Kinoautomat and/or Bandersnatch

Valerie van Zuijlen
Interactive Cinema and New Media
Fall 2019
Sep 25th, 2019
Media Response
Wordcount: content and conclusion (1250), forking path I (900) / forking path II (500)

This media response is an attempt to give an understanding of the definition of interactive film and the component of interactivity itself as defined through the role of the audience as a participant. I will give a detailed comparison between two interactive films, as for Kinoautomat (1967) and Bandersnatch (2019). Furthermore, I attempt to contextualize both works and build upon scholarship from both Marina Hassapoulou and Lev Manovich, in terms of sociological, political and (trans)historical relations.

To briefly introduce each work individually; as for Kinoautomat, promoted as the world’s first interactive film, conceived by Radúz Činčera for the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the World Expo in 1967 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. At several points during the film the action stops, and a moderator appears on stage to ask the audience to choose between two scenes, following an audience vote, the chosen scene is played. Kinoautomat is perceived to be a “black comedy” in terms of its use of dark humor, in which the audience is given two choices which are perceived to be lesser of two equals, two choices of evil. The morality of the voter comes into play. As seen within the beginning with a flash-forward to a scene in which main character Mr. Novák’s apartment is in flames. No matter what choices are made, the result is the burning building, making the film, as presuming Činčera intended, a satire of democracy in which the audience is conceived to be in control of fate, arguing the principle of “free”-voting.

This form of “black comedy” genre might as well be depicted in the originally British science fiction anthology television series called Black Mirror, conceived by writer Charlie Brooker (an English humorist) and director David Slade, which premiered on British television in 2013 as later on the program was purchased and hosted by the American streaming service provider Netflix in 2015. The Black Mirror series examines modern society, particularly with regards to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Episodes are standalone, usually set in an alternative present or the near future, often with a dark and satirical tone. However in 2019 a standalone interactive film titled Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was released. Which expresses, as I will further break down within this media response, several similarities in regards to the fantasy choose-your-own-adventure game aesthetics as seen originally fifty years ago within Kinoautomat.

As for starters, Bandersnatch is presented as an interactive film, prompting the audience, in Netflix’s case primarily the singular “home-cinema” viewer, at times to select one of two choices on the screen that affect how the work is shown.

Secondly, ever similarly to the theater audience controlling the main character Mr. Novák in Kinoautomat, the Netflix viewer makes decisions for the main character in Bandersnatch, the young programmer Stefan Butler, whom is in the narrative itself a videogame programmer in 1984, on his own journey to create an interactive video game, adapting a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure alluding to Lewis Caroll’s original novel from 1984 also named “Bandersnatch”, a somewhat meta-narrative comes into play.

Thirdly, the use of forking paths, as of different realities and alternate timelines within both films are remarkable, in which the audience is giving the feeling that there indeed are other capable scenario’s. For instance when the moderator in Kinoautomat pauses the film in which she prompts the audience with the opportunity to reconsider a previously made choice after showing both possible outcomes to alter the upcoming timeline. However, through this use of forking paths, and the distinct option of two choices, as earlier mentioned this lesser choice of two evils, both scenario’s question the moral component of choice and incorporate a form of meta-commentary and rumination on free will. Within Bandersnatch this use of meta-commentary on top of the role of meta-narrative is explicitly noticed within the following scene: the viewer may have the option to have Butler take an invitation to visit Colin Ritman’s flat (one of the other characters who works at the video game company), there the pair take hallucinogens, and Ritman then talks about secret government mind-control programs, alternate timelines, and different paths. To demonstrate his theories on alternate realities, Ritman demands Butler, through the viewer, to determine which one of them should jump off the balcony. If Butler jumps, he dies and the game is finished by Tuckersoft and poorly reviewed. If Ritman jumps, the whole encounter is revealed to be a dream but Ritman will be mysteriously absent in future scenes.

