'Side by Side' reflects a watershed moment in the history of film

Posted by · 10:18 am · August 18th, 2012

I’m not really sure what’s left to be said in the great film vs. digital debate, but if nothing else, Christopher Kenneally’s “Side by Side” brings things to a head nicely as it represents the layman’s way into the discussion. These things always reach broader consideration last and no film, to date, has been as thorough and definitive as this.

A year after “Hugo” brought concepts of film preservation into a narrative fold and fed a meta fire throughout a season very much about Hollywood and the history of cinema, the debate rages on. That film’s director, Martin Scorsese, the great protector of celluloid, appears to be throwing in the towel, while recent pop-up screenings (with one more still to come) of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” shot on 65mm, doubled as a benefit for Scorsese’s film preservation-dedicated Film Foundation. These are very divided, even contradictory times.

Partly that’s what makes “Side by Side” so interesting. It never takes sides. It uses the thoughts and considerations of today’s filmmaking talent — a wide swath including Scorsese, George Lucas, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, Richard Linklater, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, as well as cinematographers such as Michael Ballhaus, Anthony Dod Mantle, Dick Pope and Wally Pfister — to convey a watershed moment in history.

And it doesn’t pigeonhole their opinions, either. None of these guys are putting on blinders and ignoring the big picture. They know the pros and cons of each philosophy better than probably anyone, and to hear them wax on about it is indeed required viewing for film fans.

There is a healthy debate to be had about the photochemical process being at its end and, therefore, the need to grow and advance the digital process, as well as the dangers of a digital Dark Ages where content is lost to the obsolescence of technology while celluloid remains the best form of preservation. And this film has that debate. It hangs it all out there without deigning to aim for an answer.

But most riling to me in the film is when discussion among celluloid proponents leans toward a gatekeeper, keys-to-the-kingdom mentality. The sense that digital has sparked an anyone-can-do-it revolution clearly chafes for some of these people. Indeed, one of the most annoying comments of the entire film — I forget the talking head — was, “There isn’t a taste-maker involved.” Producer/narrator/interviewer Keanu Reeves’s “wow” in response was the nice way of putting it.

So we move into another season that could certainly keep the debate sparked. Films representing a wide range of celluloid like “The Master” (70mm*), “The Dark Knight Rises” (IMAX) and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (16mm) will square off against equally diverse digital offerings like “Life of Pi” (Arri Alexa), “Flight” (Red Epic) and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (Red Epic). Great DPs like Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”) will move further into the digital realm after getting their toes wet only recently, while others will continue to dig in and stick with the film process they feel is superior.

It’s an exciting time in the history of cinema. And no one has the answers. Perhaps that’s precisely what makes it so exciting.

“Side by Side” is now playing in limited release. It hits Video On Demand on August 22.

*Some have expressed confusion over the 65mm/70mm thing, so if you’re one of those, it’s as simple as this: A 70mm production is shot on 65mm film. It is exhibited in 70mm. The extra 5mm is for the soundtrack.

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