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Glenn Kenny: “Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?”

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Glenn Kenny of The New York Times has an interesting take on cellphone film viewing.

As he writes, “‘People who watch movies on phones (especially if they think they can leave valid critical comments on imdb) should be shot,” the critic Anne Billson declared on Twitter in mid-December. I quote her not to scold her, or to hold her to her word, but to underscore that passions in the format-platform controversies run high.

I’ve already cited, in my first installment of this column, David Lynch’s condemnation — more than a decade old — of The Very Idea of Watching a Movie on a Phone. Over the century-plus of cinema, new ways of watching movies have made film folk antsy. In a sense, it’s the one thing that the money guys and the creatives have fretted over in more or less equal measure. Steven Spielberg was initially wary of having his works put on home video, grumbling about movie theaters being sacred spaces and such.

Martin Scorsese had more optimism, writing in 1989: ‘[H]aving instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great.’ Much of the work of his nonprofit restoration and preservation concern the Film Foundation is made available on home video, with high-definition formats preferred.

Still, smartphone movie-watching is for many a kind of line in the sand, albeit one that streaming services are obliged to ignore. The whole point of a streaming service is that it makes content available to watch on a panoply of devices, from a big-screen display to a tablet or Nook or Kindle or Galaxy or iPhone. I recently got my first iPhone, largely to put a bunch of streaming services on it (also because I was getting sick of everybody asking me ‘Why do you still have a BlackBerry?’), and dove in.

I thought it would be interesting to watch some 100-year-old Charlie Chaplin pictures on the device. After all, when Chaplin was making his shorts for Keystone and Essanay in the early 20th century, they were not necessarily projected in the cathedrals Mr. Spielberg once spoke of but in intimate, barely appointed nickelodeon theaters and in shortened versions made for penny-in-the-slot single-viewer Mutoscope machines . . .

The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I have to disagree, simply quoting the director Roy Ward Baker, who summed up the issue for me, and I think for many others, when he told me in an interview at his London home late one afternoon, shortly before his death, that “one can inspect a film on DVD, but you can’t experience it.” Baker, of course, directed the best movie about the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958), and had just come from a theatrical screening of the film, as part of a retrospective of his work.

“It just hit me with such impact” he told me. “I’ve seen it many times on television, and thought to myself, ‘that’s a good movie,’ but it didn’t really hit me with same impact as when I first made it until I saw it again in its proper aspect ratio, on a large screen, with an appreciative audience [another thing – and not a small matter either – that’s missing with the cellphone experience].” Of course, our conversation took place long before the advent of the cellphone and video streaming, but the basic concept is still the same – small screen vs. the real thing.

Want a quick viewing of a film? By all means, use a cellphone or whatever else is handy. Want to really see the film? There’s only one way; in a proper theatrical setting, with an audience, in the proper aspect ratio, on a big screen – the format that the movies were designed for. Thomas Edison, as Kenny points out elsewhere in his article, was against theatrical motion picture projection, but since the inception of the cinema, films have been made to be screened in large, theatrical format.

On a cellphone, you’re just getting a fraction of the actual experience.

A Night to Remember (1958)

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for A Night to Remember.

With James Cameron’s 3-D reconstruction of his version of the Titanic disaster about to hit theaters, Dave Kehr in the New York Times reminds us of a far superior film, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, of which he notes that: “the most sober in tone and historically reliable of the Titanic films remains Roy Ward Baker’s British production of 1958 A Night to Remember. An early release of the Criterion Collection, the film has now been reissued, in Blu-ray and standard definition, from a thoroughly restored print, accompanied by a generous selection of supplementary material.

Working from a screenplay by his frequent collaborator, the suspense novelist Eric Ambler, and a best-selling book by Walter Lord, Baker solidifies the metaphor long attached to the Titanic story, turning the doomed ship into a microcosm, a representation in miniature of a society about to submerge itself into the horrors of World War I.

Previous versions emphasized the gallantry of the upper classes, as gentlemen in impeccable evening clothes stepped aside to allow their magnificently bejeweled wives and towheaded children to climb into the lifeboats. (The German version, inventing a subplot that Mr. Cameron’s film would pick up on, turned the ship into a gigantic engine of runaway capitalism, pushed beyond its capacities by a greedy company chairman.) But Baker, making his film in the first full flowering of the new Great Britain that came into being with the end of the war and the collapse of imperialism, makes his hero, Kenneth More’s Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste.

The captain of the ship (Laurence Naismith) is a befuddled man of aristocratic mien and regal dimensions whose resemblance to Edward VII does not seem coincidental; the chairman of the White Star Line (Frank Lawton) is a blustery businessman whose pride turns to shame as his enterprise literally begins to sink and he takes downcast refuge among the women and children drifting away in lifeboats. Only Lightoller and his fellow midlevel officers keep their wits about them, calmly directing an evacuation that they know will be too late for many of the passengers and perhaps themselves.

With A Night to Remember the welfare state Britain of 1958 looks back on the decaying imperial kingdom of 1912, and the film is full of pointed observations about class. Baker gives far more emphasis than Cameron to the plight of the lower-class passengers in steerage, trapped below by iron gates preventing their access to the first-class decks and potential rescue.”

There’s also a superb essay on the film by film critic and historian Michael Sragow, “A Night to Remember: Nearer, My Titanic to Thee,” which you can read by clicking here.

I was lucky enough to interview Roy Ward Baker at length in his house in London on this, and the rest of his work as a director, which also included the early Marilyn Monroe vehicle Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and he described in detail how he shot the film, using a full-scale model of the Titanic mounted on hydraulic lifts, and the copious use of historical material to keep the film as accurate as possible. While everyone else is flocking to the theaters to see Cameron’s version, perhaps others might want to see this splendid, tragic film, which concentrates not so much on spectacle, but rather on the human drama attending this disaster. It’s a much more resonant piece of work.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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