The End of Film?
The word “film” will probably survive to describe a particular form of motion picture, but the physical medium of celluloid film is going the way of hand-illuminated parchment after Gutenberg. Whether that’s progress or a backward step is an intensely held matter of opinion among those who make “film.”
In the documentary Side by Side, Keanu Reeves interviews prominent directors on opposing sides of the issue. Christopher Nolan stands against digital while James Cameron cheers it on. Others, like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, like the new technology, but their sunny predisposition casts a shadow of doubt. Reeves is the Switzerland among warring opinions, trading questions with all sides and hearing out everyone in the spirit of neutrality. He seems genuinely interested in the conversation.
Film is a physical medium—a chemical reaction triggered by light on emulsion—and digital is somehow more abstracted with its pixels and electronic charges. Film can achieve a richness of shading and hue that remains beyond digital’s reach, yet the new technology has come a long way from the flat images and eviscerated color of the past. And yet, even digital’s breakout movie, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), is drab looking if agile footed. “I’m not going to trade my oil paints for a set of crayons,” Nolan insists. But if he lives long enough, he may have to invest in Crayola. Major companies have stopped production of film cameras.
Digital cams have obvious advantages in their lightness and ease, their capacity for longer takes than the 10-minute increments allowed by film cameras. Digital is cheaper, making it possible for virtually everyone to make movies. But is that necessarily a good thing? As David Lynch puts it, everyone always had pencils and paper, but few have ever written a great story.
Scorsese calls it “a reinvention of the medium—a new tool kit offering exciting possibilities. Of course, a tool is only a means and not the end. Digital can result in the loose immediacy of an intimate indie film or the stilted prefabrication of The Phantom Menace. Anyone can push power and aim the lens, but having some to say is another story.
As for the beauty of film, apparently many people under 30 don’t care. Side by Side suggests that the future consists in large part of images watched on tiny handheld screens whose only point of interest is the story itself. Side by Side is out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.