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In the Ocean of Streams of Story

Grahame Weinbren

Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995): Interactivities

It is easy to read the nostalgic tone of Rushdie's 1990 "children's story" as the wish for a return to innocence, to a state of story-telling purity beyond the reaches of politics and intrigue. Rushdie is, of course, too sophisticated--and too embittered by the outrageous circumstances of his life--to profess such an outlook, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories abounds with metaphors of cruel suppression and mindless censorship. The nostalgia in the image of the Sea of Stories is better seen as a reminder of the creative process a writer craves in his or her darkest pessimism: an ocean of stories, wide and deep, effortlessly tapped. The power of the image is in its erasure of the line between writer and reader--Haroun's father, as a professional storyteller, need only drink from his personal faucet plumbed to the Ocean and report to his audience: this alone constitutes writing.

Can the image be turned around? Can we imagine the Ocean as a source primarily for readers rather than writers? Could there be a "story space" (to use Michael Joyce's resonant expression) like the Ocean, in which a reader might take a dip, encountering stories and story-segments as he or she flipped and dived? In these waters, turbulences created by the swimmer's own motion might cause an intermingling of the Streams of Story; the Ocean is a dynamic narrative region, a Heraclitean river into which one could never step twice, a lake of Heisenbergian uncertainty where the very attempt to examine a particular story-stream transforms it. What a goal to create such an Ocean! And how suitable an ideal for an interactive fiction!

Fiction, Cinema and Cybernetics

The idea of interactive fiction is not new. A fictional structure on which the reader, viewer, or user can impact has attracted writers since the 19th century, but such authors as Bram Stoker and Laurence Sterne had to use literary devices to give the illusion of a textual variability. Interactivity describes a relationship between viewer and work: interactive works do not require a particular presentation medium or technological base. In attempting to develop an interactive narrative cinema, I realized early that it will not have the shape of narrative as we have understood it--the very idea of user impact opens to question the concepts of end and beginning, of crisis and conflict, of development itself. The traditional (Aristotelian) notion of narrative must be rethought.

My own work is in the pull of a pair of forces that have defined the late twentieth century--the Cinema and Cybernetics, the Projector and the Computer. I have made two installations that incorporate computers and moving images that I call works of interactive cinema. In both Sonata and The Erl King the participant's (inter-)actions affect the temporal conglomerate of images and sounds. The computer itself is not a medium or a tool, but a device which can be used to control existent media, so the questions that arise are about how cinema changes when its apparatus is linked to a computer--just as one can investigate changes in the structure of cinematic communication when sound was invented.

The first two questions to arise for me in thinking about an interactive cinema can be posed in quite traditional terms: what kind of story will fit the medium, and what will be the grammar of its telling? Early on I realized that one would have to find a subject for which the sequence of events was not of central importance, since if the viewer is to wander around and through the narrative, the order in which the depicted events are accessed would have to be open to variation. And this requirement led me directly to Freud's techniques of dream interpretation.

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A Branching Structure

Freud transcribed and published the case history of the Wolf Man in 1914-15, soon after the end of the patient's analysis. It is the apex of Freud's early period, where the central concepts of condensation, displacement, wish fulfillment, the primal scene, etc., reach their full fruition, never to be repeated in quite the same way.

The analysis revolves around the dream image of the staring wolves, introduced early on by the patient. Freud describes the process of gradually uncovering the components of the dream, linking each element with an event, a character, or an emotion remembered but perhaps suppressed. The dream's significance for the dreamer, manifested in the overwhelming emotional effect it had on him and the fact that it remained in his memory for decades, led Freud to seek further explanation. He finally accounts for this power in his proposal that the dream encapsulates the dreamer's greatest fears and desires, as transformed memories of the events that first produced them. For my purposes the details (and--it goes without saying--the `truth') of the dream-analysis are not important. I wish only to appropriate certain aspects of Freud's methodology in my own search for a paradigmatic story structure suitable for an interactive cinema.

