Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
Also a documentary, this feature about the impact of digital technology on filmmaking is far more straightforward in the way it presents both sides of its argument, while also being passionate about the medium.
After recently seeing the subtle and mysterious Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001), with its investigation into the play of light and the art of editing a film, watching Side by Side feels decidedly prosaic (not to mention mainstream). It’s a straightforward series of talking heads addressing the question of the impact of digital technology on modern filmmaking, though it has the sense not to weigh in on either side, and it even makes some reference to lower-budget indie cinema, though largely as a paving stone towards digital’s adoption by the big boys. Thanks to the involvement of star Keanu Reeves (who does the voiceover, and is seen on screen as the interviewer), a wide range of heavyweight personalities behind the camera have got involved, with many directors, writers, editors and of course cinematographers, and hearing their opinions on the subject is the chief reason for watching this documentary.
The impact of digital on most areas of filmmaking — not just filming itself, but visual effects, editing and exhibition — are covered here with apposite interviews with those most involved in each area. We get designers and executives from the camera companies themselves, directors and cinematographers, editors (who adopted digital technology much earlier than some of their film colleagues), visual effects supervisors and even a few actors about how it can alter performance styles when there’s no need to take a break for reloading film into the camera every few minutes. Some people are clearly happier about the technology than others, and these predictably tend to break down along generational lines, although plenty of older directors have embraced digital (if only because it seems unavoidable).
The story, though, is one of constant progress towards… well, presumably, something akin to the same quality you’d get with celluloid. There are some filmmakers who are shown to be embracing the distinctive qualities that the digital format imparts — whether early pioneers like the Danish directors of the Dogme 95 movement, or those looking for a better way of shooting, say, nighttime scenes, like Michael Mann in Collateral (2004) — but a lot would rather just the cameras advance to the point where the differences between digital and celluloid are no longer obvious. There’s a sequence towards the end charting the various different cameras and their advances in technology, backed up by occasional interviews with one cranky cinematographer all too happy to dismiss all of them out of hand as being crap, though even he at length admits that some are acceptable.
As I said, there’s nothing in the form of this documentary that makes it for a great cinematic experience (I watched it at home, where I don’t feel I lost anything), but it’s the time spent with some of the less commonly interviewed members of the film community, and the passion the issue stirs in some of them, that make Side by Side interesting.
Director Christopher Kenneally; Cinematographer Chris Cassidy; Starring Keanu Reeves; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (TV), London, Monday 13 January 2014.