Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"I Don't Listen to the Weather" - Does Authorial Intent Matter?

I thought of this article last night while talking to my friend, Shomari, about how he hates listening to the Weather on Welcome to Night Vale. Because he's lame like that. His explanation was basically that he finds the Weather jarring and out of place in the episode, and he just wants to get back to the story. And I can understand that argument, it makes sense. But it got me thinking because I never do skip the Weather, even when I don't particularly like it. I listen to the whole thing because I know that it was chosen intentionally, it's not in the episode by accident, and that by listening to the whole Weather, I'm more closely experiencing this episode the way it was meant to be experienced.

So which of us is right?

For those of you who don't listen to Welcome to Night Vale and therefore didn't get what I mean, here's the deal. First, you should totally listen to Welcome to Night Vale. It's available to download for free on iTunes and it's phenomenal. It's like a fake community news broadcast from the world's weirdest town. Each episode highlights some new bizarre happening in town and we're given a report of the goings on of citizens and otherworldly denizens of the small burg, with the emotional and plot climax always coming just in time for Cecil, the radio DJ and "voice of Night Vale", to cut to the Weather.

Only the Weather isn't a weather report. It's very confusing for the first few episodes, but the Weather is actually always a song by a not yet popular band. The bands can submit their songs any time and the writers of Welcome to Night Vale choose each song specifically for the episode. Heck, if you have a band you can submit a song now. It's pretty easy.

The Weather is always a few minutes long and it's a break from the action of the story. It's an auditory intermission, taking your mind away from the plot and the characters so you can listen to some sweet jams. Since they feature a lot of different and frankly bizarre music, though, it's not uncommon to find the Weather kind of jarring or unpleasant. I mean, no one likes all the music they're randomly exposed to, right? And so no one likes the Weather all the time.

So my friend is completely within his rights not to like listening to it. But the question is, should he anyway? Because that's the sticky thing about authorial intent. The authors of Welcome to Night Vale clearly put the Weather in there on purpose. It's not like they slipped and edited in a four minute experimental percussion piece by accident. The songs that make up the Weather are meant to be there. So if we want to listen to WTNV, should we listen to the Weather too?

I'm not sure I have a good answer for this. Authorial intent is a really complex issue. How much value do we and should we give to the people who create the stories we enjoy? Do we have to enjoy those stories in exactly the way they intended? Is it better to read/watch/listen to them in the way we most personally prefer? I have no idea. But I do know that this is not a new issue.

In fact, the way we read or watch or listen to a piece of media can greatly impact how we enjoy it. It's like how the books you read for school are almost never the books you actually end up liking. Or how it's a completely different experience to see a television show without commercials edited in. Or season breaks. It's weird reading a comic book in a trade paperback without having to wait a week in between issues. Reading a whole series of novels without having to go a year or so in between installments. Or watching a big budget action movie on an iPad.

There are a lot of ways that we consume media without really adhering to the ways the creators of that media intended it to be enjoyed. I'm guilty of a lot of this myself, honestly. I have a Master's in Screenwriting and I know how television shows on major networks are actually structured around their commercial breaks, but whenever I get the chance I make sure I can't even notice those breaks, either watching them on the DVR or on Netflix. I know that movies like Mission Impossible 3 really need to be seen on the big screen, but then I watch them on my arthritic laptop and complain that I don't enjoy them.

Maybe the biggest one for me is Charles Dickens, though. I loathe the works of Mr. Dickens, and I'm not overly fond of him as a person. But a big part of that is probably because his works have been compiled into novels and they were never actually intended to be read that way. 

Charles Dickens wrote his stories as periodicals in the newspaper, publishing new chapters every week or so (maybe month, who cares). He was paid by the word and his audience might miss a chapter or pick up in the middle, so he was constantly going back over the story to make sure everyone followed along.

Then those stories were compiled into novels and I was forced to read them and I hated them because they're so dry and so long and so repetitive. Is this a case where I just don't like Dickens, or is it because I'm reading Dickens in a format he never intended these stories to be read?

And yet, there doesn't really seem to be a good solution to this problem. Right now I'm in the process of rewatching Fringe on Netflix. It's a great show and I watched the first two and a half seasons as it was airing, but then grad school picked up and I lost interest and got busy and so I never finished the show. Now I'm rewatching it so I can finish it out, but does that mean I should watch it the way I did the first time, with a week in between each episode and three months in between seasons?

That is the way the show was meant to be watched. It's not like 2010 was the dark ages, but it was ever so slightly before binge watching became as popular as it is now, and so I don't think Fringe was ever meant to be watched in a single sleepless weekend. But that's just what I did with the second season. Have I made the story worse for myself? Seriously, how does this work?

