Keanu Reeves seems like a pretty cool dude. Right? Not only was John Wick just unreasonably above par, but his reputation of radness, or raditude, if you will, neither of them are words, so it doesn’t really matter, precedes him in Hollywood, establishing him as a stellar guy with a tragic past who apparently treats everyone excellently. That kid learned a thing or two from Bill & Ted. I’m not going to bother to cite my sources for this paragraph, but I’m sure any biography you turn up online will support what I’ve said. No matter how you feel about his acting capabilities: Keanu’s got it together, man. On top of that, he seems to also be a thoughtful member of the film industry. Case in point: this documentary he produced and starred in about the transition between physical film and digital.
Side by Side (2012)
The Plot: Pretty much exactly what I just said in that last sentence.
Side by Side is perhaps the best testimony of Keanu’s standing in the biz: this is a well-respected dude who people are more than happy to help out. He interviews a fair number of people he’s worked with, including Richard Linklater and the Wachowskis (who, you know, made The Matrix, which, you know, stars Keanu Reeves), but he also gets a lot of big-name director to whom he has no connection, including but not limited to Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Lena Dunham, Danny Boyle, George Lucas, Joel Schumacher, Steven Soderbergh, and Lars von Trier. But he doesn’t stop there, and this is what I think proves that he’s a cool dude: he interviews dozens of cinematographers, camera technicians, special effects artists, editors, CEOs, actors, color timers, and even freakin’ grad students; anyone who has to deal with the camera and who knows a thing or two firsthand about the transition from film to digital video (so pretty much everyone except the writers, because they don’t matter, right?). The famous people and the behind-the-scenes people really get equal standing in this documentary, and that’s just great. The purpose is about examining something with the most amount information you can get, not just the most famous information available. This ain’t a sell-out bit.
I recognize that I am exactly as star-struck as I am praising the production for not being… ugh, sorry about that sentence. Three “ams” in one go. I’ve fallen far since my Nightcrawler review. But that’s irrelevant. I shouldn’t give all the credit to Mr. Reeves. A lot of applause should go to Christopher Kenneally, the film’s writer and director. He clearly did so much meticulous research into how cameras work, who uses them, why certain formats bear certain advantages and disadvantages. He focuses some time on von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and how their Dogme 95 (bum bum bum) movement acted as a spring-board for digital film, how George Lucas took that and made it mainstream, how Panavision and Sony collaborated with filmmakers to like Lucas and James Cameron to create cutting-edge digital cameras, etc. But more importantly, he focuses on a wide spectrum. The film itself approaches the issue without bias (rare for any documentary) and interviews directors, cinematographers, and others with varying preferences for digital or film, from a variety of eras. On the one hand, there’s James Cameron, as mainstream-digital as they come, but then there’s Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, the last mainstream director/cinematographer duo to use film, and then there’s Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant Man, Erin Brockovich, The Golden Compass and others, who had fabulous insights on the less-examined process of physical vs. computer editing. Kenneally and Reeves talked to people working and retired in every sphere of film production (except writing) to get as even and fair a perspective they could. No one ever does that in documentaries. Even Werner Herzog has a predetermined message before he starts rolling cameras (it’s that nature is dauntingly powerful and humanity is as fleeting as the miserable cries of the birds in a jungle rainstorm, their futile songs lost in the echoing thunder claps).
Of course, this begs the question of purpose, right? Does Side by Side have anything to say if to doesn’t have an agenda? Well, fortunately, yes. After recognizing that digital will continue to grow in popularity, the real issue becomes the future of the medium. What impact will digital video have on how we tell stories and make movies? That, ultimately, is the more interesting question, and we receive, once again, a wide range of answers from Soderbergh’s declaration that film is dead and everyone who still uses it is an unprofessional, untalented idiot (he comes across as a bit of a jerk, to approximately no one’s surprise), to some sage musings by Jost Vacano, the cinematographer of Das Boot. I’ll not spoil the ending, but in typical Herzogian fashion, Reeves and Kenneally start their documentary focusing on a very specific scientific problem and gradually expand to consider a massive existential one. I found Side by Side both incredibly educational and insightful. Plus, Keanu Reeves, everybody.