Radúz Činčera, Ján Roháč, Vladimír Svitáček (Dir.), “Kinoautomat – Človek a jeho dům / One Man and his House” (DVD Review)

Kinoautomat – One Man and His House, directed by Radúz ?in?era, Ján Rohá?, Vladimír Svitá?ek, 2008, written by Pavel Jurá?ek, 63 minutes, 1.80:1 aspect ratio, Bontonfilm

Movie poster for 'Kinoautomat (One Man and His House)'. Image courtesy of the author.First things first: a kinoautomat is something like a movie vending-machine—you drop in your coins and out comes the movie you’ve selected. Accordingly, the Czechoslovakian film Kinoautomat: One Man and His House was one of the first interactive movies, one that allows the audience to decide for itself how the plot will evolve, to quite literally choose what movie they will watch. The film, together with its experimental exhibition technology, was presented in 1967 at the EXPO in Montreal, toured around the world for seven years, and is now finally available on DVD. The film was recently screened in Prague Kino Sv?tozor with the original presenter Eduard Hrubeš. In addition, Alena ?in?erová, the co-director’s daughter, recently presented the film at several film festivals.

The underlying concept of Kinoautomat was rooted in its time. There was a general movement in the society, politics, and culture of the 1960s to democratize everyday life and, along similar lines, to create possibilities for greater participation in art. Thus, the idea behind Kinoautomat was that a cinema audience should have the ability to decide what direction the film it was watching would take. This was a completely new concept in the reception and production of movies: the audience had to actively decide, agree on, and choose between two directions of the following story line after a certain sequence. Of course, the system had its limits. There never can be real communication between the audience and the screen, and naturally all of the options have been prepared already and all possible endings have already been foretold. But though the viewer can not create something new while viewing, he can choose freely within the parameters that have been given already: each time a choice arises, the two different options between which the audience may choose are coded green and red.

As for the actual content of the film, Kinoautomat: One Man and His House accompanies a middle aged man for a single day of particular importance.

The story, told within a frame, begins with a burning house for which the film’s protagonist (Miroslav Horní?ek) is apparently to blame. Guilt-stricken, he wishes he could go back and live that fateful day over again, wondering how things might have turned out instead. The latter turns out to be the film’s decisive question. To find the answer, we have to go through his day again and decide at certain critical moments whether to opt for a “green” or “red” narrative path.

On the DVD, whenever a moment of audience decision is approaching, a master of ceremonies (a woman in the English version and a man in the Czech) appears and describes, rather painstakingly, what consequences the decision between the red and the green button might have. Their speeches seem to add a moral dimension to the audience’s experience of this freedom of choice.

Interestingly enough, however, the audience at the Expo rarely voted according to moral norms:

It was a study in group behavior with unexpected results. Audiences always voted for the adventurous course of action, whether it was prudent or not, moral or immoral. A typical audience would vote two to one for letting the blonde in the apartment and four to one for breaking the traffic laws. The audience in over 100 performances, except once, voted for Mr. Novak to hit the porter over the head. The film makers learned that people decided outcomes, not on a moral code but on what they like to see – essentially group fantasy. As an experiment it was great entertainment, perhaps the funniest forty-five minutes at Expo.(Jeffrey Stanton, “Experimental Multi-Screen Cinema,” 1997 http://www.westland.net/expo67/map-docs/cinema.htm)

There is a special artifice about this supposedly interactive film. No matter how hard you think about how it should begin, every sequence eventually ends up at the same predetermined outcome, a sort of narrative intersection at which you are asked to choose again until at last, and inevitably, the house once more ends up on fire. No matter what you choose, all paths of the story meet at an intersection before the next choice turns up. Some paths are even dead ends and you have to take your remote-control and select the other button. Thus, the illusion of choice turns out to be exactly that: an illusion. But this “illusion” can be given a specifically political interpretation: the master of ceremonies could as well be part of a political system that tries to seem democratic by offering its citizens the illusion of choice but ultimately programming their fates. From this perspective, the film appears an ironic parable of the socialist system that was still possible in 1967 Czechoslovakia, a year before its brutal end. In Czechoslovakia the film was shown only four years after its debut in Canada, but only for a short period, after which it was banned.

The DVD is made for an international audience. The menu, the moderation of the emcee, and the film itself are all available in both Czech and English, and it includes a 15-minute documentary with the director Radúz ?in?era. Ultimately, it may be impossible to replicate the sense of community—of common responsibility—the film produces in a theatre audience, but for those who may never have an opportunity to see Kinoautomat in this setting, the DVD serves as an interesting and enriching stand-in.