Friday, April 20, 2012

Tribeca ’12: Side By Side

Photochemical film is having its Buggles moment. It has been killed by digital video, but the death rattle is not quite over yet. While some holdouts still shoot the old school way, digital has steadily become the norm. The aesthetic and economic implications of this sea change in motion picture production are explored in Chris Kenneally’s Side By Side (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

If you think Martin Scorsese might have something to say about this moment in cinema history, you would be correct. He is one of small army of directors and cinematographers interviewed by co-producer and on-screen host Keanu Reeves. While Scorsese has mixed emotions, George Lucas is all in for digital, while Christopher Nolan stubbornly clings to his photochemical film. To oversimplify the debate, digital is cheaper and more easily manipulated, whereas film has more dynamic character, in much the same way vinyl favorably compares to digital music.

Side By Side gives a brisk and lucid overview of the development of digital technology and its rise from the domain of slacker indies to 3D tent-poles. Most of the interview subjects are exactly the sort of experts one would want to hear from, including David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Danny Boyle (whose Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire was a digital watershed), and both Wachowskis, as well as top flight cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Vittorio Storaro.

However, it is impossible to ignore the snickering that erupts whenever a filmmaking giant prefaces an answer with: “Well Keanu, I’ll tell you. . .” Poor Reeves. He actually seems like an okay guy when he explains some of the Matrix effects to a young extra on the set of his upcoming 47 Ronin. He just has a certain presence and persona at odds with his on-screen role here.

Kenneally, Reaves, and company demystify a lot of the technical process, without losing sight of cinema as a form of artistic (hopefully) storytelling. As one would expect, every point is generously illustrated with clips from classic films. Some traditionalists might regret a more spirited defense was not mounted on behalf of photochemical film. Still, as it stands, Side By Side is an informative and rather entertaining look at the state of movie-making, considerably superior to the recent National Film Registry documentary, These Amazing Shadows. Recommended for those who enjoy movies about movies, Side By Side screens this coming Tuesday (4/24), Thursday (4/26), Friday (4/27), and Saturday (4/28) as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival now running in New York.