I honestly don't have an answer to this. As much as I am a writer and I strongly believe in narrative cohesion, I also like binge watching. I like reading a bunch of comics in one big heap. I'm impatient and lazy and the idea of watching one episode every week even though I have all of them available to me right now is horrifying.

Plus, it's worth considering that binge watching kind of does make me like the show better. There's no time to get bored of the characters. You immerse yourself in the story. When I went through my Tamora Pierce rereading phase a year or so ago, I got so into that world I could basically recite facts about it. That's fun! I like being that into a particular headspace.

On the other hand, some books and movies and shows are meant to be read or watched in a certain manner and to do otherwise really does impede on the experience. A friend of mine watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time on a plane because it was showing on the little TV in the seatback and for some reason she didn't like it. I wanted to scream, "Let me show it to you on a big television with a great soundsystem so you can get immersed in the story and love it like I do please!" That is a movie that was meant to be watched with the volume all the way up.

And then there's other issues of authorial intent. The one that always comes to mind is Inception and how the fans of that movie went kind of bonkers afterwards trying to figure out if the coin Cobb spins in the final frames of the film ever falls. In other words, fans spent hours and months and in some cases years trying to figure out if Cobb was ever able to come out of the dream or if he was stuck in Limbo for all eternity.

Christopher Nolan is a talented and clever director. So you know what the answer to that question is actually supposed to be? "I don't know." The answer is intentionally ambiguous. Just like the creators of Welcome to Night Vale didn't slip and accidentally insert a song into their podcast right before the climax, Christopher Nolan did not forget to finish the final shot of his Oscar nominated movie. He didn't run out of funding and have to scrap the last frame. He wanted it to be that way. We should respect that.

Then again, should we? I'm not talking about Christopher Nolan here, but haven't you noticed that some creators aren't actually very good at figuring out how their work would best be enjoyed? George Lucas is very talented (ish) and all, but he is crap at figuring out how the order of his movies should go. The most fun way to watch all the Star Wars movies was actually figured out by someone on tumblr and it goes like this: watch episodes four and five - then go back for the backstory of one, two, and three - then watch six. And it's great! George Lucas didn't come up with that, a fan did. So does his authorial intent matter?

For a more recent example, take Kyla's recap of Hannibal from yesterday. She expressed disappointment that the show took such a big jump in time without letting fans properly emotionally process it. 

As she commented later, the jump probably would have worked better if, like the writers originally intended, the events of episode seven had happened as the end of season three and the events of episode eight were actually the start of season four. That nine month hiatus in between seasons would have helped the fans reconcile the time jump and would have made it less jarring and more enjoyable.

I feel like I'm going around in circles but that's because I really am. Here's another example of how confusing authorial intent can really get: the Clerks movies. Kevin Smith, who has his moments of auteur-level authorial control, wrote a character named Randal into his debut movie Clerks. Also Randal is in Clerks II. Kevin Smith wrote and directed Randal as gay. He has stated in interviews that Randal is supposed to be a deeply closeted gay man in denial of his sexuality. Meanwhile, the actor who plays Randal, Jeff Anderson, has stated publicly that he thinks Randal is straight. Which one of them is right? Who wins that argument?

For all that I don't really have answers to these questions, I think the examination of authorial intent is really important. We need to think about this stuff if we're going to be critical and intelligent in our consumption of media. No, there aren't any obvious answers. But that doesn't mean the questions aren't worth asking anyway. If we think critically about how a story was meant to be consumed, then we are examining both the author's intended meaning and our own reaction to it.

So, ultimately, I think it's okay that my friend skips the Weather when he listens to Welcome to Night Vale, as long as he understands that the Weather is there on purpose. Authorial intent isn't the voice of God, but it is important.

And now, the Weather:


  1. This is such a sticky issue, I'm glad you're addressing it. I always skip the weather, but not because I don't respect authorial intent - just because I listened to it a few times, and in the pattern of the show, I found it to be the weakest part. I also found that it didn't necessarily inform my insight into the show, I could never tell you afterwards which songs were with which episodes. Authorial intent matters as an idea, a philosophical approach to art - but in my opinion, if the audience doesn't feel themselves served by it, then the art is edging toward failure because ultimately, art is for an audience. And unlike some artists, Welcome to Nightvale's creators don't seem to want to evoke reactions of confusion or disgust so much as laughter and recognition, so I figure my action of skipping the weather actually just helps me get closer to their original goal.

    Not sure if that made total sense, but the end message is that I'm grateful you brought it up at all!

    1. No, that all makes perfect sense! I think a lot of it comes down to trying to view the piece holistically, and if something doesn't fit it's okay to take it out. Authorial intent is clearly important, but it's not the only important thing.

  2. I listen because I'll often really enjoy it, and it usually adds a different layer of my interpretation to the rest of the show.

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