Condensation is the key concept. The dream is formed by compressing and combining a set of mental entities. The dream can function in the dreamer's mental framework as the distillation of a set of emotional charges. The dream's powerful affect comes from the fact that, in an important sense, it embodies a set of memories and the specific emotions linked with them. Repeatedly Freud stresses that there is no universal symbol translation table--every element of the dream image, and every property of every element, is understood by the dreamer in his own individual way. Each element substantiates a combination of particular fears, hopes, desires or beliefs, transformed, by the laws of the unconscious, into a component of the dream image. Seeing the images through the dreamer's eyes--identifying the underlying atomic parts and understanding how they are altered by the dreamer's mental process into the dream image--is understanding the dream. In this understanding is written a page or several chapters of the biography of the dreamer.

Freud's notion of a dream is a conception of a narrative-type based on a hermeneutic method. Unraveling a dream reveals the narrative of the dreamer's interlocking emotional states. But it is not a narrative that unfolds in time--all the elements are simultaneously present. Freud goes to great trouble to convey this atemporality, but even for him it is a notion that eludes expression, since, after all, his own mode of communication--writing--is, of necessity, linear, one word following another, forming paragraphs that follow one another, etc., while his conception of the dreamwork is, by its very nature, non-linear, unsuited to the writing forms of the early 20th century.

Considered as a narrative structure, the underlying elements of the dream can be revealed in any order whatsoever, and the same story will emerge. Thus, it is truly a narrative without specificity of sequence.

The Interpretation of Dreams

A film might try to approximate the structure of Freudian dream analysis in a story structure that step by step unraveled the components of an evocative image. However, the linearity of cinema sequence tends to freeze material into narrative hierarchies, one element gaining in significance while another loses, depending on each one's context and their overall order. How better to reproduce the minimal significance of sequence, the irrelevance of order, than through interactivity? For only in an interactive work can the sequence of events be determined by the viewer. And when the viewer becomes aware that sequence is determined by his, by her responses alone, sequence may already have stopped being a criterion of narrative significance. In normal cinematic circumstances, the weight of an event is given largely by its context: now, with sequence under the control of the viewer, this weight can lighten or even dissolve. And in these circumstances the viewer's understanding of the events of the narrative can undergo a radical transformation, based entirely on the knowledge that things could have been different. Later in this paper I shall make an attempt at describing the "subjunctive" state of mind evoked by the interactive cinema.

The elements associated with a particular dream-image are not by themselves sufficient to define the biographical narrative underlying the dream. This would be a gross oversimplification. Of course it is also essential to incorporate how the elements are transformed and combined into the dream. Often this syntax and its application can be expressed only verbally. It is difficult, for example, to imagine an effective visual expression of the transformation of something into its opposite (from "staring" to "being stared at," or from the ornate motions of sexual intercourse to the stillness of the white wolves), or the transfer of a particular quality from one object to another (as the color white is lifted from sheep and flour and attributed to the wolves). Freud's interpretation of the dream is far more than a simple compacting of memory-images into one conglomerate: the grammar of the image-elements' metamorphoses and rearrangements is as significant as the elements themselves.

I am not suggesting that the principles of condensation and displacement could not form a foundation of a visual narrative, but only that some depiction of the types of transformation will have to be incorporated alongside the results of the transformations. The point, to reiterate, is to develop a type of narrative that can retain its identity and make sense independent of the sequence of events. Thus, in Sonata, I found that I needed to make the formative elements of the dream into components of the dream-narrative--without them it became merely a collection of scenes connected only by association.

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Cinema, of course, cannot be internally affected by its viewers. Turning one's head, far from affecting the visual experience, removes one from its world and into the mundane space of the screening room. The chess pieces and french fries on screen will only yield to forces that are profilmic, within the diegesis, or (commonly) both.

Furthermore, the impossibility of impacting on the cinematic is one of the sources of our pleasure in it. "Don't go up(/down) the stairs!" we inwardly cry out while watching Hitchcock's Psycho, first to the private detective Arbogast, and later to the heroine Lila Crane, all the time knowing that however deeply felt, our distress will not influence their behavior. The experience of suspense would be fatally distorted by the elimination of inevitability in the characters' actions. If Lila could turn back because of our pleas, the entire effect of the horror film would dissolve. Much of cinema's power over us is our lack of power over it, and, in this sense, suspense is a paradigm of cinematic response. It could be argued that the introduction of viewer impact on the representation is a destructive step for the cinema. The removal of the possibility of suspense is the removal of desire from the cinematic, and, ultimately, the removal of the very fascination of the medium.

