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Will the iPod culture keep shrinking our beloved big-screen treasures until they're this tiny?

A film critic looks at the little picture and the legal and technical issues behind it

I'm watching the attack on Aqaba sequence from ''Lawrence of Arabia" on my iPod.

It looks like an insurrection on an ant farm.

This could be insanity. Or it could be the way our kids may someday watch movies: if not on an iPod, then on a similar portable device bigger than a postage stamp and smaller than a kitchen television. Rend your garments and wail over the death of the big-screen experience all you want, movies are slowly and unstoppably becoming disassociated from the theaters in which we've been seeing them for more than a century.

That's why I spent a recent week experimenting with watching various films on the really small screen. I was trying to peer into the future. What I got were strained eyes and a sense of what works and what never ever will.

The road here has been a long one. First there was TV: In the 1950s, Hollywood responded to millions of moviegoers' staying home to catch Uncle Miltie and ''I Love Lucy" by giving us widescreen, color, and stereophonic sound. The home-video rental boom of the 1980s broadened the divide, and when the studios figured out that consumers would buy DVDs and watch them on their home theaters, the tail started wagging the dog: US DVD sales were $15.7 billion last year versus $8.8 billion in box-office revenues. All the ink spilled in 2005 about the woeful state of the box office, accurate or not, reflected a real perceptual paradigm shift: The masses may not need movie theaters anymore.

Elsewhere, popular culture has been breaking away from traditional modes of delivery. The iPod and other portable MP3 players have snapped the bond between record stores and music listeners, raising the single back into prominence and establishing the playlist as a statement of personal cool. The personal digital recorder revolution kicked off by TiVo players has freed TV viewers from the scheduling grid and thrown advertisers into a panic. Short films carom around the Internet, landing in our e-mail in boxes and on our cellphones. We're living in one of those weird evolutionary spurts biologists like to talk about, but this time it's affecting how we inform and amuse ourselves.

Now movies are beginning to make the jump. Studios are releasing versions for the Sony Playstation Portable -- they haven't been selling very well -- and everyone's trying to figure out how to make the latest box-office hits available on the Internet without giving away the store to pirates. On April 3, Movielink ( began offering titles from six major studios for download to your computer. The catch? You can only watch them on your computer, or transfer them to up to two other computers via DVD. But you can't watch that DVD on your DVD player. The price -- $20 to $30 for new titles -- may also be an obstacle.

But the evolutionary urge of users is being driven by the desire for ease and efficiency, not difficulty and Balkanization. When ABC made episodes of ''Lost" and ''Desperate Housewives" available on iTunes last fall, the demand was strong enough for the other networks to jump right in. It seems only a matter of time before movies follow suit.

So why not watch films on your iPod, especially when the technology exists to easily put them there?

Two quick answers: With some titles it's illegal, and with many others it's just a godawful way to watch a movie.

Two quick rebuttals, though: There are plenty of movies that can be dragged from DVD to iPod legally -- or perhaps it would be better to say alegally -- and there are plenty that adapt to the tiny screen surprisingly well. At the very least, I've found that traffic snarls go by remarkably quickly when I'm sitting on a bus with the 1993 high school classic ''Dazed and Confused" in my hand.

First off: Is this breaking the law? If you've ''ripped" a movie from a DVD that uses anticopying encryption to protect its contents, yes, you're in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which prohibits using software to crack the studios' encryption codes. Such software exists in the nether regions of the Internet, but don't ask me where.

A movie on an unencrypted DVD, on the other hand, can easily be converted to the iPod format using any of the available software products out there (see sidebar, above). While many major studio DVDs are copy protected -- new releases particularly -- many others aren't, and independent label DVDs are almost all unencrypted. Back-catalog titles are a good bet: I ordered ''Lawrence of Arabia: The Special Edition" from Amazon and was watching it on my iPod (to my distress; more on that later) soon after it showed up in the mail.

Again, how legal is this? While ripping unencrypted DVDs doesn't fall afoul of the DMCA, it could be construed as copyright infringement. Or it could be construed as fair use -- the law's as yet unclear. According to Wendy Gordon, professor of law and Paul J. Liacos Scholar in Law at Boston University School of Law, ''the big debate is whether space-shifting of movies for personal use would be a fair use. Back in 1983 [in the Sony Betamax case] the US Supreme Court said that time-shifting was fair use. I think this is a gray area."

Gordon points out that there are some unspecific precedents. ''The Napster case [of 2001] didn't condemn making a copy of something you already own if you're not making it available to anyone else, so perhaps that might be considered fair use."

