Film isn’t entirely gone from the movie-production landscape, but anyone who thinks it’s not on the verge of obsolescence has a needle in his/her arm. The realization that digital movies and digital projection are completely capable of and in fact destined to kick film out of the room for good has only settled in within the last three or four years. And as recently as 12 or 14 years ago digital was seen a joke that only the DOGMA guys and various no-account indie directors were working with.
So we’ve all been witness to a major technological revolution, and it really needs to be fully pondered and studied from this and that angle. It’s too seismic and seminal to ignore.
Which is where Chris Kenneally and Keanu Reeves‘ Side by Side, a doc that will open on a city-by-city basis starting in mid August and also opening on VOD on 8.22, comes in. In a sense it’s the visual-tech story of our moviegoing lives since the late-Clinton era until now, or more precisely late last year, which is roughly when Kenneally and Reeves stopped shooting.
Side by Side is already a wee bit dated, or so a cinematographer friend told me when we watched it together a couple of weeks ago. Things move very quickly these days in a technical sense so you have to pounce quickly and cut it together and get it out there chop-chop.
Side by Side probably felt a tad more relevant when it was first shown at last February’s Berliniale and then Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, but it’s still a highly intelligent sizing-up of the situation. It tells you what you know or have heard, but it’s a very soothing and stimulating thing to consider what’s happened over the last 14 or so years in one tight 99-minute presentation. It’s wonky, yes, but it’s cut and presented in such a way that even the dumbest, most ADD-afflicted Eloi dilletante will be able to get into it, and yet it’s well-ordered and sophisticated enough to intrigue those who know all about this transition, which, to put it mildly, has been traumatic for many thousands of people in the film industry and beyond.
I think it’s easily one the best made and most absorbing docs of the year.
So I’m of the opinion that Side by Side is not only smart and fascinating, but very necessary to see here and now because every so often we all have to take stock of where we are and where we’ve been, and this is one of those occasions. In short it’s important — it goes over everything and reminds us where things were not so long ago, and where we are today and are likely to be in 10 or 20 or 50 years.
Plus it assembles all of the leading and necessary hotshots in a single room, so to speak — interviewer Keanu Reeves plus Chris Nolan (a non-fan of digital), David Fincher, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Danny Boyle and dps Vilmos Zsigmond, Wally Pfister (who hates digital), Reed Morano, Michael Chapman and digital pioneer Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot The Celebration, the first significant digital feature, as well as the digitally-captured, oscar-winning Slumdog Milllionaire. Plus producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and actress Greta Gerwig.
The film’s best line is from Soderbergh as he talks about his delight with the digital RED camera, and how working with it led him to realize that “for me, this is the year zero” and that “I feel I should call up film and say, ‘I’ve met somebody.'”
Not everyone is a fan. A friend who saw Side by Side in Berlin feels it’s “superficial crap for the most part, to say nothing of inordinately pro digital with very few dissenting voices save for Christopher Nolan and no mention at all of the problems with digital archiving, which is the real elephant in the room.”
I replied that Side by Side is a primer about the fundamentals for people who don’t know the fundamentals, but it’s also intelligent and sophisticated as far as it goes, and it talks to pretty much everyone who matters, and that it DOES get into the archive question at the end, noting that we’ve seen dozens of video formats surface and disappear over the decades and that they always change and degrade, and that celluloid is the only 100% reliable or trustable way to archive so that you know your film will be accessible 100 or 500 years from now.