Streaming: Is Watching a Movie on a Phone Really So Bad?


The Criterion Channel, a part of the new streaming service FilmStruck, offers Chaplin shorts in batches, each a feature-length compilation from a particular period, and nicely restored. They look great on an iPhone — their black-and-white and sometimes sepia tones are nice and crisp, and the action is more than coherent. At 14 or so minutes a short, they’re well-suited to the contracted attention span that holding an iPhone in one’s hand tends to encourage.

That could be a generational thing, though. In a conversation with Peter Becker, the president of the Criterion Collection, he acknowledged that he’d never watched a feature-length film from beginning to end on a phone. I have not either. I dipped in here and there. With apologies to Mr. Lynch, I watched a little bit of his “Eraserhead” on the iPhone and it, too, looked very nice — the contrasts of the black-and-white cinematography gave the image an almost 3-D feel. Like all streaming services I’ve sampled, with the exception of YouTube, FilmStruck always shows the film in a horizontal orientation — when you turn the phone to its “normal” vertical position, you wind up watching the full image sideways.

On the day I checked out the site Mubi on my device, its “Film of the Day” was Jean Genet’s “Un Chant d’Amour” (1950), a half-hour homoerotic reverie that’s been frequently banned over the years. Since Genet’s movie was often viewed as samizdat, there was an unusual carry-over of subversive feeling in my viewing.

Moving along, I looked at some classic Hollywood material on Netflix and was impressed again by an overall crispness. In a way, it’s an illusion — the resolution of video in an iPhone is closer to that of a standard-definition DVD than to a Blu-ray or 4K video. But the device incorporates the Wide Color technology similar to that of 4K displays, so the colors on a bright VistaVision confection like “White Christmas” really pop. Obviously the audio quality isn’t even worth discussing: Through the device’s small speakers and the provided earbuds, you can hear the dialogue and music, and that’s it. Those limitations are part of why “Eraserhead” doesn’t yet exist as a fully realized experience on such a device — the meticulous sound design of that movie is crucial.

Mr. Becker said that Criterion and its sister company, the theatrical distributor Janus Films, consider the theatrical experience crucial to their concerns. (He noted that Janus released more films theatrically in 2016 than ever before in a single year.) “That said, I’m against the idea of ‘sacrilege,’ historically,” he insisted. “I’m skeptical of a purist approach; there’s a lot to be said for encouraging adventurousness. And I think that as a result of broader accessibility film culture is livelier than it’s been in decades.”

Mr. Becker points to the rise of video essays about cinema, and even the use of classic clips in GIFs posted on Twitter, as evidence of that liveliness. “One of the things we were most excited about was creating supplements for the movies on the Criterion Channel,” he said, “because those are the things that are going to be ‘bite-size’ enough for desirable phone viewing.”

Charles Tabesh, the senior vice president for programming and production for Turner Classic Movies and FilmStruck, is of the same mind as Mr. Becker. “You have to be available to the way that people are watching movies,” he said. “You have to be there for them.”

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