[ To note, presuming, the use of the balcony as a form of mise-en-scene within both films, which in overall terms is conflicted with the choice of death. As of jumping or being thrown off the balcony; Mr. Novák’s neighbor’s wife, Butler or Ritman, or in the case as for rescue by the fire department slide from Mr. Novák’s apartment. ]

Aesthetically, there is somewhat a difference within both films in displaying both choices. As within Kinoautomat, it already displays both scenarios through a split-screen of future possibilities as the moderator even gives a preview of the first five seconds of each of them, the audience may choose to click on the left green button or the right red button. Which at first might be a confliction with the color of choice, as red in general scenarios simulate “wrong” and green simulate “right”. As a passive viewer myself, I tried to hold count of the relation between presuming moral right and moral wrong answers and if they would sync with the colors, which oddly were in favor, but never the less still a presumption. As within Bandersnatch, there is only one screen shown displaying the frozen moment in time which consists of an overlay with two prompts, similar to a form of clickable hypertext, to choose from.

After breaking down several, mainly similarities as seen within the narrative discourse of both interactive films, this media response makes use of a similar discourse, as it contains a forking path between choosing either of the following subjects in regards to contextual consequences:

I Social and Psychological [narrative pleasures, mind-games, interpolation]
II Historical and Political [contextualization and totalitarian interactivity]

I Social and Psychological consequences

There appear to be nine moments of choice within the film, thirty-two stories to be told, however one distinct ending. As allegedly within Bandersnatch there are over one trillion potential paths to view the work and five distinct endings. Within her case study of Kinoautomat, Marina Hassapopoulou[1] refers to Cinema 3.0 (Kristen Daly) which defines a form of cinema where navigating, intertextual linking, and figuring out the rules of the game provide the primary pleasures. As Hassapopoulou argues that mostly the “narrative pleasure” is derived chiefly from interactions with cinema objects, the active discovery of the narratives instead of narrative comprehension and other conventional modes of spectatorship. She relates this to Thomas Elsaesser in mind-game films in which the spectators own meaning-making activity involves constant retroactive revision, new reality-checks, displacements and reorganization not only of temporal sequence, but of mental space, and the presumption of a possible switch in cause and effect. To relate this possible switch to the working of interactivity within both works, in which the working of forking paths are crucial in terms of consequence.

However as seen within Kinoautomat, Hassapopoulou argues that the cause-and-effect of the viewers’ choices is never fully disclosed and thus never fully motivated, this move is deliberately reflective on the filmmakers part, and its objective converges with the objective of deliberately inconclusive puzzle films. As the converging paths within Kinoautomat bring to the surface the fatalism that underlies its apparent freedom of narrative possibility. For example, towards the end, when the film autonomously fasts forwards through several alternative combinations to show the audience that the fire would have happened anyway, and thus exposes the audience’s agency as an illusion. In which the audience becomes consciously aware of its participatory role of only being a passive observer of the narrative progression and a witness to a predetermined narrative conclusion. As Hassapopoulou quotes Činčera as he states in a former press release that the audience inability to change the ending of the film is meant to reflect the experience of man in our modern society, as for life continues along the road of destiny irrespective of man’s decisions. In relation to these converging passive paths of “narrative pleasures”, as experienced within Bandersnatch, almost every track encourages you to do something insane (murder included). The beauty of Bandersnatch comes in its ownership of the ridiculous, often becoming as crazy as viewers want it to while acknowledging the foolishness as a part of two deeper questions. What do our decisions say about us? And how much control do we really have on those decisions?