To find interactive forms in which desire can be sustained will require the construction of a new cinematic grammar. And, to be successful, this search, this construction-process, must foreground that aspect of cinematic communication that is fundamentally a grammar of temporality.

Time. Time. Time.

Time always moves relentlessly, tautologically, forward, as long as one is alive. "Real," clock-measurable time can always be distinguished from time subjectively felt. The real time of cinema is rigidly defined by the apparatus, fully predetermined by the physical substrate of images projected serially at a regular pace set by an electric motor. A film begins and ends necessarily and predictably. Relative to the beginning, the end is dependent on, and only on, the length of the filmstrip. Whatever its images, however they are organized, a film has a physical beginning, middle, and end. Whether and how this linear temporality structures the image-material in a particular film is a major issue (perhaps the major issue) for a filmmaker. It could even be argued that the stance taken by a filmmaker towards temporal structure, how time is articulated in a particular film, is an index of where in the spectrum of cinematic practice (from Hollywood to Avant Garde) a given work falls.

This gives us the first sense of cinematic time--it can be called Screen Time: the clock-time required for the filmstrip to run through the projection apparatus.

The second sense of time is that of the world depicted in the film--and here the limits are more or less the cinema of story-telling, and its Diegetic Time. A cinema narrative may jump forward, eliminating decades (or centuries) in a single cut; or slide back, using perhaps one of the various narrative strategies that fall under the category of flashback; or remain in the present, so that a given passage of film denotes a continuous passage of time. This latter case (the most frequently used) still allows for a broad range of variation: one continuous two minute portion of a story can occupy five minutes of screen time, while the next portion compresses seven years into as many seconds.


Experienced Time. Detective Arbogast's walk up the stairs seems painfully extended, so that his stabbing at the first landing is a dreadful shock; this prepares us for Lila's later descent into the basement, which stretches time even further as each step seems to last a full minute, for we now (rightly) expect the worst to be waiting for her. On another end of the scale, a contemporary action film can make us feel as if no time passes during its 100 minutes, while in another discourse entirely, a film like Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1968) insists on equating real and depicted time, a position transformed into an ideology in the 1970s by such filmmakers as Peter Gidal. The relationship of film grammar, plot, and the experience of time is a fertile area of study, especially since the compression of time is undoubtedly one of the major determinants of cinema's phenomenal success.

The question is: what happens to cinematic time when viewer input becomes a component of the screen amalgam? To what extent does the incorporation of viewer impact keep time real, canceling out the magnetism of cinema itself--when does it cease to be cinema and become "multimedia" in its drab information-delivery costume, the slick transmission of data in fields of "hot spots," "buttons," and point-and-click menus?

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The Kuleshov Effect

The temporal grammar of classical film continuity can be summed up in a single example, which, like much mythology of cinema, is described more often than seen. The "Kuleshov Effect" scenario consists of a close- up of a Russian actor, intercut with several emotion-laden images (a dead woman in a coffin, a child playing, a bowl of soup). This supposedly produces in the audience a sense of the actor's face as saturated with appropriate emotion. But more interesting than this (presumably a commentary on the actor's ambiguous, doleful expression) is the idea, taken as "obvious and certain" by Pudovkin, that the character is seen to be "looking at the soup"--the man and the soup are linked, across the cut, into a single continuous space. Of course it cannot be as simple as this, as the sense of continuous space requires the support of a number of factors such as eye-line, lighting, shadow direction, etc.--but the point is clear. I'll suggest a recasting of this fable later in this paper. Here I introduce it only to restate the familiar homily that in cinema spatial unification is easily maintained through temporal disruptions, given a particular sequence. Sequence determines space. And sequence logically requires time.

