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"How it feels is how it works."

Everything reminds me of movies. And movies remind me of everything. My life has been divided into roughly three states of consciousness: the time I've spent awake; the time I've spent asleep (and dreaming); the time I've spent in-between, in the dark, inhabiting movie-worlds. They're all essential, holistic components of what you might call my Total Life Experience. And I find that in some respects they all run together, aspects of one seeping into another: images, patterns, metaphors... So, when I read this re-evaluation of the new Apple iPhone 5 -- the feel of the thing -- it struck me as also being about a quality of certain movies that we don't discuss very often.


Let me begin by quoting the piece, by Farhad Manjoo, in which he reconsiders his initially dismissive assessment ("boring") of Apple's latest smartphone:

The iPhone 5 does not feel like a product that was mass produced. In a strange way, it doesn't feel like it was built at all. This is a gadget that seems as if it fell into the box fully formed. If you run your hands around its face, you scarcely feel any seams or other points of connection; there's little evidence that this thing is a highly complex device made from lots of smaller things. Instead it just feels like a single, solid, exquisitely crafted piece of machinery, and once you pick it up you never want to put it down.

Doesn't that sound like a description of certain movies to you? They're manufactured products , and yet the best of them can seem as seamless as lucid dreams -- experiences that heighten the senses and may feel even more sensuously gratifying than first-hand waking-life experience. But they achieve this in different ways. Some (like, say, Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" or "The Long Goodbye" or "Nashville") are open containers, into which messy, spontaneous life seems to flow and spill. And there are other kinds, such as films by Stanley Kubrick, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Lynch, David Fincher, Errol Morris, Michael Haneke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, that are meticulously designed and precisely crafted objects -- like Eames furniture, or superbly cut gemstones. Every shot is perfectly placed and timed, every cut is exactly where it needs to be, every gesture and intonation is flawlessly modulated, every color and shape and sound is placed like a notation in a score... and the whole is executed like a flawless symphonic performance, an ideal match of conductor, orchestra and composition. To follow the musical analogy, the former is jazz and the latter is classical.

But it's not just the grand, chilly masters who make such skillfully elegant films: think of the Lubitsch of "Trouble in Paradise," or the Polanski of "Chinatown" (and "Rosemary’s Baby" and "The Ghost Writer"). These movies are airtight (in the sense that, as Manjoo says, the seams do not show) but they are by no means airless. I've often written about how the best movies by the Coens ("Miller's Crossing," "No Country for Old Men," "A Serious Man") are so richly conceived and resonant that they're like being in the presence of a full orchestra, while most movies are more like listening to a transistor radio with a single earpiece.


Manjoo writes:

Compared to the iPhone 5, all other products will feel cheap. Even Apple's products: When I hold my Macbook Air, I now notice gaps between the bottom cover and the body, or the ugly way the screen is indented into the frame. I can't think of any other mass-manufactured product I've used that was as perfectly crafted as this phone. [...]

If I tell you the greatest thing about the iPhone 5 is how it "feels," you'll accuse me of being a superficial aesthete who cares more for form than function. You don't care how a phone was built or how it looks; you just want it to work. But I think that argument misses something important about what it means for a phone to "work well": When you're holding a device all the time, how it feels affects its functionality. Or, as Steve Jobs might say, how it feels is how it works.

That last sentence is absolutely true of movies, and Manjoo links to a quote from Jobs:

"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

In other words: "Style is content." When you enter some movies you are stepping inside a way of looking at the world. In some cases, it's superficial (oh, look at how everything's all the teal and orange); in others, it's a whole worldview, a philosophically informed vision of how the universe works and what it means. And that all comes from how it feels to be in there...

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