Cut to Future: The Prospect of an Ergodic Cinema
Abstract: At the outset of Cybertext, Espen Aarseth writes that for "ergodic literature to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed upon the reader" (1-2). Aarseth provides a convincing articulation of the spectrum between both "types" of literature, recognizing both the potential for overlap among various print and electronic texts as well as the distinctions that can be drawn among them. My presentation seeks to build upon this articulation by turning to a genre, cinema, that receives little attention in Aarseth's work.
There are sound reasons for such omission. While literary critics, and particularly reader-response theorists, may object to a characterization of literature as nonergodic, it is difficult to mount similar objections on behalf of film. With the possible exception of ill-fated experiments like the 1985 movie Clue, it is difficult to find a medium more ill-suited to an ergodic perspective than that of cinema. Nevertheless, in this paper, I want to suggest that this is slowly changing. The prospect of a genuinely ergodic cinema is undoubtedly a distant one, but I would argue that we can see symptoms of that change in certain films, as well as the commercial success that such films have enjoyed recently.
Some of these changes will come as a result of the material substrates of filmmaking, as certain directors and studios push for the overdue shift to digital cinema. At the same time, though, there is a cultural trend towards ergodic models of storying, due in part, I would suggest, to the migration of digital culture as a subject matter. Films incorporating virtual reality (e.g., ExistenZ (1999) and Abre los Ojos (1997)) have begun to disturb the traditional narrative structures in cinema, but it is the presence of alternative structure in mainstream American filmmaking (American Beauty (1999), The Sixth Sense (1999)) that suggests that this migration is further along than we might have once expected. It would be precipitous to label these films ergodic, but Aarseth's cybertextual typology provides us with an excellent lens for examining recent trends in cinema. While the possibility of ergodic films may still be distant, a cybertextual perspective may prove productive, encouraging us to imagine what will have been the contribution of the digital age to the art of cinema.
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