Charles Petzold


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.