May 15, 2012

Side by Side - AMC Loews Village 7 (Tribeca Film Festival)

Mike: Erica was at work so I went to see this by myself. I remember first reading about this film a while back and thinking 'huh?' Keanu Reeves and the shift from film to digital - an odd match, and who knew that Reeves had any interest in it, to the point of making a documentary about it? I thought it was a joke. But perhaps due to his involvement, the documentary collects an impressive roster of subjects - Scorsese, Lucas, Lynch, the Wachowskis, etc. The only other guys I would have liked to have heard from were maybe Eastwood, and Spielberg, although he's made little secret of his attachment to shooting on film being mostly sentimental.

Through these fascinating interviews, Side By Side successfully tackles a very broad subject, documenting the convergence and shift of two worlds. There's a over a hundred years of history and a lot of technology and chemistry to deal with that could have filled hours, but Side By Side manages to pack it all in while avoiding a sense of information overload. And at the same time, I didn't feel like I was getting a 'Film for Dummies'-type general overview or sampling - it's expertly assembled and should prove absorbing to both film gurus and casual enthusiasts.

As an interviewer, Reeves is surprisingly skillful. I say 'surprisingly' because I think we've all bought a little bit into the cartoonish impression we've gotten of him over the years and his spacey presence. We all knew he was somewhat of a spiritual guy, but seeing him as a serious, focused, insightful interviewer reveals a new side. Reeves doesn't just ask the questions - he creates a conversation and isn't afraid to contest the viewpoints of some of these giants of the industry.

While I have nothing but praise for Keanu Reeves the interviewer, he's not the most engaging narrator. There are a handful of short, necessary segments where Reeves explains the technology, and while they're succinct and easy to follow with accompanying diagrams and animations, it feels like you're listening to Reeves reading from a book. I know, someone explaining how cameras work and pointing out the different parts maybe isn't something that can be livened up by an enthusiastic narrator, but it's a little odd to hear Reeves go from energetic and engaging one minute to quiet and dry the next seems a bit uneven. Nevertheless, the narrated portions are quick and serve their purpose well.

For most of the interviews, Reeves has a professional appearance. But for one or two he sits across from the director in a silly haircut. It's not necessarily a distraction, although the fact that I'm mentioning it here means that I took note of it. Reeves isn't someone who most people take seriously - no offense to him, but I think most Americans overall have a positive image of him but see him as a bit of a moron. This documentary is a stretch for him and while he does an amazing job here showing a different side and proving himself talented and capable, the hair kind of made me take a step back. Not because having a silly haircut is any indication of anything, but, he's sitting there, asking of us to take him seriously, and we do - we go along with it and when the documentary starts we see that he's a smart guy and not the doofy guy we thought he was... but then he shows up in a silly 'do. Of course, I don't think Reeves is on any kind of a journey to show people that he can be a smart guy. And to his credit, Reeves remains insightful and engaging throughout all the interviews, weird hair or not.

Those are minute quibbles and I have nothing but raves for everything else in this film. I was particularly fascinated listening to older cinematographers discuss their views on digital filmmaking - and many cinematographers are featured here. I was surprised to see many of them embrace it, some reluctantly and others with genuine enthusiasm. Another highlight is The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, who provides the strongest, most passionate defense of shooting on film without resorting to the easier arguments (i.e. sentimentality, 'this is how we're used to doing it', etc.). Overall, Side By Side is an entertaining, informative and insightful doc loaded with captivating interviews. The topic of the shift from film to digital filmmaking and distribution might seem boring to some people, but the Side By Side filmmakers manage to put together a film that should appeal to a wide range, from the occasional filmgoer to the well-versed aficionado.

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