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Sorry, David Lynch: watching movies on phones is pretty good now

Sorry, David Lynch: watching movies on phones is pretty good now

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I am a huge David Lynch fan, and one of my very favorite videos on the internet is this clip taken from the limited edition DVD extras of Inland Empire, where the legendary director expresses his thoughts on the at-the-time new idea of watching movies on mobile phones. 

“Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film,” Lynch calmly but forcefully intones into a studio mic. “You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” (Emphasis mine and his.)

“It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.”

I sympathize with his point; Lynch is responsible for some of the most beautiful and beguiling works in the history of cinema, and it’s understandable that he of all directors would want audiences to experience his movies on the big screen as intended. And especially when taken in the context of the time, it’s hard to disagree with him. He was speaking over a decade ago, after all. But I’m not sure I’d agree with him today.

I remember the first time I watched a movie on a phone, because it was a big selling point for the phone in question. Released in early 2007, the Motorola RIZR Z8 was my first ever smartphone, if you accept a liberal definition of the term, and for some reason it came with a microSD card containing a full version of The Bourne Identity for viewing on the phone’s 2.2-inch 240 x 160 display. 

As you can imagine, this was not a great experience. But months later came the first iPhone, with Steve Jobs touting the new device as a great way to watch Pirates of the Caribbean on the go. Jobs, of course, had famously said he was “not convinced people want to watch movies on a tiny little screen” years before introducing video-capable iPods. And although the first iPhone was notably larger than those iPods, it has to have been the device Lynch was thinking of when he derided the idea of watching movies on phones. 

One thing sticks out to me today about that classic iPhone presentation. See how Jobs makes a point of demonstrating how you could crop the movie picture by double-tapping to go full-screen, rather than watching the full widescreen frame with bars on the top and bottom? That seems barbaric to me, but on a tiny 3.5-inch iPhone screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio and 480 x 320 resolution, you can see why the feature might be needed.

With 2017’s crop of flagship phones, however, it’s a different story altogether. The wider aspect ratios, sharper resolutions, and even HDR support offered by phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6, not to mention a rumored upcoming iPhone, mark the point at which I actually can see myself sitting down to watch a movie on a phone with some degree of regularity. 

Take the LG G6, which I’ve been testing for a few weeks in preproduction form. Its 5.7-inch 18:9 display sits right in between 1.85:1 and 2.39:1, the most common aspect ratios for films, meaning that it can show movies without the need to alter frame composition or impose large black bars. Although in landscape mode the screen is physically shorter than the 5.5-inch 16:9 panels commonly used in phones like the iPhone 7 Plus, when watching widescreen movies the actual image is bigger on the G6 because the black bars can be smaller. 

The ability to watch HD movies at home on a large TV is a pretty new phenomenon

It’s still just a phone, of course. But think about how else most people would have been watching movies back when Lynch made his remarks. The HDTV era had just started to hit its tipping point, and most people still had standard-definition TVs with CRT displays of 34 inches or smaller. The ability to watch movies at home on a large TV in high definition is a pretty new phenomenon, and yet we now have phones that match or exceed the resolution of theater projectors. When I lie in bed and watch a movie on the LG G6, the image projected onto my retina is a lot bigger and more detailed than when I first watched Mulholland Drive on DVD.

Lynch, of course, probably didn’t think much of watching movies on small TVs a decade ago, either. And as phones have improved in capability and accessibility, so have TVs — the G6 may be far better for watching films than the original iPhone, but you probably have a much better TV now than you did in 2007. And nine times out of 10, you and I will choose to use that TV.

But if you ever watched a movie at home on a small, flickering CRT television, in 480i resolution, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, without HDR, and if you ever ended up truly loving that movie even though you watched it in those trying circumstances? You’re more than capable of falling in love with a movie if you watch it on a phone today. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that it was pointless to see any film outside of a theater until recently. 

It’s a wonderful thing, that we’re now capable of enjoying the magic of cinema through telephones that fit in our pockets. Let’s embrace that.