Nonetheless, as Hassapopoulou states that part of the social value of the film Kinoautomat was seeing how the majority of the audience voted, especially when it came to morally ambiguous situations that made Mr. Novák’ choose between being a dutiful citizen or chase after his wife. As it might take a different turn when picturing the cause-and-effect in relation to the aftermath of the audience participation. Unfortunately, as far as my research went, there has not been much archival history on the audience participatory polls from back in 1967. However, as for Bandersnatch, in regards to Lev Manovich’s[2] statement on interactivity as a totalitarian art form, in which Manovich argues that the audience is asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations. In short, in what can be read as a new updated version of Althusser’s “interpolation”, as we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody’s else mind for our own [authors note: reality attempts to become a “meta”-mind-game]. Ever as Bandersnatch is authorized through the online streaming platform of Netflix, which may fringe with another of Manovich’s point of seeing the “Internet as a communal apartment of Stalin era: no privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, the always present line for common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen.” However, fascinating but somewhat intriguing, there have been rumors that Netflix keeps a record of all the Bandersnatch choice data, as a technology policy researcher Michael Vaele[3]  has discovered, after he obtained his viewing data after emailing Netflix to request it under the EU General Data Protection Regulation laws, GDPR’s right of access rules. In an interview with Vice Motherboard Veale told that he thought it would be a fun test to show people how you can use data protection law to ask real questions you have. Considering the choose-your-own-adventure narrative, the prompt of Veal pausing the notion of the ability “to ask real questions” is [subservient] to the point made earlier on about the passive forms of interactivity as a form of interpolation used within both films. Also this suspicion of Netflix saving all which are perceived as personal choices, which one way or the other is in overall not the most choice of options to begin with. Another article pauses the possibility of mental health consequences of each Netflix users, in terms of getting a hold on psychological-endangered minds. A realistic take on sci-fi scenario’s similar to the scenery within Minority Report; as a participant you will be “highlighted” online when you would find pleasure in the possibility of killing people, as presuming the moral choice is yours. Imagine one day viewing the film, and the next day you are recorded in a facility based on your Netflix choose-your-own-adventure becomes real-life scenario…

II Historical and Political

Within the article on the case study of Kinoautomat, Marina Hassapopoulou[4], draws several notions through the inquiry of film and media studies on the role of film narrative in contexts of national economies, transcultural exchange, and globalization. By doing so Hassapopoulou argues the concern of the contextualization of interactive filmmaking trends and themes within the evolutionary framework of technological developments, as for attempting to place digital media within the broader context of media evolution and run the risk of being reductively re-historicized and primarily valued for their relation to new(er) subsequent media and the way they illuminate current media trend and discourses. So far, within this media response, I made an attempt to contextualize both films, mostly through common grounds in the narrative discourse, in order to establish a case study on the genre of choose-your-own-adventure within interactive films. But not to neglect the fact that both films are made fifty years apart from each other, which brings in mind especially the historical and political framework regarding each work, ever as the geographical. Kinoautomat being made in 1967 in Czechoslovakia and Bandersnatch a more temporary piece just released in 2019 on an American streaming platform, but ever so a homage to playing arcade games in the ‘80s. In terms of cultural specificity, Lev Manovich[5] draws a geographic distinction within his manifesto between the experiences of East and West structure how new media is seen in both places. He states that for the West, interactivity is a perfect vehicle for the ideas of democracy and equality. For the East, it is another form of manipulation, in which the artist uses advanced technology to impose his/her totalitarian will on the people. When relating this perspective to both films, perhaps Kinoautomat might serve through the parameters of the West perspective as for comprehending a foremost democratic and equal system of voting, however Kinoautomat might follow the experience of its accurate geographical located in the East, as for at that time a new advanced technology which at first the narrative pleasure of audience participation and the deceiving “free-voting” component which later on becomes clear to be a meta-commentary on democracy. Ever so Bandersnatch to be verified through the means of the geographic of the West, in which foremost the streaming Network of Netflix might contribute on the ideal notion of a perfect vehicle for the ideas of democracy and equality, in terms of Netflix allowing its members to watch a variety of shows, however, I do argue it also leans more to the East of a totalitarian view as its content is foremost set by vast parameters. By means of weighing up both experiences, Manovich as the author is creating a forking path of confliction in terms of politics through a geographical separation.

