Chip Shot

Psychic Detective supplants narrative with computerized gimmickry

Psychic Detective, which has its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival next week, is a video game tarted up to resemble a movie. It offers five hours' worth of live-action footage (directed by local filmmaker John Sanborn) of characters investigating a suicide that might be a murder — but the central gimmick is interactivity. The viewer (or, in press-release-speak, the “player”) can crudely manipulate events by pushing buttons on a little black box that's wired to the CD-ROM machine. The player can get inside the heads of various characters as they pop up at the edge of the screen. The player becomes, in effect, the director of an assemblage of scenes and images that is to cinema what Lego blocks are to architecture.

If Psychic Detective is, as the film festival's catalog excitedly suggests, what movies “will be like in the next hundred years,” then I'm glad I'll be dead long before then. I spent less than an hour as a player of the project and left the dark little video room in a state of stupefaction: I can't recall anything or anyone that's ever bored me so utterly. The most amusing aspect of Detective is its technical temperamentality. My version inauspiciously skipped the entire prologue, and even when it was working smoothly, it required a change of CD every seven or eight minutes.

The festival's intrepid trendsetters propose to show Detective in a real theater, the Sequoia II, with a yet-to-be-named celebrity wielding the black box, but the project is really meant for home consumption. The producer, Jim Simmons, thinks that it won't have much appeal to hard-core video game players, but that “casual” users, those who are just starting to enrich their lives with computer-generated amusement, might like it.

Simmons and his assistant spoke to me at numbing length about playstations, Nintendo and Sega platforms, and other shiny baubles of the electronic age designed to appease restless children with short attention spans. The odd thing about Detective is that its tone is distinctly adult. Several times I glimpsed people fucking, and there's at least one scene with a realistically maimed, bloody corpse. With heads melting into other shapes, eerie voices, and shimmering swirls of color, the project was my idea of what it would be like to spend Halloween tripping on acid — it's unsettling if not quite scary.

Simmons thinks that Detective is “the first interactive property” suited for cable television, and certainly it seems to belong more on the small screen than on the silver screen, where it doesn't belong at all. But the appeal of interactivity in narrative, whether at home or in a theater, eludes me. Interactivity means incompleteness. It's like going to one of those fondue restaurants and cooking your own dinner in a chafing dish full of hot oil — faintly entertaining once, but only once. It's a lot of work and distraction, and the results are seldom memorable.

Instead of art, Detective offers changeability, and it's a poor trade. Cardboard replaces character, and a maze of plot possibilities replaces purposeful movement. Dialogue (by screenwriter Michael Kaplan) staggers under a load of puerile portentousness. By being little more than a technical exhibition (and a not quite ripe one at that) Detective reminds us of why we go to real movies, and why no electronic wizardry will ever change the basic human need to tell stories about ourselves.

The best stories capture some essence of feeling or experience that reminds us we're alive. The best stories try to tell us why we are alive — a glorious, hopeless task that will keep storytellers busy forever even as it defeats them. When I walk out of a movie, I ask myself whether I'm quite the same person I was when I walked in two hours before — if I'm not, then I think the movie was a success, even if it wasn't perfect, even if I didn't really like it. The point of narrative art is to tell us something we didn't know in a way we hadn't thought of — to return our investment of time as enrichment. Otherwise, it's just a game.

Psychic Detective premieres Thurs, Oct. 12, at the Sequoia II Theater in Mill Valley. The Mill Valley Film Festival runs Thurs, Oct. 5, through Sun, Oct. 15. Call 383-5346 for festival program and ticket information.

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