She also points out that going from DVD to iPod results in a substantial decline in the quality of viewing. ''In the Sony case, you had exact copies. Here you have a sort of thumbnail that I assume will never compete with the originals. The usual concern about digital technology, that it makes it easy to distribute mass copies that are equal in quality to the original, seems to be misplaced here. There's already one case that holds that thumbnail copies of photographs on the Net is fair use."

Still, Gordon cautions that ''we have no square holding on the question." In other words, you're on your own.

But since I own the copy of the movie I'm ripping -- using software obtained legally -- I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you what the experience is like. And when the studios finally get it together and make films available on iTunes, I'll be happy to go legit.

First off, there is no experience that beats watching a movie on a big screen with a good print and a full house. Never will be. Further, the conversion of a DVD movie to the iPod format results in an image that's acceptable to the layperson but will be considered a horrific insult to audio-visual sophisticates.

Second, wide-screen epics are just about the worst genre to experience on an iPod. I struggled through as much of ''Lawrence of Arabia" as I could, feeling the damage done to director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young's meticulous images with each new scene. The 2.2:1 aspect ratio results in black bars on the top and bottom of the frame, rendering the picture even teenier: When someone hands Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) a memo, I can't read it. In the face-off at the oasis, you can't tell who's shooting whom. A dozen 3-pixel-high men in identical burnooses all look alike. The exercise is as perverse in practice as it seems in theory.

Another casualty of the super-small screen: Nighttime scenes. When we're captive in a multiplex or watching at home with the lights turned off, there's nothing to distract us. On a portable player, a movie competes with the light and noise of the waking world, and too often it loses. The famed opening sequence of ''Jaws"? Gurgles, screams, and blackness on an iPod; I could have been listening to an MP3 of John Williams's score for the same effect.

''Kill Bill, Vol. 1" is a similar mixture of darkness and light, but because Quentin Tarantino directs the film as if it were a pulp comic book and with a minimum of long shots (you start to notice these things on an iPod), the visuals jump out even given the wide-screen format. The manga-style back story of O-Ren Ishii is crisp and relentless, and only the film's final donnybrook, with Uma Thurman taking on the Crazy 88s, gets a little confusing to follow. Then again, she's in a yellow tracksuit and everyone else is wearing black; there's something to be said for postmodern formalism.

With more realistic movies, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more characters are running around, the harder it is to keep score. Watching ''Dazed and Confused," with its roster of up-and-coming stars (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp), was like reading a high school yearbook while holding it at arm's length -- but since I practically have the movie committed to memory by now, it seems like my yearbook. I'd hate to watch a Robert Altman movie this way, though.

Foreign-language films? They can work if the subtitles are big enough: The iPod screen delivers them with crisp clarity, but you have to pay attention -- you don't want to be watching ''Jules and Jim" on an escalator. ''Gate of Flesh," the 1964 Seijun Suzuki shocker about postwar prostitutes in Tokyo, was a bit of a chore to follow, but the larger-than-life characters and thumb-in-your-eye colors still put it across.

The best movies for an iPod -- correction, the least problematic -- turn out to be concert movies and black-and-white classics. No surprises there, really. Rock concerts are primarily about the sound and seeing the musicians close up; watching ''The Return of the New York Dolls Live From the Royal Festival Hall, 2004" was almost the equal of watching the film on TV while wearing headphones. And while I'd always rather see John Ford's 1939 ''Young Mr. Lincoln" on the towering scrim of a movie palace, the film's luscious onyx-and-ivory compositions (courtesy of cinematographer Bert Glennon) make the transition with ease.

Most classic films also have the right aspect ratio to fit an iPod screen without resorting to frame borders, and given the number of classic DVDs that have hit the stores in recent years, there are more than enough old movies to choose from. If the movie studios continue to dither about bringing blockbusters to iTunes, who knows? There might even be a renaissance of the classics among the cognoscenti -- imagine hipster kids sharing a Bogart in the school cafeteria. It could be the crowning irony of the iPod era: ripping the past right into the future.

Ty Burr can be reached at

KILL BILL, VOL. 1 This pulp comic book made with a minimum of long shots works in miniature. The visuals pop, and it doesn't hurt that Uma Thurman is wearing a bright yellow tracksuit.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Lessons learned: (1) Three-pixel-high men in identical burnooses

all look alike. (2) This is not the format for wide-screen epics.

YOUNG MR. LINCOLN It's better on the big screen, of course, but its luscious onyx-and-ivory compositions make the transition to the iPod with ease.

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