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A few months ago, Netflix released “Bandersnatch” as the newest segment in its tech-horror series “Black Mirror.” The wildly popular episode took advantage of the streaming giant to engineer an interactive experience, asking viewers to decide between binary decisions ranging from breakfast cereal or method of murder. As the narrative progresses, both the protagonist and the viewer explore the illusion of free will and the neuroticism of our daily choices. Despite being overly self-referential at times, the experiment provided a powerful — and often disturbing — feeling of authority that stood in contrast to the typical voyeurism of cinema. However, this supposedly revolutionary venture was not quite as novel as it proclaimed to be.
Over forty years ago, Lynn Hershman Leeson created the first interactive film, “Lorna,” on the now obsolete LaserDisc. The piece follows the material and immaterial anxieties of the titular agoraphobic woman, trapped both in her apartment and in the television set. Unequipped with the technical innovations to come, Leeson makes no attempts to suspend disbelief by removing the audience from her subject, instead blurring the line between viewer and viewed, controller and controlled. As the audience leads Lorna through one of three endings — moving to Los Angeles, destroying the television, or committing suicide — Leeson’s message on the societal control over woman becomes especially poignant in the world of digital influence today.
“Lorna” is currently on display at The Whitney Museum in New York City as part of the collection, “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018.” Contrary to the “Do not touch” adage of museums, Leeson’s set invites us in, sits us down on a leopard armchair, and hands us an ancient remote. Unlike the smooth progression of Netflix, the technology of “Lorna” is decades-old, complete with occasional skipping and technical difficulties, making our omnipotence limited and thus impossible to ignore. This non-linear storyline exchange is part of the experience, echoing the conflicting, overlapping, back and forth thoughts of one in distress. The typical voyeuristic separation of a cinema audience is shattered even further by the exhibit itself. Both the physical set and the virtual one were furnished with the mise-en scène of magazines from the time period, a leopard-print coat, leopard-print heels, a rotary phone, a mirror, a handgun, and a fishbowl were placed both in the physical set and the virtual one. In this eerie mirroring process, the viewer becomes a stand in for Lorna herself. We too face the television, stuck in the set of the room, guided through a semi-predestined plot with the illusion of control.
Unlike “Bandersnatch,” which gave viewers the power of actions, “Lorna” entrusts viewers with the power of objects, inviting them to explore Lorna’s confined world by choosing to look through her possessions. Each of Lorna’s defining items are signifiers of femininity — heels, mirror, wallet, makeup, watch, phone, and the like. At her (and our) side, the dead goldfish marks a failed attempt at motherhood. We watch sexy women in surreal TV commercials through her eyes, and listen to voicemails from men through her ears. We soon learn that her obsession with the television and phone has reinforced her agoraphobia and unhappiness, their constant presence and patriarchal messages becoming a metaphor for societal control. Leeson could not have predicted the rise of social media four decades later, but Lorna’s isolation amidst a world of connectivity rings true today.
Of course, most of us have the luxury of daily interactions, unlike Lorna. The sense of separation we feel in watching television is one of safety from these choices. “Black Mirror” utilizes the feeling of uncanniness to turn our interactivity into horror, as we become the antagonists ourselves. Notably, while “Bandersnatch” may provide the viewer with a feeling of power, closer examination reveals that the narrative structure is actually quite narrow and linear, with few true options if the viewer doesn’t want to be stuck in an endless loop. The choice between breakfast cereals is meaningless. The choice between two methods of murder is not truly a choice. Truly, we are being guided along as well. “Bandersnatch” focused on the adventure of “choose your own adventure” more than the choosing, taking the surrealist twists and turns of the narrative to a masculine action hero extreme. While currently there is very much real surveillance in our lives, the majority of us don’t have to worry about being forced to chop off our father’s heads. Meanwhile, the stresses that Lorna undergoes in her apartment, the loneliness and isolation she feels amidst her leopard-print furs, are components of a universal experience. “Lorna” is much more quotidien — and therefore much more frightening. In one sequence, our protagonist cleans the window, obscuring the outside world with soapy liquid, leaving her completely sealed in. Suddenly, she uses her finger to write her name backwards, childlike, like a beacon for help, before wiping away her brief interaction with the exterior. In “Bandersnatch,” the feeling of uncanniness perhaps lies in the unfamiliar sensation of a man being controlled. For Lorna, a remote control is simply one more component of a life defined by objects of male desire and confinemed in feminine domesticity.