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The Future of An Illusion: Interactive Cinema

Andrew Cameron

Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

In 1995 the convergence of the cinematic apparatus with the apparatus of interactivity is no longer the stuff of science fiction--it is a new fact which we are only starting to come to terms with. It is now almost fifteen years since the computer games industry had its first brief triumph over Hollywood, a triumph repeated decisively at the beginning of the nineties. Children and young people in the developed world live in a media culture which is both interactive and cinematic, within which linear narrative and the form of the game cohabit side by side in an uneasy alliance on the same television screen. Yet the study of cinema has made little attempt to come to terms with these changes, or to theorize the shifts in film language and grammar which developments in the cinematic apparatus are rapidly bringing about.

The essays in this section are an attempt to sketch out some of the key terms and questions around which a theory of interactive cinema might develop. Three of the essays were originally brought together for an issue of the British journal Ten*8 in 1993, co-edited by Derek Bishton, Tim Druckrey and myself. That issue of Ten*8 was not published for reasons unconnected with its editorial content, and it was felt that although the essays were written as long ago as 1993, and in spite of the unprecedented rate of development of interactive technology, the ideas they attempt to grapple with are unresolved and are still worthy of public debate.

Central to this debate is the question of narrativity, and in particular, the notion that interactivity is in conflict with narrative form. The question then becomes--can we construct a form which is both narrative and interactive?

Malcolm Le Grice in "Kismet, Protagony and the Zap Splat Factor" presents us with the intriguing spectacle of one of Britain's foremost avant- garde filmmakers compulsively playing Grand Prix Racing on his PC--and theorizing it. For Le Grice, the interactive moving image (read computer game) is compelling precisely because it offers an alternative to the tyranny of narrative. Le Grice suggests that there are two distinct anti-narrative traditions from which we must draw in order to develop an interactive cinema--the language(s) developed by experimental and avant-garde cinema, and the language of the interactive computer game.

Grahame Weinbren has spent over ten years attempting to reconcile the tension between narrative and interactive form in two ground-breaking interactive movies. Weinbren explains that before making The Erl King and Sonata he was faced with two key questions--what kind of story will fit the medium and what will be the grammar of its telling? The problem is how to tell a story without controlling either the sequence or the time of the telling. Weinbren proposes a radically new narrative form, both a-temporal and non- sequential, closer to Freud's notion of condensation in the dream than to the traditional linear story, and within which the spectator unravels the story just as the psychoanalyst unravels the dream work. His search for the "Ocean of the Sea of Stories" is at once utopian and down-to-earth, grounded in theory and a highly developed praxis.

My own concern in "Dissimulations" is to reconcile the differing temporal and spectacular aspects of interactive and non-interactive representations. I suggest that interactive representation is imperfective--that it throws the spectator inside the time being represented, giving rise to a high degree of identification within the text, whereas linear narrative is perfective-- events in time are represented as completed and are viewed from the outside. Thus interactivity entails a radically new form of spectatorship and this is already becoming apparent in the new forms of engagement to be found in computer games.

Finally, in "It's Just Like Art," Richard Wright points out that new technologies have as yet an undetermined position within the dominant cultural hierarchy. New forms of interactive and computer generated media oscillate uneasily between popular culture (the computer game) and high art (the gallery installation). For Wright the key issues are not narrativity and interactivity, but value and class. Whereas film is deemed to be "artistic" by the aristocrats of high culture, computer games and interactive representations are relegated to the status of junk culture or barbarous novelty. As new forms of technologically mediated forms of practice emerge, Wright predicts ongoing conflicts over legitimacy and value.

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Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

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