Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is to to be film or digital? The Kenneally/ Reeves/Tribeca SIDE BY SIDE asks -- and maybe answers -- this troubling question

"So, are you through with film?" asks our narrator/host/producer, Keanu Reeves, of one of the world's favorite filmmakers, David Lynch (below, right). Comes the considered, thoughtful reply: "Maybe. Yes."

Oh, my god -- does this mean we must, from now on, refer to Lynch -- along with Steven Soderbergh, Danny BoyleGeorge LucasRobert Rodriguez (below), the Wachowski siblings and a host of other top "filmmakers" -- as... digital-makers, or maybe digi-makers? That, as they say, is the least of it. (Not to worry: Christopher Nolan, along with maybe Spielberg and Scorsese, will still be using film. For awhile.) Over the past decade or more, we film-goers/digi-goers have been told that the death of film as a format for movie-making is at hand and that digital  would soon take over everything. And then we were asked, But what does this mean? Most of us viewers (even, I would wager, many of us "critics") sure as hell didn't know -- particularly those, such as TrustMovies, who pay more attention to Content and Style than to the technical efforts used to bring that C&S to the screen.

Further, when we read various of the high-and-mighty cinema magazines -- Film Comment, Cineaste, Cinema Scope and Sight & Sound, to name those to which yours truly pays most attention -- we would find an occasional article or roundtable/symposium devoted to exactly this question, often with an emphasis on film preservation, coupled to the worry that nobody quite knows how, as yet, to preserve the digital format -- or, even if this is/will be necessary. I don't know about you, but after I finished reading these, I always had more questions than when I had begun.

All this is why the new film SIDE BY SIDE -- written and directed by erstwhile production manager Christopher Kenneally (shown at right), is an absolutely must-see for any true movie buff. In it, Mr. Reeves talks to everyone from movie directors and cinematographers to editors and the guys who make and market the latest (and quite amazing, as it turns out) digital cameras, and gets them to point out the differences between the two formats, what each can achieve, and why & how, in various cases, one or the other may be better or worse. After viewing this jam-packed-with-good-information movie, you'll finally understand what is going on and why it is so important for the future of the thing we love more than any in this world. Excepting, of course, our immediate family. (And even that depends on the particular family.)

Initially I was worried that the movie was so thoroughly made for film buffs that no identification of the speakers would be given. But after the five-minute pre-credit sequence, the IDs show up and we can breathe easier. You may find yourself wondering, as the movie unfolds, if it is not, really, a kind of love letter to the digital format -- at the expense of film. On balance, I think not. So many advances have been made in digital over the past 15 years since Thomas Vinterberg's landmark digital film The Celebration was created -- you see a bit of many of these during the course of Side by Side -- that one can only marvel at what is now possible to do with some of the new digital cameras.

How do actors feel about the change-over, which, it turns out, means the possibility of much longer "takes" using digital, rather than the "enforced cuts" that film and the film camera demand. John Malkovich, coming as he does from legitimate theater, enjoys the longer time between cuts, while Robert Downey, Jr. can't wait for the director to yell out the "C" word. And Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig (above), who certainly cut her movie teeth on digital, has some interesting things to say, too. We hear from film/digi editors about their work using both formats, and the special effects people, too -- whom, it would seem, digital was born to serve.

Among the directors, James Cameron (above) comes off as less self-satisfied than usual, David Fincher as intelligent and level-headed as usual, and Joel Schumacher as friendly and funny as usual -- he has one of the best lines in the whole film. The other great line goes to Soderbergh, below, who tells us that, "We want to send film to the retirement home but have her feel good about what's taking her place."  When that director saw what the new camera from RED could do, he says, "I felt like calling film and telling her: 'I've met someone'."

So, is this the end of film? The filmmaker shows us a sample of the movies shot on film over the past couple of years, and it's clear that this is not yet true. But digital advances do keep on coming. I had my most computer literate and film/digital-knowledgable friend and support person, Robert Adragna, take a look at the movie to see what he thought. He told me he enjoyed it on many levels, even though he felt it was made only for an audience for film buffs, rather than normal movie-goers. "It meandered, and ping-ponged back and forth and was a little repetitive. But there was still so much information here. One thing I was surprised at, considering the movie's title: They never actually did a side-by-side comparison of film against digital -- showing us the same thing  using both processes. That would have been interesting." Indeed.

Overall, though, we've got many of the cream of cinema here: over 70 people from all walks of the profession, so there is very little in the movie that is not germane and on the mark. As I say, this one's an absolute must-see for any real film buff. Side by Side, from Tribeca Film, opened this past Friday, August 17, in Los Angeles, at Laemmle's Noho 7 and will hit Boston (at the MFA, beginning August 23), New York City (Quad Cinema) and Seattle (Grand Illusion Cinema) next Friday, August 31, and Chicago (September 15 at the ), Tacoma (September 18), San Francisco (October 18) -- and Columbus, San Francisco, Rochester and some other cities, still to be announced. You can click here periodically to check for updates. In addition, Tribeca will release the film via On-Demand platforms beginning this Wednesday, August 22, and in the process perhaps reaching a lot more viewers.

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