It's the pictures that got small - really, really small

May 13, 2007|By Dan Neil.. | Dan Neil..,Los ANgeles Times

I dropped my MOTORAZR V3m phone in the parking lot a couple of months ago, splintering the little LCD screen. Such are the vortices of fate that change our lives. Now I'm considering an upgrade, but buying a mobile phone these days is an act of consumerism not to be taken lightly. This is a powerfully determinative choice that will - for the duration of the abusive, overpriced calling plan, at least - pin me to the demographic corkboard in a variety of ways: age, income, education, my relationship to the larger electronic culture.

Do I just want a phone - who ya gonna call, grandpa? - or do I want, as they say, a robust multimedia solution: phone, camera, media player, WiFi-capable browser, qwerty keyboard, e-mail and assorted other productivity "tools," which, as I think of it, is a good nickname for people who use these devices.

Telephony as destiny.

Naturally, I want to be one of the cool kids. Which means I'm gnawing my fist in anticipation of the Apple iPhone.

As part of Apple's push to offer consumers an all-in-one mobile uplink to Creation itself, the iPhone will also be a portable multimedia player (PMP), similar to the function of a video iPod (except the calculator-sized iPhone will have a "widescreen" viewing option). Pod people will be able to download video files from the iTunes online store and take them everywhere - indeed, they will be able to download them from the ether over WiFi connections..

What's astonishing to me is that - while consumers blow billions on high-def big-screen TVs and the fates of empires hang on the format wars between HD DVD and Blu-ray - anyone could possibly care about portable video. Make up your collective minds, consumers: Either you want the immersive, blue-pill simulacra offered by IMAX and 3-D digital projection - both technologies are booming in theaters - or you don't.

What put all this in my head was the announcement in April that MGM - which has a vast and sacred film catalog - would be joining Paramount and Disney in offering downloadable movies on iTunes. With more than 2 million films sold since September 2006, iTunes is the most popular online movie store.

MGM? You mean, like, Vincente Minnelli's MGM? There is something deeply inappropriate going on here, some illicit congress between medium and material. How can you possibly squeeze an overripe, color-drenched masterpiece such as Singin' in the Rain into a low-res 2.5-inch screen? It's not right. That's not a movie; that's a cast album..

And so, an experiment: I borrowed an iPod from the office and downloaded, more or less at random, The Prestige, a recent magic-and-mystery revenge drama starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and David Bowie as electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, whose great lightning machines were, sure enough, reduced to mere static on the iPod.

Also, to watch a full-length motion picture on an iPod is to give oneself an iHeadache.

In other words, the iPod sucks down the months of moviemaking precision - lighting, cinematography, set design - into a tiny, blurred nullity. Personally, I'd sue.

So let us, collectively, make a rule: Nothing great can be downloadable at 160 ppi. As a matter of common decency, you can't be allowed to miniaturize a wonderful theatrical film down to the size of a shot glass. The School of Rock, Foxy Brown, Rocky V? Sure, these are films that can endure the compression. Season 1 of The Office or daily feeds of The Colbert Report? No problem. But The Ten Commandments? Let there be an 11th.

Not to go all Marshall McLuhan on you, but it's worth pondering what the sudden ubiquity of low-res small-video - YouTube has something like 100 million downloads per day - implies for our artistic enterprise. It seems to me that the smaller the work of art, which is to say the louder and broader and less subtle, the better it plays on iPods. Just as film directors began framing their shots in anticipation that they would one day be shown on square TV screens, I have to think this generation of filmmakers will feel obliged to play to the tiny grandstands.

Hollywood doesn't need any help phoning it in.

Dan Neil writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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