Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'Side by Side' Berlinale (Special) review:

In terms of how films are made - literally, how they are captured on camera - we are potentially at something of an epoch-defining crossroads. 35mm film cameras are no longer being manufactured, with studios now turning more and more to digital filmmaking and new technology. This moment in time - and its polarising effect on the industry - is the topic of 'Side by Side', a comprehensive, thoroughly entertaining look at both sides of the issue. In it Keanu Reeves, the film's producer and narrator, interviews those at the forefront of both camps: speaking to top directors, cinematographers, actors, editors, colourists, camera manufacturers, studio heads, and even students.

It's a film which pits staunch 35mm loyalists like Christopher Nolan and DP Wally Pfister against the progressive likes of George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron and Robert Rodriquez. It provides a potted history of the medium, explaining how cameras work, and breaking down who does what on a film set, in a way which some viewers might find simplistic and insulting to their intelligence. However, as someone who is intimidated by and largely ignorant of the technical side of filmmaking, I appreciated the film's accessibility. Sequences in which clips of films shot on 35mm and on digital are alternated are also really effective at practically demonstrating the ideas being discussed.

Keanu Reeves proves a really capable interviewer, getting some great, illuminating quotes from his subjects who seem at ease in his presence. Many contributors are so disarmingly frank that the film exceeds its brief, providing insight into the work methods of lots of the individuals involved. Danny Boyle unleashes his infectious enthusiasm, talking about his use of consumer cameras to make '28 Days Later' after falling out of love with film following the debacle of 'The Beach'. David Fincher is also good for a quote, voicing some very direct, unguarded criticism of various cameras - and he doesn't pull his punches when it comes to the cinematography fraternity either, citing the DP's loss of on-set authority (and the increase of his own) as one of the benefits of the digital age. Unsurprisingly you hear the reverse from the likes of old school cinematographer Michael Chapman.

Although the weight of opinion seems to go with digital - with most arguments in defense of 35mm coming down to nostalgia and fear of change - the documentary is overall careful not to come down on one side or the other. Instead both arguments are aired and made convincing in their own way. More a document of record than a polemic of any sort, the film leaves us with questions rather than answers, pondering what the future holds - for distribution and archive preservation as well as production. With such great use of film clips and boasting simply unprecedented access to high quality interview subjects, the only obvious problem with 'Side by Side' is that (at 99 minutes) it's far too short. It's a tantalising prospect to consider that there are longer interviews with people like David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese sitting on director Chris Kenneally's hard drive.

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