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Staying In: The Way We Watch Now

Staying In: The Way We Watch Now

Staying In is a weekly Reverse Shot series that focuses on films our writers have viewed at home through all forms of digital distribution, from cable on demand to downloads to instant streaming. With Staying In, we hope to expand our ideas on film watching and criticism by getting out of our comfort zone— the theater.

The Way We Watch Now
By Damon Smith

The House Is Black
Dir. Forough Farrokhzan, 1963, Iran
viewed at UbuWeb

These are great times to be a cinephile. That is, if you have the proper perspective on what the digital age has enabled us to access and see, perhaps for the first time, in a variety of nontheatrical contexts. Purists may argue that the degradation of original formats is akin to the death of cinema, just as headphone-allergic audiophiles decry the disappearance of vital analog information in MP3 formats. I’m the last person such people need to convince. Would I rather see a pristine 35mm print of Malick’s The Thin Red Line in an honest-to-god movie theater rather than on my 44-inch Samsung flatscreen? Undoubtedly. In the absence of such an opportunity, will I settle for Criterion’s digitally remastered Blu-ray version? You bet. How about Netflix’s Stream Instantly option, which utilizes a lower bit-rate compression technology that some regard as potentially corruptive of image quality, and much inferior to the disc version? Yes, though it depends on whether I’d be receiving the streamed film through my television (fine) or my 21.5” iMac (losing interest) or—let’s propose the most absurd option available—my smartphone (not a chance).

These are important questions to ask, because the newer modes of viewing require us to make decisions about what kinds of films we are willing to watch in nontraditional (or even unintended) formats, and under what circumstances. It would be senseless to watch a widescreen epic like Lawrence of Arabia on a tablet device, yet many may choose to do so. An episode of Weeds, however, might play beautifully on an Android. We all remember David Lynch’s 30-second rant, which went viral in 2008: “It’s such a sadness . . . to think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.” How many people know that the writer-director, a pioneer of digital cinema and online video and weather reporting, signed on later that year to produce a webisode series for multiplatform distributor On Networks? En route to a major film festival last year, I sat next to a studio exec who, upon learning I was (at the time) head of programming for a digital broadcast network, bemoaned the sorry state of theatrical distribution and the destruction of the cinematic experience. After delivering an embittered rant about online distribution models and the curatorial limitations of most streaming sites, he proceeded to cue up Easy A on a three-by-three-inch seat-back screen and laugh his New York–bred nuts off all the way to City X, confirming (to my mind, at least) that his bark was bigger than his byte. When it comes to the brave new world of cinephilia, life is but a stream. Continue reading!

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