Smart, wide-ranging, and informative, "Side by Side" may be a postcard from the future of movies, but it's still intoxicated by the past. Its dreamiest moment comes at the outset, a montage of clips from the first century of cinema, from Eadweard Muybridge's horses to Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." (Multiple clips from the film below.)
There's something elegiac about director Chris Kenneally's documentary history of our digital age (on DVD and Blu-ray February 5). In celebrating the possibilities of chips and pixels, of CGI and DI coloring, of the handheld, the quick-and-dirty, the cost-effective, "Side by Side" also marks the passing of celluloid. I, too, will mourn "the voodoo of it," as director David Fincher says of cinematographers in that bygone age, even as I get used to the idea that there is no turning back.
Running together threads of technological, aesthetic, and economic change, "Side by Side" is as brilliantly fluid as the best film-school lecture, moving among its array of talking heads — directors, DPs, VFX supervisors, color-timing technicians — with aplomb. But the story it tells, from "Star Wars" to "Avatar" and beyond, may be most compelling for the light it sheds on recent trends as diverse as Dogma 95 and mumblecore, comic book movies and 3-D. Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium really is the message.
Take the documentary's extended dive into the emergence of camcorders. It was the "lightness and immediacy" of home video, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle says, that birthed the muddy, realist style of "The Celebration" (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), "Julien Donkey-Boy" (Harmony Korine, 1999), "Chuck & Buck" (Miguel Arteta, 2000), and "Tadpole" (Gary Winick, 2002). With pornography, television news, and independent documentaries, we'd been inured to see blurriness, shakiness, and off-kilter close-ups as the markers of being there. And it was the ability to shoot "illegally, surreptitiously, unconventionally," Danny Boyle explains, that allowed for the unnervingly barren London of "28 Days Later" (2002). Across genres, what these films shared was a commitment to showing something of the fabric of lived experience, in all its chaotic glory.
"Side by Side" disrupts the central narrative of the last four decades in movies — the story of "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls," of "sex, lies, and videotape," Sundance, and the rise of the Weinsteins — and in doing so accomplishes that rare feat, which is to make you question how you think about the medium. "The Celebration," an ugly, miserly film whose discrete innovations I recognize and whose sum total I detest, comes to seem an unrecognized landmark. George Lucas, pushing the technology forward even as his films became increasingly flat-footed, emerges as the foremost auteur of his generation. The crisp digital that so sadly loses the silver halide richness of celluloid becomes the animating force of Michael Mann's "Collateral" (2004), its nighttime auras, hazes, bleeds of faint color.
In this, "Side by Side" demands to be seen by anyone who cares about movies. And yet it left me, the Luddite who spent much of its running time wanting to rewind back to those opening moments, to Grace Kelly's face in "Rear Window" and the chariots of "Ben-Hur," feeling more than a little bereft. When a developer at Red Digital says, "We want to send film to the retirement home, and have it feel good about what took its place," I nearly cried. Dispensing with photochemical film, we may retain the classics, but we'll have lost our last direct tie to them, and with it the possibility of learning how to cast the spell once more.
It's not about realism, per se — "When was it ever real?" James Cameron cannily asks of the production process — but about that certain gorgeous spontaneity you leave behind when everything can be corrected in post. Hearing Anne Coates, editor of "Lawrence of Arabia," describe the "magic" of discovering the moment when a burning match becomes a fiery horizon at dusk, I remembered that my love for all those old movies in the opening montage is not about crystals or grain, watermarks or cyan mixing. It's about recognizing that the best film art is anomalous, filled with the sorcery of the unfixable problem that becomes a delightful surprise.
"Side by Side" is available today on DVD and Blu-ray.