“What was ever real?”
(I’m afraid this might read like an unstructured babble that almost makes watching the movie unnecessary, so… spoilers? I was just desperate to post something here as it’s been nearly a month since I did lol and this one really gave me a lot to think about…)
If I never said so before – though I’m sure I have in one form or another – one thing I always want from a movie is for it to be more than what it seems on the surface… if I have expectations, for it to exceed them. I knew I’d find this documentary marginally interesting based on its subject and interviewees (not just the big names on the poster) – even though I don’t have a strong opinion (though I didn’t know why that was until this documentary – which I’ll explain at the end), the whole film/digital debate has of course been something I’ve followed as a cinema lover.
So while on its surface this is a documentary about the digital revolution, particularly as it pertains to film – a lot has been said in the past year or so about “the end of film” with film labs and camera makers actually shutting down and most recently with half of the Oscar nominated films being shot digitally – Side by Side goes far, far deeper, eventually becoming more about all our potential fears of the digital nature of our lives. Anybody could’ve found talking heads to talk about why they favour the old or new mediums, and there’s certainly plenty of that here – but this film looks beyond the actual celluloid and/or pixels at other ways technology affects expression.
There’s discussion with actors and directors about how the ability to shoot nonstop with digital affects performance – while John Malkovich talks about how stifling it was to have to wait when shooting on film when the performance was ready “now”, there’s talk of another actor who left bottles of urine around a set in protest at being constantly on record. The whole subject of dailies is covered, with one contributor saying, with digital, they’re “no longer dailies… now immediatelies…” and how that instant access to playback can also affect both performance and technical things like lighting, for better or worse. Robert Rodriguez makes a beautiful comparison about the delay between shooting and developing film as being like “painting with the lights off”.
Crucial analogies are made here – the film retraces points in film history covered plenty in other documentaries where technology advanced cinema and we either embraced it or didn’t notice – the boom in digital effects around Jurassic Park, digital colour correction coming from music videos, and way before that, digital editing systems and audio. One of the big questions asked is, we didn’t care when everything else went digital, why are we so hung up on the image?
The big plus touted in film’s corner is its archival value. As digital stands there are just too many risks and continuing format changes alone make it difficult to keep a backup for more than 10 years even if the file survives, while film always works as long as you have a light to shine through it – I think it’s David Fincher talks about having to put an actual reader in with any digital archive to be sure of being able to decode the format in the future. But one person rightly, again, looks beyond cinema and, while acknowledging the problem, states, “there’s too much digital information out there not to figure out a way to store it forever.” I’d like to believe this is so. It seems ridiculous if not, right?
The other quite amusing issue addressed in all this is the new abundance of content that digital brings. Everyone has a camera and access to YouTube now – yes, the democratisation of the art form is wonderful, “Everyone’s interpreting reality – or what they think is reality – through a lens,” Martin Scorsese says, but some of the more stuffy contributors fear that this will just result in noise. A telling moment makes clear where this film stands on this, when one of these anti-digital folks moans, “There isn’t a tastemaker involved!” and a voice from behind the camera simply says, “Wow.”
My big takeaway from this movie was that it’s really all the same. The abundance of content we face now? It brings to mind that commonly stated factoid that 90% of films made before 1929 have been lost. There’s always been a lot of stuff to watch. Maybe loss is a fact we have to face in art as much in digital as ever. Film may have the edge on digital as far as archival storage goes, but it’s still only got 100 years on it, it’s as young as anything. Any global event large enough to have a devastating impact on our digital storage would likely affect our film storage systems too.
More than this? I found myself thinking, what if it all did disappear? Would that be so bad? We didn’t have sound recording technology when Mozart and Beethoven were around. We don’t even have photographs of the first performances of Shakespeare. But it all survives. Even if all the great films of our time were somehow snuffed out one day, as long as there were people, they’d survive because we talk about them with passion constantly. Something will always remain of art or ideas that change the world – even if it’s just a memory handed down and bent out of all recognition. One of the greatest benefits of digital is immediecy, and perhaps the fact that its ubiquity makes it so fleeting is what finally makes the moving image as an art form complete.