Docs About Movies 4: “Side By Side”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Another in my series of looks at good documentaries-about-movies, a movie genre in its own right and one that strikes me as particularly healthy. Previous installments in this series are here, here and here. Today …


Side by Side

Straightforward, super-informative documentary, directed by Christopher Kenneally and narrated and co-produced by Keanu Reeves, about the changes digital tech has brought about in the movie business — in the industry itself as well as in the business’ creations. The film features a perfectly amazing collection of interviewees, from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh to execs, editors and cinematographers. Nearly all of them do great jobs of sharing experiences and insights, and nearly all of them are frank about the minuses as well as the pluses of the technology; this is no pro-digital propaganda piece. I’m a little perplexed about why the Jennifer Jason Leigh / Alan Cumming movie “The Anniversary Party” didn’t get a mention; it was one of the more interesting (IMHO, of course) of the earlier digital features. But let’s be grateful for what we do get, which is considerable. If you watch this movie, you’ll learn everything any civilian might reasonably want to know. Keanu’s a likably enthusiastic and (as you might expect) goofy interviewer, and the glimpses we get of the compact tools and teeny cameras used to make the very documentary we’re watching really help drive the film’s messages home.

Self-indulgent personal note: the movie ignited some bitter feelings in me because during my years as an arts journalist I was trying to cover these developments as they happened. Back in the ’90s it seemed obvious to me that, while the movies of the era weren’t very inspiring, the changes in the underlying technology of the art form were gigantically interesting and important. I pitched stories over and over again to my direct bosses and to editors at other magazines. (“Watching this movie is like listening to you back in the 1990s,” my wife said as we watched “Side By Side.”) I wanted to cover the changes in cinematography, projection, editing, cameras, sound and distribution, and I wanted to discuss the aesthetic impacts and the job/work/process implications of the technology. (When you pitch a story, you have to have half-reported it already. You’ve got to be sure there’s a real story there, and you want to have made initial contact with a good number of the people you’ll ultimately be using as sources if the story does get the green light. Part of what this means is that I talked to many of the people who appear in “Side by Side” about these topics 15 and 20 years ago.) And over and over again my stories went nowhere. The magazine I worked for saw digital technology as either a novelty thing or a business thing. Other magazines (Wired, for instance) had less than zero interest in aesthetics. Here’s a story about digital movie editing that did go through; I think it’s still pretty interesting. (I could have done a story like that one every month.) As someone who gets the implications of the technology and who is both a decent reporter and a decent critic, I knew I was well-positioned for a first-class, decade-long journalistic run. What bigger story was happening in the culture world than the advent of digital technology? But I just couldn’t make it happen. Thank god blogging came along. I’m left wondering: How many other good journalists with good stories to share have experienced similar degrees of frustration? How much terrific journalism was the journalism business of that era (of any era, really) preventing from happening?

So, sniff-sniff, I watched “Side by Side” feeling grateful for the good movie that it is and a little sorrowful that I could have put all this together for readers long ago. To be frank, I felt a few stabs of rue about the little bit of fame and fortune that might have come my way too. Dang … but we don’t all get lucky. Onward! The Question Lady and I caught “Side by Side” on Netflix Instant.


  • Though my batting average may have been astoundingly bad, I did get a few articles about digital technology and the arts into print. Among them: A visit with the graphic designer David Carson.
  • … and one with the music historian Robert Winter.
  • … and one with the composer Morton Subotnick. Whoops, I’m wrong: that one banged around three or four magazines but never did get published.
  • Recently hooked on digital photography, Agnostic has been giving some thought to what he calls “digital creep.” More. “I wonder how much of the drop-out culture among movie-lovers is an effect not just of the plot, acting, etc., of recent movies, but of digital shooting and projection,” he muses. Quite a lot, would be my guess-answer.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Computers, Movies, Personal reflections and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Docs About Movies 4: “Side By Side”

  1. agnostic says:

    You tried your best, but we live in such gadget-diddling times that those outlets couldn’t have conceived of anything going in the “con” column, only “pro.” No trade-offs. Entirely new, unproven technology is magical — after all, it can do what familiar gadgets do, only with unfamiliar mechanisms. Truly magic.

    The airheads at Wired not only wouldn’t have an interest in aesthetics, they wouldn’t care about perfecting the craft of some set of technology. It’s all about what’s new, what direction the Next Big Thing is going to come from, etc. Early adopting euphoria for gadget junkies.

    Thanks for the plug, too. It’s actually film photography that I’m getting into. That’s what surprised me about the digital coup at the intermediate stage — at the photo labs, I kept hearing the technicians offer “scan and prints” rather than just prints. I didn’t realize the prints are now made from digital scans of the negative, and that there used to be a wholly analog way of making prints in the old days.


  2. Pingback: “The 50 Year Argument” (2014) | Uncouth Reflections

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