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.”

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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.

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