It's Saturday night at the Loews 19th Street Theatre, and I'm here for what its promoters have billed as "a quantum leap into the future."
Vaulting past the technophobes queued up to watch "Dracula," "The Bodyguard" and "Aladdin," I join an elite band of the avant-garde in a high-tech screening room where the armrests have been specially fitted with electronic pistol grips.
Let the anesthetized masses sit there like so many zombies passively consuming their entertainment. We're here for "the most revolutionary technological development in film" since Al Jolson ushered in the talkie era with "The Jazz Singer" in 1927.
Welcome to "I'm Your Man," described as "the world's first truly interactive motion picture"--a film in which audience members use their Nintendo-like pistol grips to collectively determine the shape and direction of the action.
Want the heroine to get her man? Push the red button, and hope that enough audience members agree with you. Feeling a little perverse? Push green, and watch the villain go scot-free.
Confused? Think multimedia Chinese restaurant: One character from Column A, one plot twist from Column B, one climax from Column C.
For this is Interfilm, "a radically new cinema, liberated from narrative cliche and predictability," says Bob Bejan, 32, the director of "I'm Your Man."
"Everything in our entertainment life to date has said, 'Sit down, be quiet, and let it happen to you,' " says Bejan, president and self-described "wide-eyed visionary" of Controlled Entropy Entertainment Inc., which produced the film for $370,000. "This is the first thing that says, 'Don't just sit there.' "
The concept works for Devaugn Thomas, 17, who has enthusiastically sat through three screenings and now is waiting for his fourth.
"It's, like, neat, man," said Thomas, a student at New York's High School of Art and Design. "I mean, if you go to see a movie like 'Batman Returns' again and again, it's the same old story. Here it's different every time."
A less hearty endorsement came from Anne Gurnett, a 37-year-old biochemist visiting from England. "It's an interesting idea, but it needed more people in the audience," she said. "Some Bozo was running from seat to seat pressing all the buttons."
Bozo-no-no or not, interactive film and video have long been ballyhooed as the technology of tomorrow.
Futurists have waxed enthusiastic about everything from cable TV shows that permit couch potatoes to order merchandise at the touch of a button to what's been dubbed the virtual-reality salon.
(Don't ask; it's something like being inside a hologram.)
The idea is thought to have sufficient promise that Controlled Entropy--which earlier brought the world the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' "Coming Out Of Their Shells" tour, soundtrack album and home video--was able to line up a number of big-name collaborators for Interfilm.
They include Loews Theatres, which retrofitted the screening room here at a cost of $70,000 and will be installing the technology at six more movie houses in the East, and Loews' parent company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, which chipped in some technology. (The movie was shot on Kodak 16mm film and transferred to instant-access laser disk.)
"I don't think this is the definitive word in interactive film, but it's a beginning," says Lawrence Ruisi, a Sony executive vice president. "It's one of many things we're trying in this area. I don't think anybody knows what it's going to evolve into, but we're cautiously optimistic."
"I'm Your Man"--in which viewers are given two or three voting options at six plot junctures--is not entirely without parallel, regardless of the hype.
Twenty-five years ago, "the Czechs allowed audience members to vote on the ending of their movie at Expo '67 in Montreal," recalls Red Burns, chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Interfilm, she adds, represents more of an evolution than a revolution in technology.
"But I'm all for experimentation," Burns says. "That's how we'll get to understand the value of these media. None of us came out of the womb walking and talking. First we had to learn how to crawl."
Now I'm the one who's confused. Is this a quantum leap, or merely a crawl? That's the question I ponder as I sit amid an audience consisting largely of teen-agers, waiting for the experience to begin.
And waiting. Before we can start making our 20-minute movie, we are greeted by a perky hostess whose day job could easily be whipping up audiences for game shows.
She instructs us on the use of our pistol grips. (It's easy; push one of three buttons: red, yellow or green.) She informs us that at each plot juncture, our votes will be tabulated on screen, and she encourages us to lobby for our choices, the louder the better.
"This is not like a church. This is like summer camp. This is FUN!" she says. "Are we having a good time?" she demands.
"Yeah," her young charges reply.
"Louder!" she commands.
"YEAHHHHH!!!" they roar.
I lean forward, grab the pistol grip and, as the lights dim, attempt to summon the teen-ager within.
"I'm Your Man" is divided into three parts--an introduction and two acts. The first segment features A. Whitney Brown of "Saturday Night Live," who comically introduces the three principal characters and once again instructs the audience on its role.
Next, it's on to Act I, in which the audience is encouraged to "graze" from "channel" to "channel." Each of the movie's three characters is featured on a "channel," and we're urged to switch back and forth to learn as much as we can about them.
This proves to be the most annoying and disjointed part of the show.
Finally, in Act II, the narrative branching begins, with the audience guiding the action of the film.
Intended as a wacky farce whose key plot twists revolve around a case of mistaken identity, the film is about a woman planning to turn in her construction-executive boss on corruption charges.
At key junctures, the on-screen characters turn to the audience to ask, "What should I do next."
In one showing, the villain chases his quarry--the hapless nerd who, in some versions, ends up rescuing the heroine--out a window. In another, the audience keeps him in a bedroom, where he is Maced by the woman.
I am frequently outvoted, and quickly lose interest.
Part "Get Smart," part "Rashomon," "I'm Your Man's" self-consciousness keeps most of the humor at bay.
But that doesn't stop audience members--especially those younger than I--from loving it. Egged on by the hostess, they shout raucously at the plot junctures. Some jump from seat to seat to stack the voting. Others argue among themselves.
"This is where people get to be uninhibited," says Bob Socha, the technologist who retrofitted the Loews for Controlled Entropy. "It's where Morton Downey Jr. meets 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' "
While the jury remains distinctly out on Interfilm--most adults I interviewed found it as gimmicky as three-dimensional glasses or scratch 'n' sniff--Bejan says his company plans to make four or five more shorts.
And then a full-length motion picture, in about a year and a half.
Call me a latter-day Luddite. But if this is the future, bring back "The Jazz Singer."