On the surface, Side By Side is a documentary by filmmakers interviewing other filmmakers about film. But what it’s really about is the future of technology. Time and tide wait for no man. Indeed they don’t. Just as easily, technology waits for no filmmaker. Whether you’re caught up in the novelty and nostalgia of celluloid, or you’re eager to leap forward into the digital age, technology will creep up on you and then wave goodbye. You can either wave back and smile or grab its hand and tag along.
This movie is “hosted” by Keanu Reeves, who does all the interviewing and narration. Before him is assembled a mammoth cohort of directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, camera developers, and just about every person associated with the technical aspect of filmmaking. In their company Reeves seems like a little child. Sometimes he’s not even sitting in his chair; he’s up flailing his notes around as if conducting an orchestra. Among his interviewees are James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and Greta Gerwig. All of whom speak very passionately about their love or hate for technology’s unrelenting advancements.
I just graduated from a film school whose methodologies and approaches are locked in a time capsule dating back to Hollywood’s golden era. Much of what I learnt revolved around framing shots perfectly, writing linear screenplays, colour balancing to make the final print look pristine and all that kind of stuff. We were never encouraged to try something new. We were never told “What if the camera was tilted?”. Everything had to be prim and proper.
I say this because I find it strange that such a traditional film school never exposed us to film cameras. Every project we undertook was shot in digital — we never had a film camera at our disposal. The only time we were ever allowed near a strip of undeveloped celluloid was in a class called Experimental Screens, which required us to manipulate the strip for a camera-less film. I say all this because I never got the chance to operate, or even direct a short film with, a film camera.
After seeing Christopher Kenneally’s Side By Side, I fear I never will.
There is much to absorb and enjoy in this documentary. Sure, it addresses a very isolated crowd, but its subject requires it to. It takes the form of an educational video, explaining the history and process of both film and digital, but as it moves along it develops into a debate. What are the pros and cons of film? What are the advantages of digital? Yes, film gives you extraordinary dynamic range, but its cumbersome and expensive. Digital might lack in image quality, but it allows cameramen the freedom to move around tight spots. Film can last forever. Digital requires hard drives and virtual space, both of which are susceptible to corruption. Film is tangible. Digital is not. Digital made way for visual effects and 3D, the latter of which is one of cinema’s greatest disappointments.
This debate will go on forever. What’s accurate about Side By Side is that it never reaches a conclusion. Because how could it? I said at the start of this review that this movie is really not about who loves celluloid or who wants to work exclusively on digital. It’s not about which camera company will make the best camera. It’s not about the past, nor is it about what the past has done for the art of cinema. It’s about technology and technology’s undying urge to push forward without thinking about what it has left behind. Will film become obsolete? “Yes”, says Tom Rothman. “It will become the exception”. True, but this has nothing to do with what any of the directors or cinematographers think. Film will become the exception because it has no other choice. At the end of the day, will the average moviegoer be able to tell the difference?
Best Moment | Well it’s a documentary. There isn’t really a best moment. Much of what everyone says is impactful.
Worst Moment | Geoff Boyle just seemed way too pessimistic and condescending for my liking.