Our friend Brian Rose kindly send us a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern’s “Set the DVD Player to ‘Random’” (28 October 2006, p. 10; the WSJ website is by subscription and wouldn’t let me link to the article). In it Morgenstern claims that iPods playing songs in random order, video games offering constant choice, multi-tasking, and all the supposedly distractive aspects of modern life are wrecking movie logic. The latest evidence? A new release called The Onyx Project, an inexpensively produced interactive movie starring David Strathairn that allows its viewer to wander through the narrative in random order.
According to Morgenstern, The Onyx Project is just further indication that “The entire entertainment industry is beset by fragmentation, both economic and perceptual. Kids who used to turn out for movies every weekend now devote themselves to videogaming, instant messaging, MySpacing and YouTubeing, sometimes simultaneously, while movie executives, pacing studio corridors, worry rightly that they no longer understand how kids’ minds work.” (Haven’t studio execs always paced and worried about how to understand spectators’ minds?)
Morgenstern even cites Pauline Kael’s essay, “Are Movies Going to Pieces?” where she cited the “creeping Marienbadism” in modern cinema. If only! Yes, I can just see today’s teenagers lamenting the fact that Last Year at Marienbad is out of print on DVD and searching eBay for it. Morgenstern simultaneously cites Marienbad as having brought fragmentation into the movies and praises such art films as Breathless, L’Avventura, and Caché, as well as sophisticated Hollywood storytelling in The Matrix and The Godfather Part II. But again, if fragmentation is what kids want, why aren’t they watching Caché?
It’s hard to know where to begin.
For a start, the makers of The Onyx Project declare on its website , “But NAVworlds are not movies.” (NAV stands for “Non-Linear Arrayed Video.”) Further, “They are not ‘interactive movies.’” The site compares these NAVworlds, quite logically, to videogames, but there’s a difference: “Video games present worlds. We love video games. But video games are programmed. NAVworlds are written, directed, acted and edited.” It’s a subtle distinction, but the point is, The Onyx Project is probably closer to a game than a movie. The fact that it is available only as a piece of software playable in computers but not in DVD players should be a clue.
But whatever we call The Onyx Project, is it really totally fragmented? Richard Siklos’ more temperate New York Times review , “In This Movie, the Audience Picks the Scene” (2 October 2006) points out that The Onyx Project retains some of the traits of a Hollywood narrative. “One idea behind the venture,” he declares, “is that no two viewers may see the movie unfold in the same way, yet its basic facts, characters and message will permeate the experience.
Sounds like a type of unity to me. Moreover, “The mystery at the center of the story is not revealed until the end.” Suspense and curiosity are maintained, controlled not by the viewer/player but the makers.
Let’s go back to that “The entire entertainment industry is beset by fragmentation” claim. One of the reasons that The Onyx Project is creating a little stir is that it is so atypical. These kinds of experiments in time shifting are often used specifically for mysteries, traditionally the genre where the story starts the latest in the action and then backtracks for the final reveal. Think Memento, The Usual Suspects, or any of the neo-noir follow-ups to Pulp Fiction.
In 1985 when Hollywood attempted to introduce a mild form of forking-paths storytelling into theatrical filmmaking, they chose Clue, not only a mystery but a game. Then viewers simply saw one of three possible endings. Presumably the spectator was supposed to be intrigued by this gimmick and see the film three times. Few proved willing to sit through it even once, and the film flopped. Naturally all three endings were included in the video release, giving the viewer a mild dose of interactivity. Now the technology has caught up to make this approach far more sophisticated and intriguing.
More important, though, is the fact that most movies that young people see in theaters are not fragments or shuffled in challenging ways. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest may have been too long, but its cause-effect flow wasn’t fragmented, and it has earned over a billion dollars worldwide. Look at the most popular and/or lauded films of the past decade: Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Beautiful Mind, Spider-Man, Finding Nemo … the list could go on and on. These films are linear and causally tight for the most part, and when something is unclear, it’s a mistake, not a deliberate strategy. Even The Sixth Sense (another mystery of sorts) is easy to follow, and the twist, though genuinely surprising for most, is not baffling. A truly fragmented narrative is hard to find, in part because these sorts of films appeal to a very broad audience and have to be comprehensible if they are to succeed.
It’s easy to link the coincidence of the invention of gadgets like iPods with the trend toward Memento-like trickiness. As usually happens if one looks closely, though, complex narratives of this sort predate modern forms of interactivity. Even apart from the art cinema (whose main audiences from the end of World War II well into the 1970s and 1980s contained a large number of college students and graduates), there are Hollywood films that play with time in pretty sophisticated ways. In the 1940s there were the films noir, like Double Indemnity and The Locket, the latter with its flashbacks nested like matrioshki dolls. Later on but still in the pre-iPod era, there were playful films like Groundhog Day (1993) and Pleasantville (1998). MTV and the 1970s generation of American auteurs brought up on art cinema probably had more impact on story-telling than the iPod and similar devices have.
Moreover, even in traditional arts where interactivity would seem highly unlikely, one can find occasional works that offer choices. The Choose Your Own Adventure  series of children’s books (1979 to the present) include numerous options about how to proceed. (Greg Lord  offers an analysis of one of the books.)
Besides all that, the shuffle feature on iPods is usually used for songs, which are short, self-contained artworks. I doubt that people watching old episodes of Moonlighting on their video iPods skip among chapters randomly.
One thing most people tend to forget (if they ever knew it) is that in pre-television days, when movie theaters were a lot fuller than they tend to be now, there were continuous screenings. That meant the times when the screenings would start were not typically given in ads, and people just went to the theater, often standing in line until a seat became available. A lot of people ended up coming in in the middle of the feature and just sat through until they got to that point again. They didn’t seem to be much bothered by the fact that the film was “fragmented” in a random way. (In Storytelling in the New Hollywood  I argue that comprehension was aided by a considerable redundancy in the flow of narrative information. David picks up on that idea in The Way Hollywood Tells It .) Notably, among the first theaters to list start times and sell reserved seats were early art houses, presumably because the more challenging films shown there were less easy to grasp unless seen beginning to end.
If The Onyx Project succeeds, it may usher in a new storytelling medium somewhere between films and videogames. If not, it will be the Clue of its day. Either way, most filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere will continue to try and make movies with stories that people can easily follow.