On Sept. 5, I went to see the new documentary, SIDE BY SIDE, about digital filmmaking, at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan. Directed by a post-production supervisor named Christopher Kenneally, it offered actor Keanu Reeves functioning as the on-camera interlocutor for a series of interviews with directors, cinematographers, editors and other film industry personnel, some of whom talked about their preferences for film or digital formats in making movies, while others simply waxed rhapsodic about the new digital tools available to them.
From what I’d read of the film, I was expecting a debate over the pros and cons of digital conversion and a “side by side” comparison of celluloid and digital images, with filmmakers on both sides of the issue lined up to explain their preferences. That wasn’t the film I saw. It seemed to me to be heavily weighted on the digital side, with more filmmakers and technicians expressing their enthusiasm for digital equipment and technology and the ease with which you can “correct” a digital image. George Lucas and James Cameron are among the most forceful advocates for digital seen in the film. There were a few dissenting voices, including Christopher Nolan, but only a few, and nothing, as far as I can recall, in the way of any visual demonstrations of why film might be preferable. There were a few very quick shots from classic films (THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, CASABLANCA) and a montage of quick clips from very recent productions shot on film (e.g. TREE OF LIFE, WAR HORSE, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), but nowhere did I hear anyone explain what it was about film that drew them to this art in the first place, e.g. the sensual pleasures to be derived from experiencing film and its unique textures projected on a silver screen, or the palpable joy of holding a strip of 35mm film in your hand and holding it up to the light to look at the chemically created image. While no one really made a passionate case for film, the benefits of digital manipulation were given sufficient illustration.
After I finished watching it, I felt like I’d sat through a feature-length infomercial for digital filmmaking. At times the interviewees singled out specific digital cameras for recommendation, giving it the tone of a promotional film. A film professor colleague of mine felt it was more objective than that and directed me to an article in the current American Cinematographer that indicated that the makers simply wanted to record different filmmakers’ perceptions of digital vs. film in the midst of a monumental changeover that will transform the making and exhibition of movies for all time. The makers took no sides and offered no editorial point of view. They didn’t tell us whether they thought any of the notions expressed were right or wrong. They didn’t moderate the debate. They clearly wanted to talk ONLY with those responsible for creating the image and not with critics, theater owners, or audience members. They only talked to one programmer—Geoffrey Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival.
On some level I understand their intention—ostensibly to create a document of this historic moment featuring the expert testimony of some of the most respected and revered names in contemporary cinema–and on another I’m profoundly dissatisfied. No one seemed to pay much heed to the audience. Only Martin Scorsese addressed the effects of digital on the consumer when he worried that young people might never again believe anything they see on film once they’ve become accustomed to so many manipulated digital images. We also see a shot of a subway rider watching a film on an iPhone, the only actual “audience member” seen in the film.
There also wasn’t a great deal of attention paid to actual content. No one talked about the stories they wanted to tell or specific images they wanted to create or the kinds of moods that can be stoked by digital imagery. Granted, they probably weren’t asked those kinds of questions, but I can’t imagine interviews with directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood that would have gone very far without mentioning stories or content. When I think of interviews I’ve seen with the likes of Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Huston, Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, et al, I recall the constant stress on stories they wanted to tell, ideas they wanted to share and interactions with other people. Just watch Fuller in any filmed interview act out the film he wanted to make and you’ll see what I mean. You didn’t see these guys going on and on about the properties of the cameras they were using. Hitchcock would talk about the ART of editing, not the tools. But the directors and cinematographers interviewed in this film are only seen talking about the tools. I started to zone out after a while. It was too much to process and it just wasn’t that interesting to me.
Some important issues are raised but not explored in any depth, given the filmmakers’ avoidance of follow-up questions. Near the end, they do talk about issues of preservation and archiving when it comes to competing and constantly evolving digital formats. I would have liked more discussion of this, since it’s something I don’t understand well at all. Interestingly, it’s suggested by some in the film that the only viable storage medium today is 35mm film. I mentioned this to a young colleague who insists that the presence on the web of every film made at least since 1995 means that none of these films will ever be lost. [He elaborates further in one of the comments below.] I’m not entirely sure how that would help in a particular case of restoration, but it’s an intriguing notion.
One gentleman in the film complains that the “democratization” made possible by digital cameras has led to a glut of bad indie films. He laments the lack of a “tastemaker.” I totally agree with him but I couldn’t tell you who he was because there was no “lower third” identification of him in that passage and the earlier identification of him hadn’t registered with me because there were way too many people to keep track of in the film. In any event, had a critic been interviewed, he or she could have elaborated on this issue some more.