The Liberation of the Filmstrip

A standard linear unit of cinema has an A-B-A structure: e.g., the Kuleshov point-of-view cutaway, the shot-reverse-shot of a dialogue scene, or the performer-audience-performer of the Musical. This atomic structure defines continuity of time and space in the cinema.

The equivalent in my interactive cinema is formed by a sequence in which the middle term is produced by an action of the viewer. If the viewer does not act, the first shot continues. But on action by the spectator the B-shot appears, then, after an appropriate period, the A-shot reappears, perhaps transformed by the interspersed shot, perhaps unchanged. In Sonata this structure is used as a bridge to an alternative point of view (for example of another fictional character, or of the author); as a jump to an earlier (or later) time in the story; as a glance at a different depiction of the narrative situation (e.g., a classical painting of the Judith and Holofernes theme rather than its continuing narration by a story-teller); or the momentary introduction of a parallel narrative line. Does the sequence still denote a continuity of space and/or time? The interpretive mode the viewer takes toward the new material is associative. Because the new image or scene was produced, i.e., brought on screen, by the viewer, he is forced into connecting to the image it replaces--an act of association, rather than spatio-temporal suturing. In Sonata this act is reinforced by two strategies:

1. the automatic return to the previous image, so that it seems that the image produced by the viewer interaction is a temporary interruption of a continuing logic;

2. audio continuity: the sound from the first image continues through the interruption, which reinforces the impression that the viewer's actions are disturbing the natural flow, thus demanding that a sense be made of the new complex.

In the environment created by this structure, Screen Time becomes variable, not fixed. Though the plot of the unfolding narrative is not affected by the viewer's interactions, the screen can now contain multiple diegetic times simultaneously, and the viewer quickly becomes accustomed to navigating between them.

Experienced Time, on the other hand, becomes open and indeterminate. At one extreme the viewer can find himself in the extended time-instant of the computer hacker or videogame player compulsively acting on the screen image. It is this semi-hypnotic state that allows the computer programmer to spend twenty-four hours at a stretch in front of a CRT, "jacked in" as the novelist William Gibson puts it. In his fiction Gibson often compares the state to that produced by imagined mind-altering drugs of the future. In this mental condition, the user's impact on the screen output is paramount, while awareness of content and interpretive distance are subordinated to action. Videogames and virtual reality environments are often designed to stimulate this condition--the content is minimal and ancillary to the actions of the user, which are immediate and powerful, either floridly destructive requiring hand-eye coordination, or effortlessly navigational: and most often a combination of the two. Unlike a virtual reality environment or videogame, however, changes in interactive cinema are driven by content, and consequently compulsiveness will not be the overriding ingredient of the mental state of the viewer. Here the need for evaluation, interpretation and understanding are in the foreground, though the obsessive need to fully explore the narrative space can serve well as an incentive and accompaniment.

Freed from the predicament where the apparatus alone dictates the temporal experience, time can now expand or contract based on the extent of the viewer's involvement or attention, no longer only because of the hills, gullies, and plateaus, the changes in elevation of the plot. One can imagine the user of an interactive cinema surfing between compulsive input, loss of self in the flow of the narrative, and a sense of distance and control of his own experience of time, as the tides of the story ebb and flow based on his own actions on and in it.

The notion of suspense, for example, can be retained but transformed. If the viewer identifies with a character, seeing him as transfixed with horror at one moment, overcome with relief at the next, there may be some hesitation about accessing the cause of his distress. Now a new emotional affect, begins to emerge. "Don't look behind the door!" we inwardly cry--but now whether the character opens the cellar door is determined by us, and the vacillation, the hesitation, related to a particular experience of suspense, will put the viewer, unexpectedly, in a different grip of the screen. The new pull is a hook of agency--whether we have to face the horror that we fear and are fascinated by is now our decision, and in an effective work we will be equally compelled in both directions.

Then What Can the Interactive Cinema Depict?

