Side by Side is the riveting new documentary written and directed by Christopher Kenneally about the advent of digital filmmaking and its growing popularity over celluloid. It’s a must see for anyone interested in filmmaking; who is making films; or who just likes film period.
It’s narrated by Keanu Reeves in a bit more of an energetic voice that one usually hears from him (there’s nary a “whoa, dude” in sight). I’m not sure why he made the film, but I’m glad he did and it’s one of his best performances. Reeves takes us on a journey of the history of digital, from its early days of development in the 1960’s to the present day where digital’s presence is felt in almost every nook and cranny of filmmaking and in almost every movie, whether made on celluloid or not.
The movie’s basic thesis is that we are on the precipice of a new era of filmmaking, and the movie is very convincing in sharing the palpable excitement people have in using this new technology. One of the key historical moments is the movie Festen (The Celebration) made in 1998 under the Dogma 95 doctrine of taking a more immediate and realistic approach to a film’s subject matter. It was one of the first films made using a digital approach and when Danny Boyle saw it, it was like Ingrid Bergman’s response to seeing a movie by Roberto Rossellini—he had never seen anything like it before, but he just had to be involved in some way and thus he made 28 Days Later. Soon more and more people jumped on the bandwagon, especially as the technology just kept improving and growing, like that scene in the Buster Keaton movie Seven Chances where a rock rolling down a hill becomes two rocks, then three, then an avalanche. Festen was my favorite movie of 1998, but I had no idea it had the potential of being the Citizen Kane of its generation.
Half of the documentary is a series of talking head interviews of various generations, the old timers and the up and coming bucks. For some, digital is like the Blob, just growing bigger and bigger as it engulfs every movie along its way. For others, it’s like the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, taking over while no one was looking and resulting in a less human and emotional product. The other half of the film is a narrated history of digital, not just in cinematography, but also in editing and special effects, and how it all works. This part may feel a bit dry a times (a friend of mine called it just a tad too industrial), and I can’t disagree with that.
But if there is anything really wrong with the structure, it’s that the movie is divided into sections and as one section would end, the talking heads became more and more (to paraphrase Shakespeare) “O brave new world that has such filmmaking possibilities in it” backed up by inspirational music. Every time this happened, one swore the movie was over; but no, it just kept on going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny.
But I didn’t care. It’s a thrilling and challenging film making one excited about what may be waiting on the cinematic horizon. It will not all be good, of course. If anyone can make a movie (as one talking head said, the advent of digital is the democratization of making films), then the number of bad movies will probably increase, at least for awhile (since as yet another talking head told us, there is no real tastemaker right now). But if anyone can make a movie, then talented people (as Lena Dunham, writer/ director of Tiny Furniture and Girls, countered) who would never have been able to break into the industry before, now have almost no barriers to creating their art.
There were some filmmaker holdouts. For many, mainly those who were previously entrenched in the earlier method of making films, it’s a march or die situation, and most seemed to have not only joined the ranks of the new, they are also discovering the advantages of the new technology. But others come across as Luddites, feeling that digital can never equal the greatness of celluloid and that by using digital, filmmakers and technicians are lowering the standard of an art form. One would like to sympathize with people like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. The only problem is that they both came across as middle aged counterparts of those curmudgeons Clint Eastwood now plays all the time. And in the end, this is where films are going. One can man the barricades all one wants, but it’s only a matter of time before the barbarians break down the gates.