Side By Side review

Side By Side documents the irresistible rise of digital technology in the movies. Here's Paul's review of an important, engrossing film...

Side By Side is a vitally important state-of-the-Industry cinematic address examining the increasingly revolutionary effects of digital technology on modern cinema; a documentary that interviews just about every major figure in film from the past 20 years, and attempts to get to the bottom of one the business’s most fiercely contested issues whilst also being thoughtful and balanced.

So who would be your pick for the crucially important role of host? Would it be one of your more populist film historians like Mark Cousins, or David Thomson? Maybe a respected, passionate critic who is comfortable in front of the camera, like Mark Kermode, or Leonard Maltin? A director well-known for their investment in film preservation, like Martin Scorsese, or Alex Cox? Or perhaps someone who’s famously pro-digital, like George Lucas, or Robert Rodriguez?

I don’t know about you, but my own personal pick for the job would be Dogstar frontman and star of Johnny Mnemonic Keanu Reeves, so you can imagine my surprise and delight to discover that the producer of Side By Side (Keanu Reeves) wholeheartedly agrees with me.

And here’s the thing: despite my obvious, open-goal snarking, Keanu really does prove to be the right man for a job. Side By Side has assembled a pretty remarkable array of A-list filmmakers, but it would all be for naught if they spoke in the kind of bite-sized banalities that we have become accustomed to from seeing them on various publicity tours over the years. Luckily for us, a disarmingly charming, polite, and (yes) animated Reeves may cycle through a variety of haircuts (this doc was clearly a labour of love made over a period of several years) but remains unwavering in his enthusiasm for the subject matter and his interviewees, which in the process gets them all to open up and be uncharacteristically candid, eager for the chance to talk shop with a fellow cineaste.

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As a result, as well as what Side By Side says about the future of cinema (more on that shortly), it’s also excellent as a snapshot portrait of some of the best filmmakers of the 21st century, with the defining qualities of the participants shining through all the stronger when they discuss their love of the artform: George Lucas is belligerent and self-aggrandizing, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh witty and insouciant, David Lynch archly amusing, the Wachowskis thoughtful and forward-looking, Christopher Nolan stubborn, determined and motivated, and Danny Boyle the nicest person in the world. None of these are characteristics that exactly feel revelatory, but it’s still a thrill to see these people talk about the craft of filmmaking away from the whirring of the publicity machine.

Side By Side isn’t one big Hollywood circle-jerk, however: there’s a very important examination here of the very nature of what cinema is and how it will survive in the digital age.

What the film does a good job of explaining is that cinema has always been the point at which art and technology meet, and the tension between the two is what creates the medium that we love. However, for many years, the artistic side of the medium has been given clear priority over the technological side, as demonstrated by the fact that the very format for capturing images – film – had remained unchanged for over a century. Now digital video has emerged as a genuine alternative to film, with some obvious benefits – lower cost, more storage, lighter cameras – as well as steadily improving picture fidelity, filmmakers, studio executives, cinematographers and the like are being forced to make a genuine choice and, increasingly, having to justify why they want to use film. Despite this, there are still a number of big drawbacks to exclusively using digital video that makes the idea of a film-less future an unpalatable one – and it’s a future that is looking even more likely.

Side By Side is even-handed, revealing and gripping on what is clearly a contentious topic – even though the interviewees are overwhelmingly pro-digital (of the big name directors, only Christopher Nolan refuses to entertain the idea of using the digital format) the films seems to sense when it is leaning too hard in favour of one school of thought, and is quick to present another side of the argument.

While the debate on film versus DV understandably takes up a large portion of the film, the documentary leaves you in no doubt as to how the digital revolution is changing everything about cinema: from editing workflows, to colour correction, the way movies are stored and projected, as well as the already well-documented rise of computer-generated visual effects.

One of the things I like most about Side By Side is the way it provides an alternate history of cinema from a technological standpoint – we’ve become so used to the canon of classic films that have earned their reputations through box office or critical acclaim, films like Lawrence Of Arabia, Jaws, The Godfather, Star Wars, Avatar and so on. But Side by Side makes a case for films like Festen, Collateral, Chuck And Buck, and 28 Days Later to be recognized as equally important, groundbreaking milestones for their technical breakthroughs.

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Really, if you are at all interested in the mechanics of filmmaking or have even the slightest curiosity as to what you may be watching on screen in a decade or so, there is no excuse for you to miss Side By Side: it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about the future of cinema. But it is never dry or didactic – its dissection of some complex topics is always entertaining and thought-provoking, and it makes excellent use of its enviable resources of a Grade-A interview roster and a wide array of footage.

Side By Side may well become the defining statement on the subject of the digital revolution, and for that we have to give Keaunu immense credit. Whoa, indeed. 

Side By Side will appear in selected UK cinemas on the 15th January.

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4 out of 5