Our worlds are disorderly and disorganized, unrestricted and loose. Strands of perception and inner experience are interwoven with actions that impact on our immediate environment, causing change in our perceptions and generating new experiences. Time advances relentlessly while our consciousness staggers in and out of it--memories of the past intermingling with hopes for the future as we react to events of the present. Lived experience does not parcel itself into linear, closed structures, though we sometimes represent things in that way in order to tell stories about ourselves. But autobiographies, like all narratives based on fact, are always at most distortions and at least abbreviations, omitting many events while inflating others. A complete recounting of the most minor experience (including the mental activity that accompanied it) would last much longer than the experience itself. We compress, excerpt, exclude, and reorganize when we tell stories about ourselves; we must dramatize and deform the facts to fit them into a plotted "story-line" with an ending that provides satisfactory closure. If the interactive cinema is a more faithful rendering of reality, it is precisely because it can bypass some of these criteria of narrative structure. Intermixing and interweaving multiple narrative streams, it can create a metanarrative sum that is greater than its component parts, if the subject- matter is a match for the potential of the medium. What would be an appropriate model for the subject-matter? The ideal is the human mind in operation.

We are multi-tasking units. We can whistle and daydream while working, fantasize while having sex, speak the English translation while listening to the German, and so on. And we can switch from one mental activity--one state, one condition--to another, instantly and without effort. It is easy and natural for most people to keep many thoughts and perceptions simultaneously active in their minds, transferring from one to the next at will, so that their current inner experience is a conglomeration of perceptions of the present, memories of the past, hopes for and guesses about the future, along with beliefs and fears independent of time markers, dreams, imaginings, pains, etc. Each mental element forms an undercurrent in what is happily called the "stream of consciousness," and navigating these waters is part of what it is to be human. Rushdie's Ocean can be heard in these shells.

How do we move from one mental entity to the next? One thing is certain: it is nothing like making a selection from a list. The "menu" model incorporated in contemporary computer software is aptly named--using it is like negotiating a path through a meal at a fast food restaurant. Switching between streams of mental activity involves responding to hardly perceptible internal and external cues, much as one rides a bicycle around obstacles, keeping balance by slight shifts in position, changing direction by combining such shifts with handlebar adjustments and greater weight adjustments. Except in the least significant cases, we affect things in our lives not by making choices, but by actively responding to situations--with speech acts or in behavior, and equally by silence or inaction. Only in restaurants or department stores are we faced with a closed list of alternatives. The interface of an interactive cinema cannot restrict itself to a model of choice, though this does not mean that choice is entirely banned. Response is the operative concept.

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Open Issues: What Isn't the Interactive Cinema?

To summarize the story so far: the interactive narrative will be in the form of a story space (again the terminology of Michael Joyce and Jay Bolter) laid out for exploration. This story space may consist of a number of related narratives that the viewer forges or discovers links between, or of a single narrative seen from various viewpoints (e.g., of different characters). It may be the breakdown of a particular situation or image or scene into its (non-hierarchical) historical or constitutive elements.

But it will not be a linear story where viewer input determines what-happens-next. Such a structure does not contribute to the notion of interactive form since everything that appears will remain within the limitations of the linear--the fact that he has selected which line the story takes is irrelevant. This particular structure becomes interesting only when the viewer is exposed to different hypothetical situations, so that she can see what would happen if the characters took this turn, that path. Only in this case might the overall experience of the piece retain the quality of a story space of multiple narratives simultaneously present for exploration.

To put this point more generally, registering response alone will not satisfy the requirement that the interactive cinema incorporate the interest or desire of the spectator.

The basis of the interactive cinema is that the viewer has some control over what is on-screen. He or She knows that what is there will change if she or he acts, that it would have been different if he or she had acted differently earlier. Thus, the viewer is aware of a fundamental indeterminacy. I have called this epistemological state a subjunctive relationship to the screen--the viewer is constantly aware that things could have been otherwise. This state is grounded in the viewer's continual knowledge that what is on screen is a result of her interactions--inaction, naturally, counting as decisively as action.

The subjunctive mental state is in direct opposition to the epistemology I identified as essential to the linear cinema, a conception of the screen complex as unalterable, the events in the diegesis as inevitable. In an advanced interactive cinema, everything will be in flux, open to the possibility of change--like conversation or competitive sports--and the more sophisticated the system, the more fluid and wide-ranging the possibilities. Awareness of this liquidity has radical consequences for a viewer's relationship to the cinematic material. In terms of the Lyrical, the exploration of a single image-moment and its underlying expression-set, the success of a work of interactive cinema depends on its viewer's recognition that behind each element of the screen- complex there is a potential set of cinematic data that supports it, accounts for it, enriches it, or explains it.

