Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese in "Side by Side"

Tribeca ’12 Review: Keanu Reeves’ Digital Cinema Doc “Side by Side” Deserves a Whoa

All our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage can be found here.

One might fear the new documentary “Side by Side” tips its hand early on where its loyalties lie in the great debate over whether film should remain an alternative when digital cinema is well on its way to replacing it as the format on which movies are made by having been shot on digital itself. However, Chris Kenneally’s marvelous, all-encompassing look at the evolution of moviemaking process doesn’t seek a debate as much as it does to inform, capturing the conversation about the conversion to a digital future that’s so timely and invigorating that it is the conversation.

No doubt this was enabled by the film’s executive producer Keanu Reeves, who apparently is not one to stand aside and watch from the sidelines, either for the march of technology that’s upended his industry or in this documentary where he personally conducts interviews with everyone from Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese to Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham. If there’s a fault with “Side by Side,” it’s actually the precious little time we spend with each subject as diversity both in occupation and, more surprisingly given the movie business’ poor track record, race and gender. Cinematographers such as Sundance sensations Bradford Young (“Pariah”) and Reed Morano (“Little Birds”) get equal time with Vittorio Storaro and Vilmos Zsigmond, while studio chief Tom Rothman mixes in “Lawrence of Arabia” editor Anne V. Coates.

It’s worth noting the sheer number of participants beforehand to understand just how definitive “Side by Side” is, even if ultimately it’s about a moment that is so undefined. Although technically rudimentary, especially in its opening that feels like an episode of “Frontline” with serious yet florid narration from Reeves about how “film has helped us shape our experiences and dreams,” that straightforward approach is what opens the door for even the least cinephilic viewer to eventually become engrossed in its history of cinema from the pictures of Eadweard Muybridge to the pixels of George Lucas.

With demonstrations of just how images are created on celluloid and computers, Kenneally and Reeves take the audience through the entire lifespan of a movie in its principal photography, editing, and projection before ending up in the archives. Laced in are the many technological advances that have let that process evolve, with special attention paid to the way art has pushed the technology and vice versa. That gives way to plenty of juicy stories for film buffs who would likely be satisfied with just the first on-camera interview with Lana Wachowski and David Fincher regaling Reeves with tales of Robert Downey Jr. leaving bottles of urine on sets to protest the unending takes that digital cameras allowed on “Zodiac.” However, the film finds some incredibly compelling narratives, the overarching one being a process of trial and error that may have meant some movies that haven’t worked, but still served the greater good.

Danny Boyle reveals he believed he “wasn’t doing the right thing any more” after seeing cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s work on the Dogme 95 production “The Celebration” and subsequently recruited him to become a collaborator on every film of his since, experimenting with digital cameras and getting better and a better quality each time out. Likewise, Robert Rodriguez concedes when he made his first film on digital, “Spy Kids 2,” “the image wasn’t as good as film,” but the revolution in digital color correction and timing would create the opportunity for “Sin City.” No easy task for the filmmakers, each advancement seamlessly ties into the next, especially when the film elegantly unfolds the succession of high-definition cameras that soon will become the industry standard and shows the positive and negative qualities of each one in terms any film fan could relate to – for instance, the Thompson Viper used for “Collateral” could replicate the texture of night well, the Genesis revolutionized depth of field and the RED meant Steven Soderbergh’s crew on “Che” wouldn’t have to lug a ton of equipment up and down the mountain when they had such a lightweight camera.

Despite the resignation of even the most ardent advocates of preserving film as an alternative — Christopher Nolan and his frequent cinematographer Wally Pfister stand their ground — “Side by Side” still acknowledges the shortcomings of digital, particularly in preservation and projection, as well as its not necessarily positive impact on film culture. Producer and former Warner Brothers executive Lorenzo Di Bonaventura laments, “We lost something with infinite choice,” citing a disappearing set of standards and discipline of the craft with both the ease and availability technology has afforded. “Side by Side” is too well crafted and organized to ever serve as evidence of that, but regardless of the semantic argument this stirs up over what we can even call a film these days, there is no doubt it is essential cinema.

“Side By Side” will show at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th. It will be distributed in August by Tribeca Film.

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