*** (out of four)
Tasking Keanu Reeves with narrating and conducting interviews for a documentary almost seems like a challenge to audiences predisposed to questioning the actor's intelligence. As if “Side by Side” director Christopher Kenneally wants to ask us, “Oh, really? What makes you so smart?”
This fast-paced doc about the movie industry's transition from using film to digital technology contains an impressive range of interview subjects with more than enough authority to speak as experts. Big-time filmmakers such as George Lucas and Steven Soderbergh (who loves digital) and Christopher Nolan (who vastly prefers film), as well as countless editors, cinematographers, colorists and producers, comment on the ways in which the digital format has changed moviemaking, both allowing for more flexibility and imagination while sacrificing hand-made magic and possibly diminishing the so-called reality of images captured on film.
James Cameron, for one, doesn't buy the latter argument. He notes that even on film, very frequently a scene taking place outside at night in New York is actually shot indoors during the day in Burbank. (He also says that “Titanic” played so long in theaters that the prints fell apart.) Obviously, the man who has long favored image to storytelling misses the point later made by Martin Scorsese that the increasingly artificial world on screen may cause viewers to process everything as fiction, without any appreciation for images captured organically.
“Side By Side” eventually engages in such a rapid debate that it loses track of audiences and critics, the people who watch and discuss the films. Outside of David Fincher noting that digital advancements will never get in the way of good storytelling, Kenneally neglects to discuss how the digital landscape has adjusted what movies are being made/financed and what that says about film culture as a whole. I also wondered, for example, why Greta Gerwig is the only actor interviewed and why the cinematographer of “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” has any credibility when it comes to considering how digital filmmaking impacts performances.
That said, “Side By Side” taps into the notion of art as shaped by technology, both in the increasing ability for amateurs to make movies and pros to expand their palette. Robert Rodriguez notes that he never would have been able to make “Sin City” without digital capabilities. Lana and Andy Wachowski embrace the changing medium, though their “Speed Racer” certainly represents the epitome of style over substance.
Some viewers may have greater interest in the anecdotes, such as when Fincher talks about Robert Downey Jr. leaving mason jars of urine around the set of “Zodiac” in protest over the way shooting on digital results in much longer work days without the need to make each take count. Even if its scope opens it up to questions not asked, “Side By Side” delights in bringing us all onto the movie set, into the editing room and behind the camera—thrilling places in any format.