Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Film Is Heavy

Side By Side, the 2012 documentary that compares digital film-making process with celluloid aesthetics and the cultural repercussions of this, seems to locate the shift to the moment in which Avatar, How To Train Your Dragon, and Alice In Wonderland all did boffo in 2010 and changed the industry's perception, profit potential, and go-big-or-go-away attitude.

Barely real himself Keanu Reeves interviews various movers and shakers in the push to digital, from godfathers George Lucas and James Cameron (arguably sounding more like IT guys than film directors, and can actually get companies to build new cameras for them) to relative unknowns like Bradford Young and Lena Dunham who are using the democratizing effect of ubiquitous digital equipment to capture more than has been able to be captured before.

The film, measured and fair as it goes, sounds practically like the authorized version, and like most authorized versions is at only 6 months old already out of date (film is deeper in the grave than suggested - Kodak would shortly file for bankruptcy and stop making film) and reveals darker undercurrents than the participants quite recognize.

There is painful little (but enough) lip service to how digital materials can possibly manage to survive past a couple years without aggressive curation and constant cloning and migration.  (Christopher Nolan is quoted as saying "There are no meaningful archival digital formats" and I believe it was Michael Ballhaus said everything we're working on will be gone in 50 years.)  Rich filmmakers who have the infinite support of studios like David Fincher and George Lucas and Stephen Soderbergh and Cameron (or so they think) are sure their works will be kept and preserved, that digital looks much better, and that the cameras are so much smaller and lighter.

Another hidden subtext of Side By Side is how the realm of cinema production turned many of its practitioners by necessity into technical experts, taking some power and aesthetics (earned or not) from cinematographers and directors and the art of patience (per Scorsese) into the hands of IT gurus.  When the IT guys are calling the shots (I'll say figuratively) different decisions are made and different money is spent.

The film avoids the pointless argument of which is "better," and Keanu as avuncular (if barely real) host and producer keeps the proceedings engaging and conversational with only a minimum of hand-wringing.

It is not a film about the democratization of art (although that's mentioned).  It is not about the aesthetics of hand-held or 3-D (although a lot of cinematographers are talked to).  This is an extended discussion with serious filmmakers about their decisions regarding how they will be making films from now on and as such is skewed toward those who have had the resources to take full advantage of the shift.  It's heartening to see that Reeves at least sought out Lars Von Trier and David Lynch, although they both don't seem as interested in talking about their technology as their stories.

And even Mr. Fincher admits that much of his commercial work from 20 years ago is orphaned on obsolete tape technologies that can no longer be played back.  If that's okay with him I guess it's okay with me.  But for the 1000s of other filmmakers who have less resources than him, what are they to do when the studios don't answer their calls?