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On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

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