquestionably changed the movie ecosystem – whether that’s good or bad is up to the discussers and moviegoers themselves.