This article reflects upon the process of the making and screening of an interactive short film called Textual @traction, which I wrote and directed.
The film is 12 minutes long, 35mm film, and shows how a series of messages sent to a lost mobile phone inadvertently allows two gay men to declare their love for each other. In the form of a puzzle, the film denies sight of the crucial messages sent between the characters, messages which motivate their actions. However, through the simple use of SMS (Short Message System) text technology, the audience can receive each of these messages on their own mobile phones as they watch the film in the cinema.
Billed as an interactive event with prior information for audience telephone registration, the film has been screened at cinemas, film festivals, and conferences as well as on broadcast television. To receive the text messages during the film, the phone owner is asked to send a message before the screening to a five-digit number that registers their telephone for the event. If audience members do not have a mobile phone, they must share with another audience member or try to solve the puzzle of the film without messages.
Messages are sent to audience members’ mobile/cell phones from a laptop computer by a bulk SMS delivery programme, via an SMS gateway, directly to the appropriate national mobile telephone network provider, guaranteeing split-second accuracy. When appropriate and depending on the location of the screening, audience members can also choose the language of the messages when they register.
Textual @traction was nominated for UK BAFTA Interactive Award 2005 and won the Best New Media: Interactive Award at the Celtic Film Festival 2005. It has been shown in a number of international film festivals, including the International Festival of New Film, in Split, Croatia 2004; the International Short Film Festival in Los Angeles 2005(Academy-listed); and the Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2005. It had its broadcast premier, and world-first for an interactive film, on S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru), the Welsh Language Channel with its Welsh title, ‘Caru T x’, on 25 Jan. 2006.
This article addresses the audience’s experience of this interactive event, speculating on the relative audience/user positions inherent in the two technologies (cinema and mobile telephone) and on whether or not their combination can be described as a collaboration.
Underpinning this speculation is the assumption that modes of representation and communication construct the subject/user in specific ways and that the Textual @traction interactive event requires of the audience member to occupy both the position of cinema viewer and of phone user alternately during the event if they are to ‘complete’ the fiction.
Following on from this assumption, I have set out a number of oppositions: Live/Dead, Social/Individual, Intimate/Anonymous, and Passive/Active, against which the differences between the two technologies and the ways they construct the viewer/user are posited. These polarities also allow exploration of the various aspects of the suspension of disbelief assumed by the viewer of the film and whether the interruption to the flow of images and sounds on the cinema screen by the actions required of the viewer to retrieve and read the telephone messages dismantles that suspension by spoiling the viewer’s identification with the characters, undermining their assumptions governing the world of the film, and shattering its temporal and spatial coherence.
As writer and director of the film, my initial intention was not to set out to explore these questions at all. Once the story took shape and I saw the possibility that the only dialogue in the film was that delivered by text message, it was a short step (albeit, initially, a frivolous one!) to investigate the possibility of delivering those messages to the audience during the screening of the film. I dislike reading diegetic written text on the cinema screen, believing it to be a betrayal of cinema’s essential qualities: it is a medium of pictures and sounds, not words.
Of course, once it became clear that it was going to be possible to send time-specific messages to the audience members, enabling them to simultaneously read the very same message the character on screen is reading, I soon became intrigued by the potential effect this would have on the audience. Would it ‘deepen’ the process of identification with the characters? None of the characters in the film are aware of each other’s identity when they communicate and thus the narrative unfolds with dramatic irony. Would the audience’s resulting privileged knowledge in relation to the characters be enhanced by the film’s interactive dimension, because the characters are ‘unaware’ that the audience members are reading ‘their messages’?
The following explores these questions and is, to a large extent, a product of observation and analysis of the interactive event, post-event, and also includes reflection on comments from audience members that have attended the event.
Textual @traction has been constructed according to the principles of classic continuity, with every shot contributing to the narrative chain. At the end of the film, there is closure, both the conventional culmination and the objective of the classic (Hollywood) narrative, the classic continuity approach.
Textual @traction, like all forms of cinema—whether classic narrative, avant-garde, multi-screen, or home movie—is a record of past events. In this film we engage with re-animated past events at twenty-four still frames a second, willingly suppressing whatever knowledge and awareness of apparatus and artifice we possess.
However, while knowledge of a process of construction and presentation are suppressed, there is no necessity for the viewer to believe that the events on screen are happening as we observe them. We know these events are in the past; rather, it is the knowledge of the active arrangement of these discreet, past events (shots, scenes, sequences…) into a natural flow that we necessarily suppress. This is achievable, of course, by our unconscious operation of a complex system that organises this flow into spatial, temporal, and narrative coherence.
