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Published: Thursday, 10/5/2006

Catch 'Pirates' in your palm: Big-screen feature films overwhelm a video iPod

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl plays on a video iPod.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl plays on a video iPod.
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Norma Desmond was right.

It's the pictures that got small.

Famously asked in Sunset Boulevard if it's really her, silent-screen actress Norma Desmond (portrayed by Gloria Swanson), the same Norma Desmond who "used to be big," delivers her legendary comeback: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." At the time, 1950, director Billy Wilder and writing partner Charles Brackett were referring to the rise of television, to the decline of movie palaces.

They had no idea.

We live in the age of the 62-inch HDTV for the home; when buying a new television, we've been known to drop a sizable amount of money. Theater chains have reversed years of shrinkage and spent millions expanding the size of their own screens; it's not uncommon for suburban multiplexes to arrive with their own IMAX screens.

Big is the new small, right?

Maybe, but at the same time, you know there's a lack of respect for moving images, and that iconic big-screen Saturday-at-the-movies experience, when I can sit here and watch Pirates of the Caribbean on a 2 1/2-inch iPod screen.

Last month, Apple began selling full-length movies on iTunes, primarily at $9.99 a film - its standard price for an album of music. By all accounts (all right, mostly Apple's), it will change the way movies are distributed; it will do for Hollywood what Apple already did for the music industry, transform moviegoing into nothing but a few clicks, spelling the downfall of video renting, making DVDs as redundant as CDs.

Because I still own one of those decrepit old-fashioned iPods with a hand crank, carved out of a piece of limestone, with no video functions, I borrowed an updated iPod to test Apple's new movie downloading hullabaloo.

Hours later, I had Pirates.

Four hours later.

The film is 143 minutes long.

Using a computer less than a year old and a decent broadband connection - nothing fancy, but not a dial-up, either - my download took roughly 4 hours and 20 minutes. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said it should take 30 minutes to download a typical release. True, Pirates is longer than most. (I already hear my computer moaning at the thought of downloading the sequel.) Still, I chalk up this vast discrepancy to Jobs being the leader of a multinational computer giant and my simply owning an Apple laptop.

Gone With the Wind would take 30 minutes to download if you ran Apple. The question is, would you want to watch Gone With the Wind on such a Lilliputian screen? A couple of years ago I watched a few movies on Sony's handheld PSP system, with its slightly wider screen, and the results were intriguing but mixed: Having to focus intensely on such a puny image, you notice the details in a $250 million film. Spider-Man throwing a punch becomes a blur. But the pimply texture of Spidey's costume is impossible to ignore.

Watching Pirates on an iPod, however, is akin to holding a magnifying glass up to a stamp.

For 2 1/2 hours.

In fact, the early pretty shots of clipper ships rolling over the high seas play like some sci-fi hi-tech update of a postage stamp commemorating Christopher Columbus. Another seemingly minor difference that becomes a world of difference: The PSP is horizontal. So is the screen. But the square iPod means a wide-screen image is reduced further by letter boxing - your favorite films, shrunk by the dry cleaner.

Any scene in which more than two characters share the stage gets crowded, claustro-phobic. I downloaded Jerry Bruckheimer's Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith. A movie that moves, dissected into a million little pieces by Tony Scott's attention-deficit editing scheme, becomes a film composed of thousands of individual shots - rapidly flashing before your eyeballs like a flip book over which you have no control.

Of course, this is the definition of a motion picture - thousands of frames moving across your eye to create an illusion of movement. But as you lean in to make sense of an image, every shot becomes physically removed from every other shot, as if these were images hanging in an art gallery.

So, irritated, I downloaded a smaller film, a modest comedy, the underrated Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. Guess what? More manageable, perhaps because the aesthetics of comedy demand a (relatively) slower pace, a reliance on words over images. The camera lingers on single characters, lets them deliver a line, and while it's not ideal (my arm fell asleep holding the iPod), it wasn't as sickening.

Which is why TV series have succeeded on iTunes but full-length movies seem less certain. Of course, shows such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica (consistently in the iTunes Top-10 downloads) are cinematic. But these are also episodic - an hour long or less.

A year ago, tech prognosticators insisted on the eventual ascendancy of a cell-phone cinema. But these are people who are staring at business models all day. Give them a movie a few inches wide and, I promise, they'd pluck out their eyes.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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