There is another factor too: the viewer must be kept always aware that it is his, her action on a particular image that has produced these new sounds or pictures, and techniques to foster this awareness must be developed. In my judgment, the most immediately available techniques can be found in the language of montage. A deliberate use of film editing strategies can keep reconvincing the viewer of the non-arbitrariness of connection between old and new elements, between the elements already there and those produced by viewer action. Once the interactive work has brought the viewer to the idea that his actions on the screen complex always contribute to the continuing significance of the work, then the associations can roam more freely than in the city zoo of conventional narrative film. Now the fact that the viewer feels that he produces the new elements predisposes him towards finding links, associations, connections that may not have operated in his response to a conventional cinematic work.

Back to the Ocean

So now we have two models of potential structure for an interactive cinema: one drawn from a classical text by the father of psychoanalysis, the other from an introspective view of the mind at work. There are many literary precedents for both models. Furthermore, a number of current works of fiction have forms that eminently suit the notion of an interactive cinema, either in that they involve the unpacking of a given image or scene into its underlying components-- Graham Swift's Waterland provides several excellent instances--or that their narrative consists of the meeting point of a number of interrelated themes-- John Barth's Tidewater Tales and his masterful The Story of Somebody the Sailor are two outstanding examples.

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Tying Up & Getting Out

There are still, there will always be, loose ends. Given that narrative is imposition of order on chaos, intrusion of form on the formless, and that the order, the form, the logic narrative imposes is of time and sequence, sequence in time, we must now ask again whether we can retain narrative when we abandon endings, when we are entangled in an endless middle. A catchphrase often used by theorists to describe narrative is "the illusion of sequence," but in Freud's conception of dream interpretation we can see how strict sequence can be abandoned without losing the narrative thread. Freud's understanding of dream-structure is an alternative to the Aristotelian model, not only because the components can appear in any order, but also because the story is never over, the analysis is always incomplete, there are always more biographical details to uncover. In an Interactive Cinema, where the desire for closure can also be more or less overcome, the viewer continues to explore the narrative space until he considers it exhausted. There is no totality, there is only withdrawal.

And yet. And yet.



Real Timecannot be trashed with the need for closure like potato peel or an old jalopy. There is, there always will be, a Beginning, an End to a viewer's exposure to an Interactive Cinema work, and a Time Between. She walks up to the device, she interacts with it, she walks away. He walks up, sits down, stays a while, gets up. Do we place a viewer with an interactive work until it starts to repeat on him like rote learning or yesterday's overspiced entree? The Interactive Cinema will succeed only if, in retrospect, the experience seems substantial.

All and any loose narrative ends will never be knotted; this is one of the features (i.e., not bugs) of interactive cinema. If a viewer navigates through a mass of material, some of it will be seen and some won't, and surely some of what isn't seen earlier will raise issues that remain unresolved in what is seen later. But a system can be sensitized to repetition, either so as to avoid it, or so that as soon as repetition starts the viewer is offered the opportunity to enter a structurally different region, a territory of culmination or summary. In general terms, a map of territory covered can be kept by the system, and once a certain area has been explored, closure possibilities can be introduced.

In The Erl King, after certain segments have been repeated, a box with the work "END?" appears on the screen. If this box is touched, it produces a mildly interactive segment that starts with images of a few key production crew members touching the inside of the video screen from within the monitor, followed by a rapid series of production stills. A viewer can switch on or off two cardinal theoretical texts overlays--texts by Wittgenstein and Baudrillard that describe something of the theoretical underpinnings of the work--by touching different areas of the screen.

Sonata reserves two narrative segments that are acknowledged and indicated throughout the piece. If the viewer perseveres, following a story through to one of its climactic moments, the reward will be one of the two culminating murder scenes, one decorated with the blooming image of a blood-fountain, the other with the voluptuous sounds of a blade severing flesh and splintering bone. The possibility of viewing these scenes emerges when the viewer has covered a certain amount of the narrative ground of the piece. And after the murder the work ends or, more precisely, returns to the beginning.