‘Film language’ is the term given to this internalised vocabulary we bring to bear on a film to make sense of what we see and hear—modified in each film, some more than others. It allows us to understand spatial and temporal construction, to accept ellipses, parallel action and so on. It is a very complex system, which in classical continuity is mobilised in the service of the story and rendered invisible, so that a film unfolds as if conforming to natural laws (Bazin; Metz; Monaco).
I made the decision at an early stage in the development process for Textual @traction that the film would do precisely this. While I wanted the film to be challenging and ‘experimental’, I believed its potential for breaking new ground resided in the realm of the juxtaposition/collaboration of the two technologies and its impact on the viewer’s engagement with the fictional world of the story. The messages would necessarily be disruptive of a mode of presentation that is sacrosanct (at least in mainstream cinema) and I thought the tighter the narrative chain, the more apparent the effects of this juxtaposition/collaboration would be. Disruption does occur when the viewer receives a message (there are eleven in all during the 12 minutes of the film) and it is at these points that the viewer becomes phone user and the recipient of a ‘live’ communication that is time-specific.
Technically, each message is sent from the bulk-messaging programme to all the registered phones at the same time so that their arrival coincides with the arrival of the ‘same message’ in the on-screen character’s phone: audience member and on-screen character then read the same message simultaneously. To achieve this, the start time of the computer programme and the start time of the film projection in the cinema have to coincide exactly.
One always presumes that text messages sent to our phones originate with a person, even those that are anonymous (news and sports alerts, etc.). The assumption underlying the use of the messages in Textual @traction is that, since according to the classic narrative cinema-effect we ‘become’ each character in order to understand what motivates their actions (identifying most energetically with the protagonist), receiving the same text messages they are receiving and reading them at the same time as they are is consistent with this process of identification, although stretching it to its limits.
Crucial to the achievement of identification within the classic continuity approach is the point-of view shot, and it is this element that the messages ‘substitute’ or, perhaps, ‘literalise’ in the film (Bordwell 29-33; Branigan; Gaut 260-270). Conventionally in a film, when a character looks at something that is significant to the story, the look is followed on screen by the point-of-view shot, which shows the audience what is being seen by that character.
In Textual @traction, point-of-view shots are deployed in this conventional manner. Moreover, as the main character in the film is a photographer whom we see taking photographs early in the film, the act of looking and the views he sees are, in fact, clearly foregrounded in a number of shot-reverse shot sequences. However, when we see characters looking at their phones and reading the messages they’ve been sent by other characters in the film, these shots are not followed by point-of-view shots that show the messages they are reading. Instead, the spectators in the cinema ‘enact’ their own point-of-view shot as they look at the same message on their phone screens in their hands. In a ‘literal’ sense, the audience members, at these points, ‘become’ the characters.
Thus, in Textual @traction there is a two-fold process that reverses the live/dead polarity of cinema. Firstly, the arrival of the message in the audience-member’s phone transforms the past event on the screen to a live one. The suspension of disbelief in the viewer is heightened in order to accept the impossibility of acquiring the same knowledge the people on screen are acquiring, at the same time. Secondly, the viewer in the cinema, when reading the messages, ‘becomes’ the fictional character, performing a live enactment of the point-of view shot that is missing on screen. In both processes, phone technology bestows its live-ness to the dead world of the film—at least momentarily, until rational thought points out its absurdity.
While going to the cinema is a social activity, the apparatus of cinema is organised in such a way as to individuate the cinema experience. The combination of the dimming of the auditorium lights to darkness and the seating arrangement encourages the viewer to suppress the awareness of others. The experience can then become intensely private. While there are physical and aural constraints on the viewer’s behaviour, imposed mainly to guarantee other viewers’ enjoyment (including, ordinarily, the prohibition of mobile phone use!), once seated and still, the viewer feels entitled to respond to the action on the screen in whatever way appropriate: they can smile, shudder, or weep with impunity.
Additionally, the optics of the lens (the cinema projector reproducing the camera’s), in conjunction with the design of the auditorium itself, continues the tradition of Renaissance perspective in providing a single vanishing point that guarantees centrality to each viewer in relation to the scene depicted however many viewers there are in the cinema, wherever they are sitting. As far as the apparatus of cinema is concerned, there is no privileged view of the visual field displayed on the screen; each viewer in the auditorium see the same view, wherever they sit, centred and interpolated individually.
Text-messaging is one-to-one communication par excellence. It takes speech telephone privacy one step further: even in a situation where both sender and receiver are in public spaces, surrounded by people, two-way communication can be completely private.
