Side By Side2012
by Scott Mendelson
There is something both fascinating and depressing about seeing a film-related documentary specifically dealing with events that I vividly remember. Obviously as I get older this phenomena will become more and more common, but it's a relatively new experience for me. Films like Waking Sleeping Beauty and now Side By Side evoke a complicated nostalgia in this particular critic. This new film, directed by Christopher Kenneally and produced by Keanu Reeves (who conducts the onscreen interviews), examines the current cinematic debate between the advancement in digital video and the fight to keep old school film alive in the current marketplace. But while there are plenty of potent arguments for both options, and the film never really takes a side per-se, it operates less as a feature-length debate and more as a 90-minute history of the rather swift (around ten years as it relates to this feature) advancements in digital film making. And watching the picture was a revelation, both because it's so damn good and because I remember pretty much every single moment referred to as if it were yesterday.
The film's biggest trump card is the sheer number of famous and/or influential filmmakers who appear onscreen to wax rhapsodical about the current film vs. digital divide. We get, among many others, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, Robert Rodriquez, and, most heavily favoring the old-school approach, Chris Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister. 'Why would I trade in my water colors for crayons?', Nolan intones early on, and he is such a passionate defender of film stock that when Pfister mentions that he may at some point shoot on digital I half-expected an explosive charge to go off in his head. I'm not going to rehash all the various arguments being made, but everyone has a very strong and well-articulated opinion on the subject. Towards the end, Reeves asks Cameron whether the advent of digital lessons some of the reality and Cameron basically answers "When was it ever *real*?". Scorsese makes a strong case for something that we've all noticed over the last decade, that audiences so expect everything to be CGI-enhanced that they can't believe their eyes even when the image is 100% practical.
But what made the film such a kick for me was the historical rundown of the various turning points in digital cinema. I of course remember the various boons in computer-enhanced special effects that were most prominently displayed in the likes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park (by the way, how did Steven Spielberg, a guy who still edits film on an Avid, not get hauled into the room?). I remember the outcry over George Lucas shooting Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones in digital (Roger Ebert trashed the film seemingly on that point alone) because I drove 90 minutes to a theater in Cincinnati, Ohio on opening weekend to catch a second viewing in one of the few theaters showing it in DLP. I remember seeing Once Upon Time In Mexico and realizing that Robert Rodriguez had come the closest to making digital video look like film. I remember Bryan Singer choosing to shoot Superman Returns on the Panavision's Genesis because I remember how awful it looked on an IMAX screen. And I remember Michael Mann's experiments in HD video and how much better it looked for a present-tense film like Miami Vice as opposed to a period picture like Public Enemies. The film represents a tour not just through film history, but specifically through *my* film history.
Side By Side is a splendid success on all fronts. It packs as much technical knowledge and know-how as a year of conventional film school while succeeding as a glorious entertainment. It is an invaluable historical document of the very time I grew up in as well as a thoughtful debate between the merits of digital video and film stock, even as film stock is quickly becoming an endangered species. And it is a meeting of the minds of some of the most important filmmakers of our time in one compact package. It's worth may be limited outside the realm of film study, but as such it's the most entertaining documentary I've seen all year.