Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? They were written in second person and gave you a decision to make every page or two: “If you decide to wait for help, turn to page 12. If you decide to go on now that the mysterious nebula has vanished, turn to page 14.” You’d inevitably perish by some unforeseen event (I remember being struck by lightning), then go back to your previous decision and try again. The books weren´t high literature, but they were fun. And highly successful.
Attempts to bring a similar level of interactivity to the world of film were met with less success. Sega CD “video games” like Night Trap – which were little more than filmed sequences connected through viewer/player decisions – stirred controversy but little else.
A company called Interfilm attempted to bring films like this to the cinema in the mid-90s, with audience members voting on a choice at selected intervals through a 3-button joystick device connected to their seat. Results were fed to a computer, and one of four laserdisc players projected the winning result (which often focused in minor details like how the hero should be tortured rather than the actual plot of the film). I remember watching the 20-minute Mr. Payback in 1995, which was written and directed by Back to the Future producer Bob Gale and and starred Christopher Lloyd, and was billed as “the world’s first interactive movie.”
Now, that wasn´t quite true: the world´s first interactive movie was Kinoautomat, the brainchild of co-director Radúz Činčera, which premiered at the World Expo in Montreal back in 1967 and toured the world for seven years. Each viewer was given a small controller with two buttons, and would vote for one of two options that would determine the course of the film at selected intervals, during which the picture would freeze and a moderator would walk onto the stage.
You can forgive Interfilm for ignoring Kinoautomat, which they were clearly, ahem, ‘inspired´ by: after 1974, the film was all but forgotten, never released to home video and publicly unscreened for 30-plus years. But in 2006 the film resurfaced in London, and in 2008 a DVD was released in the Czech Republic. In 2009, the film is screening in Prague´s Kino Světozor (mostly in Czech – though dubbed prints in English and German exist), with English-language shows on June 20th and 25th moderated by Radúz Činčera´s daughter Alena. I caught the June 20th show.
Warning: the below review contains spoilers – the actual film can´t really be spoiled, but I discuss the technique behind Kinoautomat, which will certainly alter your experience. Don´t read any further, if you plan to see it, till after you see it.
Kinoautomat is actually a film titled Člověk a jeho dům (One Man and his House), credited to three directors – Radúz Činčera, Ján Roháč, and Vladimír Svitáček – though it´s widely accepted to be Činčera´s creation. While the film is generally referred to as Kinoautomat, this is actually the name of the system used, though Člověk a jeho dům was the only film produced for this system.
At Světozor, the film was introduced to us by Činčera´s daughter, Alena Činčerová. She quoted a New Yorker review from the ´67; I can´t find the original source online, but here it is via the Kinoautomat website: “The Kinoautomat in the Czechoslovak Pavilion is a guaranteed hit of the World Exposition, and the Czechs should build a monument to the man who conceived the idea…”
Člověk a jeho dům starts out with an apartment building on fire. Our narrator, Mr. Novak (Miroslav Horníček) tells us that he´s to blame for the fire, and describes his neighbors, who are exiting the building via a fire department chute: a young student, her boyfriend, his next-door neighbor and a nubile young wife being carried away by a fireman.
What went wrong? We flash back to earlier in the day. Mr. Novak arrives home on his wife´s birthday, but he´s distracted, and rings the bell next door instead of his own. He goes to his own apartment, but now his pretty young neighbor has ventured outside clad only in a towel, and her apartment door shuts and locks behind her. She comes to Mr. Novak begging him to let her inside; but how would he explain the situation to his wife?
“Stop!” our moderator yells and Činčerová walks onto the stage in front of the screen. The film freezes in place. Should Mr. Novak let her in? It´s up to the audience. I vote “yes”, and after a few seconds the results are displayed on the screen. The verdict is “no”. The film starts up again and Mr. Novak refuses to let the young woman inside, but she jumps in anyway, locking him out of his own apartment. Then the woman´s husband arrives, and then Mr. Novak´s wife. He´s got some explaining to do.
Over the course of the rest of the film, the audience votes again eight or ten times to determine the plot of the film – should Mr. Novak run to be with his wife or the young woman? Should he stop for a policeman or speed right by? Our audience of 30-40 people precisely tied on three of the votes, so Činčerová made the decisions for us. The film always ends with the apartment building on fire, but there are a number of ways of getting there.
By itself, Člověk a jeho dům is a fun if slight little film: around sixty minutes long, it´s a breezy comedy that seems to lack much significance. And by itself, the Kinoautomat system feels rather gimmicky: the choices we make don´t seem to make much of a difference, the voting interruptions distract from the movie, and the system is primitive (though this can be forgiven given the year the film was produced.)
But together they provide a revelatory experience that acknowledges the audience participation and plays with it. No matter what we choose, the building always ends up on fire – the outcome is predetermined. It´s an effective, perhaps brilliant, satire on democracy, in which the audience can vote but cannot change things.
It´s because Činčera has successfully created the illusion of audience participation: we think we´re collectively controlling the course of the film, but in reality there are two projectors running in the back, and the film always doubles back to the same choice, just via a different path. The projectionist simply switches a lens cap on one of the projectors based on the audience decision.
Smart viewers will realize the technical limitations of the form. But if you´re aware of the mystery, the film loses its appeal. It was once shown on Czech TV, and with each decision viewers simply changed the channel. But the illusion was destroyed, and viewers – now in on the secret – called in to complain. “It was a disaster,” Činčera said.
The illusion of democracy, I guess, is better than the reality. Kinoautomat seemed almost prophetic when, a year after its premiere, communist forces overtook Czechoslovakia.
Radúz Činčera seems to have been mostly forgotten, along with his film. In 1990, he created another interactive film for the 1990 World Expo in Osaka; in Cinelabyrinth, viewers again chose the course of the movie – but this time, they physically got up and walked through a door to an adjacent theater to watch how their decision unfolded. Of course, everyone ended up in the same cinema for the finale. Before his death in 1999, Činčera staged a multimedia presentation in Prague´s St. Michael´s Church that drew heavy criticism for perceived misuse of the church.
Kinoautomat was not only the first interactive film, I´m also fairly certain it was the only effective one; it´s almost a satire of itself, in its claim that the audience participation doesn´t work. After the quick death of Interfilm, I doubt we´ll see any more films that use this style. Though the Choose Your Own Adventure series seems to be coming to DVD.
Catch Kinoautomat in English, moderated by Radúz Činčera’s daughter Alena Činčerová, Thursday June 25th at Kino Světozor. You can also buy it on DVD – but as the democracy theme doesn´t carry over without a cinema full of voters, I doubt it will have the same effect.
*Kinoautomat: Člověk a jeho dům is not a great film. But it is a landmark one.
References and further reading:
Kinoautomat – official website:
Kinoautomat on DVD:
DVD review and technical specs:
Michael Naimark on Interactive Art (including Kinoautomat and Cinelabyrinth) and a meeting with Radúz Činčera:
Some info (and video) about Interfilm:
Roger Ebert’s review of Mr. Payback:
Choose Your Own Adventure books: