Pardon me, but I think you just watched that video wrong.
“Watching it wrong”—is this is the new anxiety of our time? With the proliferation of content-delivery platforms in the past decade, we have practically unlimited access to movies and shows. What do we choose and how do we choose to consume it? Do we opt to navigate the byzantine Settings menus on our television sets or try out all the buttons on our remote controls? Do we make an effort to watch it right or are we just too lazy?
Consider the emerging popular genre of think pieces on best and worst practices for spectatorship. At Reverse Shot, Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert make a persuasive case for theatrical viewing in “Looking Up: Arguments in Favor of Bigness.” The AV Club’s Scott Tobias explains the insidious problems with motion-smoothing screen technology in “You’re Watching it Wrong: Threats to the Image in the Digital Age.” Slate’s Jim Pagels tells us to “Stop Binge Watching TV.” At IndieWire’s Press Play blog, Matt Zoller Seitz says to wipe that ironic smirk off your face because “From Russia With Love is Not Unsophisticated. You Are.” These are just a few examples, but taken together, they’re the seedlings of diagnostic manual for viewing-habit disorders: Do you suffer from Miniaturization? Unintended Digital Artifacts? Excessive Time-Shift? Anachronistic Perspective?
I’ve contributed to this pile of literature myself. The more I think about it, though, and the more of it I read, the more fraudulent I feel. To be honest, I love to see movies on the big screen, but more often than not I watch at home. Agoraphobia and Attention Defecit Disorder may be duking it out with miniaturization in my case. I am very sensitive to theater noises. Whispering, chewing, the rustling of candy wrappers, the swishing of plastic bags, those awful “knowing” chortles—get me out of here! To have a transcendent experience at the cinema, you must suspend your disbelief in a fictional depiction onscreen while simultaneously suspending your awareness of sitting in the dark surrounded by a bunch of creeps. Often, I fail.
This weekend, I had the option of watching The Master in 35mm, 70mm or DCP. I chose the third option because it was raining and I wanted to go to a theater with a parking lot. Because I live in Austin, Texas, where the Alamo Drafthouse franchise is headquartered, I watched the film while drinking beer and eating cheese dip. Is this is what Susan Sontag meant by “The Decay of Cinema”? (No DCP mishaps at my screening, though.)
More confessions: I binge-watched all 54 episodes of Breaking Bad in a period of 45-days on my uncalibrated LCD television set which, I should add, has a strip of burned-out pixels. The patch of dead pixels appears to be growing—basically, my TV has cancer—but I don’t do anything about it. Did I mention the TV is under warranty? I don’t watch movies on my computer or telephone, but that has less to do with my being enlightened than the fact that I can’t get physically comfortable doing it.
I’m skeptical of people who say it’s categorically wretched to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on an iPhone; such a sentiment depends on a secret double standard. Most writers who decry web video as destroying the social and technological virtues of cinema are themselves benefitting daily from the broad access that web video facilities. It would be ridiculous for critics to abstain from using YouTube, Neflix streaming and other instant platforms as reference tools; we use the Internet to explore connections and refresh our memory for detail—but for some reason, reviewing a film for research doesn’t count as “watching it.” Seems rather disingenuous to me. Because Internet portals like YouTube aren’t just clearinghouses for cat videos—they also serve as seemingly infinite libraries of pop culture. Our evolving delivery systems shape the way we perceive and write about movies. After all, where do we find think pieces on best practices for spectatorship? The Internet.
[Wanda Jackson, Right or Wrong]
Are there right ways and wrong ways to watch things? Go back and watch the video at the top again and ask yourself why old technology is so funny. Should we be kinder to “The Talking Computer”? After all, that was amazing technology in the 1960s. Won’t our ancestors succumb to giggle fits when they remember the iPhone 5? Is there any way to banish irony from your mind when you look at something dated?
How much does format matter? Why does it feel so good to binge on Netflix? What difference do a few burned out pixels make? Conversely, why is it so jarring when the motion-smoothing technology on the TV makes Rio Bravo look like One Life To Live? Should we pretend not to notice when someone is watching a movie in the wrong aspect ratio if we’re a guest in their home?
These are some questions I’ll explore in future installments of this column. For now, I’ll leave you with this:
[Design Line Promo (1977)]
Please don’t laugh at Chestphone.
Leah Churner is a regular contributor to the Austin Chronicle and Reverse Shot. Her writing has also appeared in the Village Voice, Film Comment, Moving Image Source and the L Magazine.