Andy’s mom is Jessie’s owner. Ferris Bueller only exists in Cameron’s mind. Tom Hardy’s character in “Max Max: Fury Road” is the feral boy from “The Road Warrior.” The sisters in “My Neighbor Totoro” are dead. All the Pixar movies take place in a single universe where humanity is eventually replaced by sentient cars.
You’ve doubtless come across some of these so-called “fan theories,” the most recent of which surmises that Chris Pratt’s character in “Jurassic World” is the grown-up version of the boy Sam Neill insults in “Jurassic Park.” They all have one thing in common: They’re wrong. By this, I don’t mean that they’re factually inaccurate, that they can be disproven — or, failing that, that they can and should be Occam’s Razored out of existence. I mean that they should not exist, and that promulgating or even bothering to refute them is a profound waste of time.
In Canada’s National Post, Calum Marsh takes on one of the more persistent fan theories: that the actual day off in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was June 5, 1985 — 30 years ago last week, which explains why you saw a flurry of posts celebrating this non-anniversary and even wrongly claiming it was the 30th anniversary of the film’s theatrical release. (That’s exactly a year from today, and it’s not a theory.) The reasoning is that the baseball game Ferris and his friends attend took place on June 5, ergo so must the rest of the movie. Never mind that, as Marsh points out, the Von Steuben Day parade depicted in the film takes place in September. The Internet has spoken: June 5 it is.
What this theory actual reveals is something far more banal. As Marsh writes:
Ferris Bueller’s day off, like any movie day, was a composite. It isn’t real. Its apparent contradictions don’t need to be reconciled. And yet here we are: people insist that they be reconciled anyway. This is just one among innumerable “fan theories” — those self-willed, often faintly ludicrous efforts to imagine that a movie contains depths of hidden meaning it plainly does not. Advancing a fan theory doesn’t have anything to do with “reading” a film, in the academic sense. Instead it has to do with seizing upon stray details as covert evidence and redefining coincidence as argument-clinching fact.
What the so-called “Ferris Bueller” fans behind the theory encouraged us to celebrate this year was the anniversary of the day part of one scene in the movie was shot — which is a bit long to fit on a cake. But its existence, and the existence of theories like it, points to something far more troubling, or at least, deeply, deeply annoying. It’s the ability of so-called fans to become preoccupied with the surface of the thing they supposedly venerate, to obsess over incidental minutiae in a way that not only fails to lead to greater understanding of the thing they love, but actively perverts it. It’s the “Room 237”-ing of everything, only without the figure of the all-knowing auteur as justification. I can’t know if the people promoting these theories are sincere in their beliefs or just showing off their ability to arrange information, like some smug liberal arts student exulting in his ability to spin a vaguely coherent line of bullshit.
Big deal, right? If you want to cosplay the opening scene of “Reservoir Dogs” on your own time, knock yourself out. But these “theories” have a way of taking hold, and then they become accepted as fact, and the burden of proof passes to the doubter. If you say that the end of “The Sopranos” isn’t meant to have a definitive meaning, someone will point you to that
exhausting exhaustive “Master of Sopranos” thing faster than you can say “Marone.” It’s no good to point out art doesn’t work that way, that, as Marsh writes, “The appropriate response to ambiguity… is not the construction of a totalizing theory, [n]or is it to pester the artist until they make things a little more clear.” Dropping these sorts of hints has become such common currency in the post-“Lost” environment that people look for them everywhere. No matter that even “Lost” couldn’t deliver the answers it promised.
That’s not to say such clues never exist. Don Draper might not have been D.B. Cooper, but Matthew Weiner did plant subtle clues in “Mad Men’s” final episode to tell us that Don wrote Coke’s “Hilltop” ad. You can come up with other explanations for why the people in the commercial resemble the people Don meets at his Esalen-like retreat, but there, the fan theory is the simplest, least convoluted explanation — and, more importantly, it contributes to our understanding of the ending rather than distracting us from it. The best art is always open to interpretation, but you still have to know where to look.