All this is to say that despite its need for an opened narrative, closure cannot be banished from the Interactive Cinema. Remove the imminence of closure and we begin to drain cinema of desire. Closure must be recast in a more radical light.

The most fruitful possibility for me at this point, based on my interest in multiplying and intermingling narratives, is that several story lines continue until one, some, or all of them end. Here the idea is that numerous Diegetic Times are constantly flowing forward, many narratives operating in time simultaneously whether or not the viewer encounters any particular one. Narrative Time in this model always moves inflexibly on. This provides another picture of a form for the Interactive Fiction Cinema, a picture of multiple narrative streams not interconnected by a central image, theme or scene. The viewer navigates from one current to an adjacent one in a constantly flowing river, crossing between streams of story at moments of similarity or juncture. Or, to descend one level more, they might rather be thought of as potential narrative streams, elements themselves unformed or chaotic, but taking form as they intersect, gaining meaning in relation to one another.

In Sonata I attempt this by juxtaposing the stories of Podsnyeshev (the anti-hero wife-killer in Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata) and Judith (the Apocryphal heroine who decapitated the enemy general Holofernes). Both narratives progress, but it is at their connections, where the viewer can cross from one to the other, that they come into focus and take on meaning. A viewer will access an episode of one or the other narrative but not both, and their forms are similar enough that their plot movement can be seen as concurrent. Each of the two killers--Podsnyeshev and Judith--is reflected in the light of the other, since each emerges out of the story context of the other. And thus an act of interpretation is forced on the viewer: the morality of each character comes into question when they are placed together, especially because the former is presented as Evil and the latter as Good.

Without the act of interpretation, the stories are raw and problematic, but when clashed together at the points of interaction, a judge's role is forced on the viewer. As Eisenstein recognized explicitly, Griffith at least implicitly, and Kuleshov claimed as his own, meaning in cinema is determined by context--in the multiple narrative interactive cinema, context is in constant flux, the elements appearing always different as their surroundings shift.

As the viewer is drawn in by the act of interpretation, now the magnetic attraction of the Interactive Cinema can be felt, and the question of Experienced Time finally answered; for it is here that the Hacker mindset takes over--as we jack into Gibson's Cyberspace. Umberto Eco describes the state somewhat more suggestively than Gibson, though Eco is talking about the travels of a steel ball around an electric pinball surface, not a sprite in a graphic representation of a data environment. Parallel to Eco's pinball machine is a game like Tetris, in which the player arranges falling shapes into an unbroken plane, a theatre of geometry and spatial anticipation one often sees played on long airplane flights--as the time sense is held in abeyance, the magnified time of the cramped Atlantic crossing is compressed into a single moment of hypnotic focus. Tetris's hook of involvement is the desire for closure, for the completion of the pattern, an end that is always attainable but just out of reach, like Eco's "brink of orgasm." It is in this space that the machine absorbs time, providing in its place the never-quite-fulfilled promise of consummation.

Ending, Open Ending

Where have we come to? How to provide closure to this document? Must I close it, or can I emphasize its openness, the ends I am leaving loose, the ties unbound?

There is the very central question of what function is left to Narrative in our Cybernetically Determined, Information Laden Era, as we travel along the Information Superhighways without stirring from our desks. Do we still need narrative to provide lessons in living and dying, do these lessons come to us through other channels ... or don't we need such lessons any longer? Then there is the very important and subtle idea, expressed by philosophers in the wake of Heidegger such as Paul Ricoeur, that the conceptual relationship of narrative and time is reversed: that we impose a (false) linearity on time because our stories about ourselves and others, our formation myths of what it is to be human, take shape as linear narratives, and upsetting this notion will change our understanding of temporality and hence our understanding of the world and ourselves.

But I must stop. It is late, my eyes hurt from looking too long at the CRT, and I'm afraid I'm getting the flu.

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Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995): Interactivities

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Last revised on 03-10-01 by grahame weinbren

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