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The Great “Movies on an iPhone” Debate

It was one of the better jokes Jon Stewart told at the Academy Awards last night (though playing Wii tennis live at the Kodak Theater was probably my favorite). Holding an Apple iPhone, he told the audience he was watching David Lean’s ode to expansive landscapes, Lawrence of Arabia, on the tiny screen. The punchline? Playing off a popular iPhone feature, he turned the phone 90 degrees and quipped, “To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the widescreen.”


My first thought was, “I wonder if Ezra Sacks was on the writing team for the show this year” (he wasn’t), because in an interview with Sacks last fall about the possibility of a WGA strike, he also used the analogy of having Lawrence on your phone to illustrate why writers were lobbying for new media residuals. It seems that the film is the go-to reference for the “cinema experience.”

But is watching such a big movie on such a small screen really such a bereft experience? The audience at the Oscars might think so. I disagree.

Now, Lawrence is one of my favorite films. One of the reasons the cinematography is so remarkable is that it was shot (by Freddie Young, B.S.C.) in Super Panavision 70mm and intended for screens so wide they had to curve to maintain the focal plane of the projected image. It was part of the “spectacle” generation of films created when Hollywood was tearing its collective hair out worrying that TV would cause audiences to wither. Of course, the vast majority of moviegoers even at the time only ever saw a 35mm print, because few theaters had 70mm projectors.

I’ve seen the beautiful 70mm print owned by the Seattle Cinerama Theater; I’ve seen the pan-and-scanned, adbridged and bawdlerized version distributed on VHS; and I’ve seen the widescreen version on DVD in current circulation. And while the VHS version certainly did the most “damage” to the experience, it’s still pretty compelling.

If an author demanded that you’ve never truly experienced a book until you’ve heard them read it out loud, they’d be written off as a nut. Or how about a painter who objected to a PhD thesis on their oeuvre because the author had only ever seen the works in prints and slides? But that’s the subtext, voiced most famously by David Lynch, upon which Stewart’s joke rested.

Would I watch Lawrence on an iPhone? Of course I would! But then I ride the bus and fly coach, something I doubt many in the audience last night can say.

18 Responses to “The Great “Movies on an iPhone” Debate”

  1. I think you’re missing the point. Many scenes in Lawrence of Arabia were designed with the express intent of conveying a sense of massive scale that is diminished by a small screen to a much greater degree than would be the case for, for example, Juno.

  2. Sarahmeyers, of course the pic and player are from Gizmodo (to whom I’ve liberally linked as the only video provider thanks to the AMPAS diligence on the DMCA front).

    And as I threatened my editors, I’d like to point any kvetching DPs to Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” An essay to which I linked in my response to Kent Nichol’s piece in response to Lynch’s popularity.

  3. Akshun J (great handle, BTW) — I actually got on a Muni bus in “Multimedia Gulch” here in San Francisco and sat next to four people, all listening, watching or talking on iPhones. And I can only imagine how many iPhone owners will be on Southwest Airlines’ Oakland to Austin non-stop flight the Friday before SXSWi.

    But point taken. Still, when you include all the portable video devices (especially the cheap, portable DVD players with screens not much bigger than an iPhone) I think you’ve got a viable movie-watching audience that could care a whit if they’re fulfilling the “director’s intent” in terms of viewing experience.

  4. I completely disagree. Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie of all time and I can’t even fathom watching it on an iPhone screen (it’s bad enough on a 14″ laptop screen). The content has to be different (TV shows are fine) and that’s OK. New content for new ways of delivering media is a good thing. Lawrence of Arabia barely looks good on a wide screen TV, why spoil the experience.

    But then I think mp3’s are the worst way of listening to music (at least the usually 128 mbps stuff that most people listen to)

  5. “Would I watch Lawrence on an iPhone? Of course I would! But then I ride the bus and fly coach, something I doubt many in the audience last night can say.”

    ??? I can’t remember the last time I saw an iPhone owner on the bus or flying coach…

  6. I have to disagree with you on this one. I certainly see the value of video on phones, but I think there will have to be new forms of storytelling that will be a better fit for this medium. I’ve worked with enough DP’s to know that most would be horrified to have their work viewed in this way, and I don’t really blame David Lynch for kvetching about it either.

  7. Every day at lunch I sit in my car on lunch and watch a movie on my iPhone. It is not for the experience of the movie, but an activity to pass the time while not sitting in a break room talking about work. I watch movies on my 52inch TV or my 22 inch computer monitor and the experience is not much different than the movie theater. WHAT????? you say, yup. I go to the theater and I have the 16 year old kids that are chatting and laughing at the parts they shouldn’t be laughing at. Or you get that couple that brings in there 2 year old to a huge action movie. Tell me they aren’t crying 15 minutes in!. I go for the story not the cinematic value. But, that’s just me.

  8. Someone might want to let David Lynch know that the iPhone’s resolution is significantly higher than that of VHS (which served viewers quite well for many years). The sound is also better than VHS “hi-fi” and less prone to dropouts.

    Perhaps he could tell us exactly what screen size would make “Inland Empire” bearable.

  9. A news report on a small screen absolutly but a 2 hour movie on a 2-4 inch screen is stupid .

    I might watch a movie on a 8 inch screen like on a EEEPC or even on the back of a seat on a plane or car but on a mobile phone screen no way .

  10. I also agree with you. But I also love and will continue to enjoy the cinematic experience of going to theaters and to a lesser degree, enjoying a movie on my home theater.

    The point is that it is all about choice and freedom. All consumers want is the ability to watch when and where they wish. If I buy or rent a movie and I want to watch it on my phone while standing on my head, I should be able to do that.

    I find it increasing difficult to comprehend how the powers that be just don’t want to hear this…

  11. Alex Kanakis

    I absolutely, positively, unequivocally and metaphysically agree with you.

    If you’ve got bad eyesight, that’s one thing. But it’s absurd to think that someone on a transatlantic flight with access to a movie on an iphone would refuse to watch it because it would not allow for the “full experience.”

    Hey, I bet David Lynch’s old ass is developing age-induced eye trouble. And he’s just taking his frustrations out on the iphone’s small screen.