Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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January 12, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

Recently when I was re-reading Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer (1979) I was struck by the following paragraph toward the end of Chapter 1. The narrator is speaking of his idol, the fictional writer E. I. Lonoff:

Of course, few of us have either the time or stamina to devote three hours a day, day after day, to reading a book until it's finished, but I envy such a strategy for paying proper respect to a book's author. It is perhaps a goal I might try to aspire to in the future.

At about the same time I was re-reading The Ghost Writer, Apple was running iPhone advertisements showing someone watching a Pirates of the Caribbean movie on the small screen. When a sea monster appears in the movie, the user suddenly gets a hunger for sea food. He switches away from the movie, does a search of sea food restaurants in San Francisco, picks one, and then the iPhone dials for reservations.

This ability to pause a movie on the iPhone to do something else — to interrupt the viewing of the movie to give into every little whim and distraction — is actually supposed to be a feature of the device rather than yet another hideous impediment to the interrupted viewing of movies.

"But Charles," you say. "It's not like it's Citizen Kane. It's only a stupid Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You can't even tell which one it is!"

Then why is it being watched to begin with? If it's worth watching at all, it's worth watching with a little bit of respect and consideration for the people who made the thing.

This is why theaters and public performances will never die. The enormous benefit of seeing movies in a theater is not just the big screen, and the benefit of attending plays or operas or concerts is not just the immediacy and the rare opportunity to hear music unadorned of amplification. The real advantage is that you're virtually stuck in a seat for the duration of the performance! Not only that, but it's dark! You can't read a magazine while the movie is going on or send text messages during the play. You're forced to look at the thing, and because it cost some money, you pay more attention than if it were free. You don't want to miss a word or a note, and if it's a live performance, you realize the experience is fleetingly temporal. The mind is focused; enjoyment is intensified; understanding is heightened.

I mention all this because there's a YouTube video of David Lynch going around where he dicusses how his movies can be better appreciated on the big screen rather than a little iPhone. (The video has been dressed up with some iPhone music.) Some people are actually mocking Lynch for his presumption for expressing these very simple and basic observations. How dare he tell us how to watch his movies!

No one is forcing you to watch David Lynch movies, and if you want to watch them on a tiny screen, or in an incorrect aspect ratio, or paused every few minutes, or while reading your email, or restricted to the sex scenes, you are free to do so. You can freely demonstrate that David Lynch isn't the boss of you by watching his movies in whatever damn way you please.

We have the technology, but that doesn't mean we have to use it. If we acknowledge that this director — or any director — may have something to say to us, the least we can do is meet him or her half way, and that means trying to watch the movie in a format for which it was intended.

It's simple common courtesy. It's respect.


As a fan of Lynch, I can't imagine being interrupted or interrupting the movie multiple times while I'm watching it. It would lose the impact his films have for me. Inland Empire was brilliant, but it was also long. I think most people just want to be able to say "Oh, yeah, I've seen that film.". People are more into acquiring and filing as much information in their head as possible without really taking the time to think about the information critically or simply enjoy it. On your book comment, I've made it a habit of reading a book for two hours a day. It serves as a good break from the online world and allows me to enjoy some of the greatest stories told.

My 2 cents.

matt, Sat, 12 Jan 2008 11:31:32 -0500 (EST)

One of the first things a novice writer is taught is that he must hook the reader with the lead, and continue to engage the reader's attention so that the reader's will continue reading and not be distracted (a good book is that you can't put down).

This despite the fact the books are never fleeting and the reader can always return to them anytime.

Remember that books have only words. Movies have everything at their disposal to keep the viewer's rapt attention: visuals, colors, sound, Nicole Kidman, CGI.

Why would it be the reader's responsibility to stand at attention just because a movie is playing? We had no choice when all we had was black and white TV.

Vince A, Sat, 12 Jan 2008 18:31:12 -0500 (EST)

You're sounding more grizzled ( by the day :)

Funny thing is I almost always agree, maybe I'm the gizzled one.

— Ifeanyi Echeruo, Sat, 12 Jan 2008 18:47:48 -0500 (EST)

Your argument sounds similar to one of the book's I'm greatly enjoying at the moment, Devices of the Soul; Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines by Steve Talbott (via O'Reilly publishing). The primary argument being the danger of descending to the level of computational devices we have engineered; reducing our humanity to automatons that fit in compliance with our own external devices. Thanks for another great post.

Rick Barraza, Sun, 13 Jan 2008 12:54:40 -0500 (EST)

Thanks! Sounds like an interesting book. I recently pulled Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking (1986) from my shelves in hopes of re-reading it soon and seeing how it's held up over the years.

You know what else is missing from the presumption that seeing a movie on an iPhone is the same as seeing it in a theater? What's missing is any sense of Marshall McLuhan's concept that "the medium is the message." — Charles

What I want to know is what person would want to watch a movie on an iPhone?

— Bill Bumper, Mon, 28 Jan 2008 15:04:41 -0500 (EST)

------------------------------------------------------------ 1: R.E.S.P.E.C.T / ------------------------------------------------------------

> This is why theaters and public performances will never die.

I would alter that sentence as follows:

This is why theaters and public performances will never die, except in the United States.

Where, according to statistics I've seen, fairly shortly there will be exactly three populations of people who attend live theatre:

- A small subset of the richest 1% of the population.

- People who work (or volunteer) in theater.

- Relatives of the above people, when they can't possibly avoid it.

Group A only goes to the best professional shows. Group B doesn't pay. That leaves group C supporting all theatre below the level of Broadway and/or high opera in the Umpty-Ump Opera House of Greater Metroville.

Sometimes I really hate this country.

— Fred Fnord, Mon, 18 Feb 2008 15:22:22 -0500 (EST)

I recall years of immersing myself in a book for 8-10 hours/day, programming 20 hrs/day, playing Sid Meier's Pirates! at PC Labs (Toyshop) -- hi Charles. long time no see :) -- for 7 hrs/day, and partying 36 hrs/day. No longer. I now spend most of the day with distractions: bird chirps, rss feeds, beatles, NY Times online, various magazines (Archeology, Discover...), cooking, grandkids mucking with my toys, & the rest of this union called Life.

Re textmessaging (I don't): I imagine people DO; using QWERTY, or whatever, doesn't require sight -- and I imagine the LEDs are sufficiently bright for young eyes.

Insofar as respect: I recall people (mistakenly) referring to me as a guru in the 80's. But, the only person in those days who got my attention & RESPECT was a bespectacled youth who called up Debug and created 'snow' while we were reviewing monitors -- how anyone could write ASM code without a reference book was waaaay beyond my comprehension. :)

Finally, I never could finish Portnoy's Complaint in the '60s and have steered away from Roth (and virtually every other living American author) since. [My 'fiction' tastes lean toward South American authors, specifically Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and Mario Vargas LLosa (The War of the End of the World)].

Vincent Puglia, Fri, 11 Apr 2008 09:25:54 -0400 (EDT)

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