Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Side by Side

Where did longtime production manager and novice director Christopher Kenneally get the cojones to turn so many masters of the art of cinema (Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, David Fincher, Ellen Kuras, Vilmos Zsigmond, Walter Murch…) into uninterestingly shot talking heads for his visually prosaic, narratively clayfooted film? Well, thank goodness he did. His frank, sometimes funny, and always knowledgeable subjects say enough interesting things to make this documentary worth seeing—if only just, and probably only for those of us with an unhealthy interest in movies.

Side by Side starts inauspiciously, a stream of overfamiliar images from the birth and early years of the movies running behind an equally hackneyed voiceover (“…movies have inspired us, thrilled us, and captured our imaginations. Film has helped us share our experiences and dreams.”) That voiceover is delivered by interviewer Keanu Reeves in the soporific Valley-Boy drone that can it seem as if there’s no space between him and the character he played in the Bill and Ted movies.

But then those talking heads start talking about what they have gained and lost in the transition from photochemical film to digital imagery, and things get interesting. Reeves turns out to be a good interviewer, relaxed, intelligent, and good at listening, and his interviews look even better in contrast to the apparently unironic bad-educational-film-style segments they’re sandwiched between, in which crude graphics and a droning voiceover explain some technical detail or other while tinky-tink piano music plays in the background.

But then we’re back to Fincher, talking about “the betrayal of dailies,” that discovery at the end of a day of filming, too late to do anything about it, that you hadn’t gotten what you were after, which is an inescapable part of the experience of filming on celluloid. Or to Anthony Dod Mantle, the cinematographer for The Celebration, who describes “this weird moment of immediacy” he caught when shooting a scene on the small handheld digital camera that was then such a revelation. Or Lars Von Trier, talking about how those small cameras and the freedom they allowed him from changing film mags every 10 minutes helped him create “a new way of working with actors.”

Not everyone Reeves talks to loves the new technology. Kuras says her fellow cinematographers often switched to digital thinking they’d get more control but wound up with less, because digital imagery is so easy to manipulate in post-production. Editors tend to be ambivalent too, missing the tactile thrill of editing on film and bemoaning the oceans of footage they have to swim through now that there are virtually no technological or financial limits on how much a filmmaker can shoot.

Most of the directors embrace the new technology eagerly. As Soderbergh says of the Red One digital camera, one of the first that could very nearly mimic film—and then some—“When I saw the Red, I really felt I should call film on the phone and say, ‘I’ve met someone.’ ” Lena Dunham says she never would have even become a filmmaker in the days before digital, since the big, complicated, pricey equipment required by film, which she thought of as “a guy thing,” would have intimidated her. “These cameras allowed me to experiment with film in a really small, private way, which I needed to do,” she says.

But many of the filmmakers interviewed remain on the fence, hoping film won’t be elbowed all the way out of existence by digital imagery. As Christopher Nolan puts it: “A transition starts with people offering you a new choice, but it ends with them taking your choice away.”

Written for The L Magazine

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