Chris Kenneally’s Side by Side represents the rare “industrial” that’s not promoting any particular point of view, and should give pause to cinephiles as well as visual and dramatic artists with only a passing interest in that moribund art form, the movies. It curates a thoughtfully chosen collection of interview subjects, traversing the production and distribution range, and seats co-producer Keanu Reeves as a modest, intelligent interlocutor, lending the project a quiet prestige.
In what will be a worthy companion piece to future dirges on the death of cinema, the work examines the generation of Hollywood moviemakers on the verge of abandoning film for a dubious digital future, thus documenting one of the most significant turning points of any artistic medium in our times.
Painter turned director David Lynch declares that he’s done with film (wiseacres may retort that they’re done withhis films). Infamous digital promoter George Lucas—whose Industrial Light & Magic once stocked fake lens flares to make early digital productions look more like film—says celluloid simply has no place to go. (Given his hot-rod passions, one wonders if Lucas would say the same of that other 19th century technology, the automobile; or if he really, honestly, thinks Attack of the Clones is more visually appealing than Vittorio Storaro’s work for the LucasArts production Tucker, or even the look achieved by the second-timers who shot American Graffiti in such memorable widescreen.)
But the documentary gently counters digital’s early adopters with equally passionate skeptics. Martin Scorsese laments the loss of daily film rushes as “a special time” to judge performances lost on tiny digital monitors, and other directors describe the “betrayal” of film dailies not delivering on their unseen promise. Comparing early digital systems to “trading oil paints for a set of crayons,” David Fincher sees Hollywood’s feckless embrace of novelty over quality as the tendency to “not only kill the goose that lays the golden egg, but sodomize it first.”
Digital imaging has improved to the point of acceptability to some, but not to others like the great Vilmos Zsigmond, whose understated praise of the film image as “incredibly beautiful” carries an elegiac sadness. The work of cinematographers once thought “genies” and “magicians” for conjuring images they’d promised on the next day become demystified by electronic monitors. But just as directors make the case for the certainty of in situ image production, others cite the intrusion of everyone on set, including preening actors, muddling singular vision with groupthink.
Old school film editors such as Anne V. Coates concede to the inevitability of digital editing systems but point out the discipline lost in the transition from methodical thinking, followed by mechanical splicing, to simply pushing buttons to make fast, unnecessary cuts and mix-master versions (what another editor describes as images “manipulated to death”). Coates casts doubt on whether an editorial masterpiece such as Lawrence of Arabia could have survived the technology intact. Scorsese stays true to sensibility describing the blood mixing with razor-blade cutting. Tim Burton’s favorite editor Chris Lebenzon evocatively describes the aesthetic shift even in the inner sanctum of the editing room, the ramping whirring of film reels in machines giving way to a keyboard-clicking silence better suited to candles and incense.
Performance in cinema has been transformed by the replacement of 10-minute film reel takes, and (as one professional puts it) the sobriety of money moving through the machine, to impossibly long digital video takes. For theater-trained John Malkovich, digital means a merciful end to stop-and-start dramatis interruptus, but for others, endless takes and capricious re-takes feel more like Groundhog Day. Reeves intervenes with a story from his experience on A Scanner Darkly, when he pleaded with the director, “Can we please stop?” and Fincher recalls a Robert Downey Jr. scene in which he left urine in mason jars on the set as a protest to digital takes without breaks.
Slightly missing the point of virtual reality’s yin-yang, James Cameron reminds Reeves of the artificiality of every filmmaking process and asks, “What was ever real?”
Well, a face as interesting as Keanu’s, for starters.
Kenneally covers most of the angles with assiduous sequentiality. Yet there’s still more to explore. Though the cinematographers explain the rupture to color space wrought by the technical aspects of cameras and lenses—depth of field, resolution and dynamic range—there remains a more fundamental philosophical discussion on the ontology of the photographic image, the difference in experience between watching real objects in space, pro-filmic events photo-chemically encased in what Roland Barthes called an anterior-present tense, versus watching the virtually real in a synthesized environment, in a kind of unavoidable immediacy.
A demonstration of Digital Intermediate “power windows” as a replacement of film color timing (given short shrift as an art), suggests a new tension between the cinematographer and digital colorist but ignores the audience’s perspective, and the profound question of whether viewers can ever again trust, much less admire, an image subject to infinite manipulation. In the days of film telecines—a precursor to DI machines—even the best in the business described their jobs as humbly translating the cinematographer’s vision; with a once-unheard of chutzpah, the digital colorists now say they’re part of a collaborative team. So it’s not hard to imagine that the art of the great cinematographers interviewed here will die with the film medium, or become drowned in a crowd-sourced mud pit.
If it isn’t already obvious, Kenneally confirms that film cameras are going the way of manual typewriters (and his project was doubtless too early to mention that Kodak is now bankrupt). And it wouldn’t have taken an excursion into industrial conspiracies to point out that Sony, with a lot of help, foisted upon cinema, all its visual artists, its audience and the home-video aftermarket a compromise 16:9 aspect ratio format that has over-determined the very shape of movies forever.
And as to the possibilities suggested by cheap-camera digital democratization—all those frustrated filmmakers lacking only the means of production? Maybe someday. But surely anyone who thinks movies are getting better hasn’t the eyes to see.
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