III Converging Path

I would like to conclude this comparison through an analyzation of the final scene within both films. Surprisingly within Kinoautomat the depiction of the moderator as for the young woman performer being in charge of giving the audience the prompts, ever as the main question of who’s to blame for setting the fire. At first this appeared to be Mr. Novák, however, as the moderator argues at the near end of the film that the role of the audience was a somewhat disguise for Mr. Novák’s choices, as the moderator explains; “after all we are all Mr. Novák, we make choices for him”. Ever so at the ending of the film, there appears to be an “overhead” voice of lacuna, another author of the story, revealed to be the elderly lady and neighbor of Mr. Novák, who appeared to be in charge of the entire operation.

This brings me to (for now) the finalpoint of similarity, to relate this to the moderator within Bandersnatch, as a visualization of the meta-structure takes place through the revealing of the computer scene, where the fictional character of the Bandersnatch creature takes form as the all-seeing Netflix, in which you as viewer got to be seen as the author. As for the scene in which Butler gazes to the computer screen, on which is prompt the following message:

Computer screen: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make decisions for you”
Butler: “What is Netflix?”
Computer screen: “It’s like TV, but online, I control it.”

The overall question of which path to follow becomes apparent in both films, when doubting a choice you ultimately compare choices, as similarly seen within the writing of this media response, as I compare in attempt to finally converge to the “right” or final path of understanding two interactive films which make use of similar structures. Even though both films are made in a dividing timespan of fifty years apart, ever so the form of interactivity, as for the narrative structure and the passive participatory role of the audience, within both remain to be the overall same. I think that over time most crucial change within the genre of interactive film, is the role of technology as a third party, as Manovich argues to be seen as a totalitarian force itself.

Diagram overall similarities within both interactive films:

  Kinoautomat (1967) Bandersnatch (2019~1984)
Interactive Film Audience as participant Viewer as participant
Action Make choice for main character Mr. Novak Make choice for main character Stefan Butler
Linearity Non-linear, forking paths, 2 choices. Non-linear, forking paths, 2 choices.
Aesthetic Green (left) and red (right) button Right and left option
Scene Balcony scene. Flashforward Mr. Novak’s family throws neighbors wife over the Balcony. Balcony scene. To demonstrate his theories on alternate realities, Ritman demands Butler, via the viewer, determine which one of them should jump off the balcony.

9 points in the film, 32 stories to be told, 1 distinct ending 1 trillion potential paths to view the work and 5 distinct endings
Aftermath Converging paths, passive audience Passive audience, but active consequence.
Narrative question Who set the fire? Who is Bandersnatch?
Moderator Mr. Novak = you Bandersnatch creature = you “I am watching you on Netflix. I make decisions for you”
Culture Specificity East<>West (manipulation meta commentary democracy <> democracy free-coting / equality) West<>East (democracy equal access <> totalitarian content)

(W1) Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (David Slade, Netflix, 2018)
(W2/3) Kinoautomat (Radúz Činčera, 1967)
(W2) Friedberg, Anne. “The end of cinema: multi-media and technological change”. 2000.
(W3) Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Interactive Cinema from Vending Machine to Database Narrative: The Case of Kinoautomat”. 2013.
(W3) Manovich, Lev. “On Totalitarian Interactivity (notes from the enemy of the people)”. 1996.
Link to MR on Blog:

[1] Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Interactive Cinema from Vending Machine to Database Narrative: The Case of Kinoautomat”. 2013.

[2] Manovich, Lev. “On Totalitarian Interactivity (notes from the enemy of the people)”. 1996.

[3] Gault, Matthew. “Netflix Has Saved Every Choice You’ve Ever Made in ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’” in Vice Motherboard. Feb 12 2019.

[4] Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Interactive Cinema from Vending Machine to Database Narrative: The Case of Kinoautomat”. 2013.

[5] Manovich, Lev. “On Totalitarian Interactivity (notes from the enemy of the people)”. 1996.