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Interview with the Author- Nitzan Ben-Shaul, Author of Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies

Nitzan Ben-Shaul is the author of Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies, which will be released by Berghahn this month. His book explores films such as Sliding Doors, Run Lola Run, Inglourious Basterds, and Rashomon that present alternate narrative paths and uses these films to examine how standard linear films close down thinking processes, while arguing that optional thinking in film can be stimulating and rewarding. Here, he answers questions about his research and topic.

1. What drew you to the topic of cinema that proposes alternate narrative paths?
I was initially drawn to these movies when working on my book on interactive cinema (Hypernarrative Interactive Cinema: Problems and Solutions, Rodopi, 2008). Being concerned there with drama-guided interaction I found movies like Run Lola Run, Sliding Doors, and Rashomon to be excellent models for devising engaging interactive movies given their bifurcating narrative paths. I also produced a feature length interactive movie entitled Turbulence (2009) based on my research into interactive movies. I then asked myself what is the added value of these films and realized that they encourage optional thinking, that is, they get you thinking about options in life, a process that most movies actually derail by their encouraging closed-mindedness in their one-track narrative trajectory leading in an apparent strict causality to a relieving closure.

2. How did your perceptions of choice and narrative change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?
While at first I considered these movies a band apart, when researching narrative causality, and after experiencing writing a bifurcating film script, I realized that forking narratives actually materialize a potential embedded in every narrative, given that narrative causality is probabilistic by nature rather than determined. Each narrative consists by definition of choices and it is usually multi-drafted (to use Brannigan’s term), but most movies discard the inherent narrative options to forge a sense of strict causality. Once I realized this, I began researching how is this fake sense of inevitability forged? This led me to carry an in-depth study of movie suspense, surprise, empathy for characters and the narrative play of foreshadowing and retroactive meaning attribution, through which most movies create a fake sense of narrative determination. Realizing that these movie strategies are also what turn most movies popular, I asked myself how is it that optional narrative movies are popular and yet do not close your mind. My answer to this question was that optional movies manage to use the same strategies that turn regular movies popular, but in a manner that actually enhances rather than reduces enjoyment while being optional. The book outlines the answer to this.

3. Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?
I presume there will be objections from different quarters. Bordwell for example, has argued that these movies are mere variations upon classical movie narratives, considering viewers to be, in my terms, optional thinkers in regular movies as well. I think that I showed how regular movies cue closed-mindedness that strongly guides the viewer, who is not really raising alternative hypotheses as Bordwell suggests. It is not that viewers are not cognitively active while watching, it is rather the nature of this activity which differs in respect of optional as opposed to close-minding movies. I also have a whole chapter on how formalist, neo-Marxist and postmodern movie tenets may seem to encourage optional thinking, but I explain why these tenets and movies that abide by them offer failed alternatives to optional thinking. I presume scholars working within these theoretical frameworks will have a hard time accepting my argument. I challenge them to argue with me.