Most of the digital film clips shown in the film, especially the earlier examples, look terrible: fuzzy, soft, grainy, devoid of color. I have to concede that the more recent digital examples look fine so I’m not going to complain about them. Still, this is all part of a problem I have with so many documentaries that mix clips from different sources: images shot on film, whether for movies or TV, no matter how old, look so much better than more recent images shot on video or digital.
For me, the issue comes down to the whole question of what got me excited about film in the first place, what established that emotional connection back in my childhood when I would sit and find whole new worlds opened up for me in movies seen at neighborhood theaters. There was something about a projected 35mm image that looked so beautiful especially when the film had a setting or style that we weren’t going to find in any other source of entertainment. It was the way they looked and felt, the textures of the costumes and sets under the bright interior lights, or the sunlight cast on the outdoor locations where so many of the action scenes took place. This was true of westerns like ONE-EYED JACKS, BEND OF THE RIVER, and HOW THE WEST WAS WON, to name three I saw on the big screen at a young age; science fiction like QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE or ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS; Italian “sword ‘n’ sandal” films like THE TROJAN HORSE, THE MONGOLS, THE MINOTAUR and any of the Hercules, Samson and Goliath movies I saw; and, most especially, the epics like BEN-HUR, EL CID, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, which went on location and recreated historical settings with hundreds of extras, large casts and spectacular scenes. This was true even in the stylized urban settings of WEST SIDE STORY, which offered an idealized Hollywood recreation of a neighborhood very much like my own.
I wonder if an impressionable child of nine or ten today, a budding film buff like I was, would experience the same sort of awe and wonder at the current wave of digital effects extravaganzas. Do they have the same emotional response to, say, AVATAR, TRANSFORMERS, THE AVENGERS, and the Harry Potter films the way I did with the films I cited? There seems to be a narrower range of film experiences available to them than there was to me, at least at the multiplex, although the ones who know how to explore the offerings on cable channels and the web might have a wider choice. Young movie fans are emerging all the time, so clearly they’re responding to something. The more pertinent question then would be how my eight- or ten-year-old self would react if plunked down into a multiplex today. Would these films, mostly in digital projections, have the same impact that the earlier ones did? Or would I simply prefer to stay home and watch “Pokémon” and “Power Rangers,” as my inner child so frequently does, and pursue an interest in anime and manga rather than cinema?
I’ve enjoyed some digitally-made productions, including COLLATERAL, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and PLANET TERROR. (The filmmakers of the latter two, David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez, are seen in SIDE BY SIDE.) To me, Zack Snyder’s 300, made entirely with actors filmed against digital backgrounds, is the modern equivalent of all those “sword ‘n’ sandal” films I once enjoyed. Next to BEN-HUR or SPARTACUS, it will certainly pale in comparison, but next to things like THE TROJAN HORSE or HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN, it has an energy and style that represent a fresh look at a long-neglected genre. Overall I prefer seeing film prints, but I will acknowledge that digital has its place. Whether I’ll ever become as enthusiastic about digital movies as I’ve been about celluloid movies remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Times, critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis engage in exactly the kind of discussion that I wish SIDE BY SIDE had contained:
Ms. Dargis’s positions seem closer to my own.
ADDENDUM (9/12/12): In the current issue of Cineaste (Vol. 37 #4), there’s a discussion of digital vs. film in “From 35mm to DCP: A Critical Symposium on the Changing Face of Motion Picture Exhibition,” which features some of the voices I found missing from SIDE BY SIDE, including film professor/textbook author David Bordwell, repertory programmers Bruce Goldstein and Scott Foundas, and critic J. Hoberman, among others. There’s a contribution by a collective called The Ferroni Brigade and I love these quotes from them:
“One knows that there’s a difference between watching a film in a theater and watching it on TV or one’s computer–it’s just that culture in general got ever more adept at denying said fact. If our culture is able to accept that there’s a difference between looking a a painting in a museum and looking at its reproduction in a catalog, then it should also be able to accept that there’s a difference between watching a 35mm film properly projected in a cinema and watching its reproduction on one’s computer….
“Calling celluloid a fetish when talking about cinema of the predigital age is something for people devoid of any kind of historical perspective, people for whom cinema is little more than a story-line plus a few aesthetic affectations, people who think that a different world is impossible. Only quislings call celluloid a fetish.”
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