When every member of the audience in a screening of Textual @traction receives text messages, they receive them at the same time as everyone else, and they assume they are receiving the same message. Emphasised by the cacophony of (individually-chosen) text alerts as each message reaches its destination within split seconds of each other, the simultaneity and the common address transforms what is usually an individual and private mode of communication into a collective, social one. At the same time, the individuating effect of the cinematic apparatus is undermined. Awareness of their counterparts’ presence returns, the light from individual phone screens illuminate the viewers’/phones users’ faces as they retrieve and read their messages and they look around the auditorium to compare their reactions with those of others. In those moments, the social/individual polarity as it relates to the two technologies is reversed: the phone’s from individual to social; cinema, from individuating to collectivising.
While the apparatus of cinema individuates, the address of cinema is anonymous, making no adjustment for the individual (Baudry; Comolli; De Lauretis). Of course, there is specificity in the address of most cinema: the various genre of commercial film, as well as the varieties of independent and avant-garde films, presume certain audiences and address these audiences on the basis of a shared set of assumptions and expectations. These include individual films’ themes, the forms of narrative (or non-narrative), its variety of characters, the pleasures the films afford, and so on. However, cinema is not discursive. It cannot by ‘adjusted’ to suit the individual.
The Intimate/Anonymous polarity is one that draws out the difference between a mode of representation, in this case cinema, and a mode of communication, text messaging. The former presents a completed artefact of some kind while the latter is a technology that allows for discursive activity between sender and receiver. Of course, various forms of interactive art are necessarily making this notion of the ‘artefact’ problematic, allowing the individual viewer to organise and re-organise narratives, modify environments, and create unique assemblages of images and sounds, often enabled by sophisticated computer programmes. During such interaction, individuals may create never-to-be repeated experiences brought about by complex, randomised interfaces. Nevertheless, these are examples of interaction with the artefact and while they may be unique, they are also anonymous. If discursive activity between users is achieved in these circumstances then the technology by definition becomes a mode of communication, however mediated by technology or programming.
Telephone communication is all about individual address, both in spoken and text language. A text messages is either sent to elicit a response or it is the response. Unless it is an unsolicited, anonymous message, a text message is a specific and personal missive to the individual, its specificity arising from the sender’s knowledge of the receiver. Receiving such text messages during Textual @traction (and because of the sexual tenor of some of the messages, they are especially ‘personal’)—‘sent’ to the audience members ‘unwittingly’ by the individual fictional characters on screen—transforms the address of the film from anonymous to intimate, from general to individual. The intimacy associated with text messaging enhances our identification with the on-screen characters because we are given an insight into their motivations by being (voyeuristically) included what is generally a private discourse. For those who have experienced the Textual @traction interactive event and who have expressed an opinion about it, it does seem that it was this dimension of the experience that was a particular source of pleasure.
In mainstream cinema we enter the auditorium and we sit down to face the screen, on which the film appears. While we watch and listen we may eat and drink, shout, weep, and laugh. We can also leave if we disapprove of the film or of the behaviour of others around us. While all these activities (and more) are possible, none will impact on what is happening on the screen, nor, crucially, on the flow of information that constructs our understanding of the characters’ actions and the narrative in general. In this respect, as an audience, we are effectively passive.
The receiving of messages during Textual @traction invites the audience to collaborate actively in the final form of the narrative that is the interactive event, completing the fictional world constructed by film and text messages together. The information they receive by text message enhances their understanding of both character motivation and of the narrative in general. Without their activity, the film is a puzzle.
Added to the conceptual activity that this involves, there is also the physical activity and the psychological adjustment: when the audience members’ message alert sounds, they have to undertake a number of keystrokes on their keypad in order to bring the message up on the phone screen, then they have to read the message and construe the message’s relevance to the characters on screen, before returning to the cinema-screen element of the event once more.
There is no doubt that the Textual @traction interactive event strains credulity, or, to put it another way, depends on an enhancement of the suspension of disbelief normally accustomed to by a cinema audience. The notion that on-screen characters are ‘unwittingly’ sending text messages to audience members and that they are reading them ‘at the same time’ is nothing short of absurd. Absurdity and its wilful disregard by the audience, however, is no stranger to cinema, as we know.
What I have attempted to do in this paper is to account for the success of the Textual @traction interactive event, despite its absurdity, by identifying three forms of collaboration that it depends on: collaboration with the text in order to complete the fiction, a collaboration between cinema as a mode of representation and messaging as a mode of communication that the audience member enables, and a collaboration between cinema/subject and telephone/subject performed by each audience member.
As I have indicated, when these collaborations take place, some of the habitual characteristics of both modes are transformed or modified: text messaging becomes a social rather than a private activity, while the apparatus of cinema transforms from one that individuates to one that collectivises. In addition, the address of cinema, normally anonymous, is bestowed with intimacy by the text messaging, and finally, a normally passive audience is active in their involvement to complete the fiction.