All across the Movieverse

08 October 2018 10:20

It started off like any other Friday night. There you were, collapsed on the sofa with your partner and a pizza, watching the new Netflix series that Dave-from-accounts recommended. But then something different happened. An hour into the show, a prompt appeared on the screen, and now it’s asking you to decide how the story ends. Does the hero triumph? Does the villain escape? Or are they both killed in an explosion that sprays bone and viscera across the screen? Either way, it’s just a couple of clicks on a remote control – but imagine how this could spiral. Imagine the far-out social and ethical implications of it all. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror.

Actually, sorry, it is an episode of Black Mirror – or at least it’s going to be. Last week, it was revealed that the forthcoming season of Charlie Brooker’s show will let viewers choose how a storyline unfolds. According to Lucas Shaw at Bloomberg, this is the first of several interactive episodes that Netflix has planned. Your remote control is soon going to give you a lot more actual control.

Looked at dispassionately, this is an old trick. Even if we maintain a safe distance from Ayn Rand’s 1934 play Night of January 16th – which co-opted audience members to act as the jury in a trial, and thereby influence the drama’s outcome – there is no ignoring the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the Eighties, with their forking narratives that forced the reader to decide between one page or another.

Cinema is expanding into other artforms, while other artforms expand into it, so that few of the old divisions remain.

But from the gauzy perspective of a dreamer, there is still something thrillingly new about Netflix’s plan for interactive shows. It’s the next stage in television’s quickfire evolution. Not that long ago, what we watched on the box, and when we watched it, was decided for us by the schedules. Then streaming put us in charge of the schedules. And now it’s going to put us in charge of the episodes themselves. That is a major shift in cultural power.

We at DRUGSTORE CULTURE are fascinated by these sorts of changes, not least because they support a theory that we’ve been discussing for the past few months. We used to call it ‘The Visual Continuum’ – in fact, I used that term in our very first vodcast – but now I prefer ‘The Movieverse’ for its relative brevity. Once upon a time, as I put it in that vodcast, cinema used to be two hours in a movie theatre. But now it is expanding into other artforms, while other artforms expand into it, so that few of the old divisions remain. The Movieverse is this new, blurry, redshifting territory.

Does Netflix belong in The Movieverse? Absolutely. It is a place where movies (as we once understood them) and television (as we once understood it) are rubbing up against each other and, in some special cases, merging.

David Fincher’s Mindhunter is one of those special cases. Cary Fukunaga’s recent Maniac is another. It has qualities that say ‘movie’ – including its stars, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. It has qualities that say ‘television’ – including its division into ten episodes. But then it has qualities that are harder to define. In an outright rejection of the usual symmetries, its episodes are different lengths from each other, ranging from 26 minutes to 47 minutes. How are we meant to watch this? As a single six-hour movie that, much like a book, is split into different chapters? Or as a television series made of several short films? Nowadays, these questions are as meaningless as the answers. The distinctions no longer matter.

Trailer for ‘Maniac’ (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2018)

Streaming is not the only technology that is expanding The Movieverse. Strap on a virtual reality headset, and you’ll see. These headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and the PSVR, have emerged from the world of gaming, yet they are already being used for other purposes. Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015) was awarded a special Oscar, last year, for his VR installation CARNE y ARENA, which puts its viewers – or should that be ‘participants’? – into the dusty boots of a Mexican immigrant attempting to cross into the US.

And just last week, on DRUGSTORE CULTURE, Thomas McMullan interviewed the artist Laurie Anderson about her own recent VR installations, To The Moon and Chalkroom, and her belief that ‘one of the futures of imagery is film you will be able to walk into’.

Some will argue that film has always been able to achieve this – particularly when, as in Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, 1947), it has experimented with first-person viewpoints. But, whatever they say, VR is different. Much like many video games, it offers 360 degrees and never commits you to just one. Where last time you looked to the left; next time you can look to the right. You are a co-director of the experience.

DRUGSTORE CULTURE will approach VR, and other nascent technologies, with open-eyed wonder. Our interest isn’t that of the accountant, who tuts at sales figures and at reports that the headsets can cause motion sickness. Nor are we like those snobs who stupidly insist that every innovation is a gimmick and a betrayal of real art. If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, here’s how I put it in an article for The Spectator, two years ago:

‘…film fans should refrain from dismissing virtual reality as a gimmick just yet, not least because film has done very well out of gimmicks. Its practitioners began by blending photography and music and theatre, and then they added talking, colour, special effects and 3-D along the way. Even the failures, such as Hans Laube’s infamous Smell-O-Vision, have been successes of a sort. They are all part of the constant technological striving that, to some extent, defines cinema as a medium.’

Besides, technology is another word for ‘tools’, and tools are used by people to create marvels. I have already mentioned some of the heroes of this new Movieverse: Cary Fukunaga, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Laurie Anderson. We can add more to the list. Two years ago, Megan Ellison set up Annapurna Interactive, alongside her Annapurna Pictures, so that she could fund games as well as movies. Right now, the game designer Hideo Kojima is working with Guillermo del Toro and the actors Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen and Lea Seydoux on his crazy-looking Death Stranding. It is an age in which anyone can be their own ambitious crossover event.

Trailer for ‘Death Stranding’ (Hideo Kojima, 2019)

These people are not the most important in The Movieverse, however. To borrow a tagline from the Fighting Fantasy series of choose-your-own-adventure books: YOU are the hero! Whether it’s controlling the schedules, choosing the ending of an episode of Black Mirror, or deciding to turn into or away from the violence in a VR film, you are becoming more and more significant. The second-person narrative, which used to be so uncommon in literature, is spreading fast.

This could be a psychological development as much as a technological one. Thanks to mobile phones and social media accounts, we can all freely tell our own stories now. Perhaps we have come to expect a degree of involvement in other people’s too.

Video-game streaming exemplifies this more than anything else, which is why I wrote about it for the inaugural print issue of DRUGSTORE CULTURE. Platforms such as Twitch have become great, sprawling venues for broadcast and response. The streamer films themselves playing a game, whilst their audience is allowed to comment on the action, in real-time, at the side. It is part cinema, part social media, and utterly compulsive. The average Twitch viewer now watches about two-hours of streaming a day – roughly the duration of a feature-length film.

And who knows where this will lead? It’s very possible that more barriers could dissolve. Again, to quote myself:

‘…instead of bringing their movies to Twitch as [Neill] Blomkamp did, filmmakers could bring Twitch into their movies. Perhaps there will be more movies done in a single shot, mirroring the continuousness of video game streams. Perhaps cinemas will install comments feeds on the side of their silver screens. Perhaps ASMR will become a goal of sound design. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It is all speculation for now, but Hollywood was founded on speculation – and its inhabitants will not have failed to notice that there’s gold in them thar online thrills.’

Speculation is what DRUGSTORE CULTURE will be founded on, too. The London Film Festival starts this week, and we will take the opportunity to publish a few essays on what cinema is, how it has arrived here, and also what it could be. Our definitions, in those essays and beyond, will be as broad as the subject requires.

There are, of course, other magazines that cover films and television and streaming and gaming. But none, to our knowledge, that do so because these things are all part of the same whole. The movies – which is to say, moving images – are a fast-expanding universe. And, oh yes, we are cosmonauts, bound to explore it.