The film opens with a montage of clips of iconic films from the past century of cinema, with such beautiful, evocative imagery that if not by the “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” moment, then certainly by the time Mookie looks over his shoulder in close-up, you may find yourself resolving to settle firmly on the side of celluloid and Not Be Moved. But then the prologue proper kicks off, with a zippily edited sequence of the people we’ll return to in greater depth later basically giving their topline feelings on the subject. What results is a fantastic bird’s eye view of a wide range of opinions, and because at this stage the people aren’t captioned, quite some nerdy pleasure is to be gained from spotting who you recognize (Ooh Soderbergh! Christopher Nolan! Is that Lana Wachowski?) and trying to instantaneously file them into pro- or anti-digital camps.
But a little further down the filmmaking food chain (and this film is nothing if not balanced in its respect for both the famous, name-above-the-title directors, and the not-so-famous craftspeople who participate), the picture is more varied; not all cinematographers are as embracing of the new technology, seeing it in some cases as an erosion of their importance to the process, while some editors bemoan the lack of discipline that push-button editing can engender. However the general trend still looks toward a digital future, where editors no longer bleed onto the celluloid; where actors no longer need to break character every few minutes while a reel is changed (this can also be a bad thing, as Reeves, in a rare instance of inserting himself into the story, notes about filming digitally with Linklater – “I was like, please can we stop?”); where theaters no longer invest projectionists with auteurist powers, as Scorsese impishly suggests traditional film projection may do.
Reeves can sound a little weak and stilted in voiceover, but we soon forgive him for it as his genuine interest in the subject reveals itself, as does his sensitivity as an interviewer, neither overly deferential nor overly chummy (even when David Lynch seems to enjoying playing with his name like it’s a toy, peppering his comments with “well you see, Keanu…” and “Keanu, the thing is…”). He asks the right questions and director Chris Keneally does an excellent job of arranging the segments thematically, and roughly chronologically to the process of making a film: from camera to processing to editing to post to delivery to exhibition to storage, the documentary makes a convincing case that the digital revolution has permeated every aspect of the filmmaking business, and where it has not yet trumped film, it soon will. A lot of this is told through the films that mark the stages on the journey, from “Chuck and Buck” to “Festen” to “Attack of the Clones” to “Collateral” to “Avatar” (3D too, gets a brief but informative Cameron-heavy look-in).
The gloomiest factoid the film brings to light for celluloid purists is simply this: all the major manufacturers have ceased production and development of traditional feature film cameras. The existing ones will still be usable for maybe a decade, but with no new ones being made, that really does seem to be the final word. And yet the movie itself is anything but pessimistic, leaving us with plenty of hope for a future where the motion picture will continue to evolve as a storytelling vehicle, and if we have to wade through more crap to get to the gems, the gems will still be there for the finding. For the film-literate, film-passionate viewer, “Side by Side” is simply a delightful experience, because to hear people we admire talk knowledgeably about the medium we care about has the effect of putting us back in touch with our own passion for it, whatever the format. [A-]