Tie Goes to the Computer: 'Side By Side'

Christopher Kenneally's documentary does its best to level the playing field between celluloid and digital cinema, but here even fairness can be a losing battle.

Side By Side

Director: Christopher Kenneally
Cast: James Cameron, David Fincher, George Lucas, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Keanu Reeves
Distributor: New Video
Studio: Company Films
Release date: 2013-02-05

Say you had to pick teams. First team is going to represent digital cinema, second team is going to represent celluloid filmmaking. They'll square off against each other in a 90-minute documentary, which will do its best to level the playing field, but ultimately whoever talks the best game is going to win the big prize: the audience. You can choose from a superstar lineup of household-name directors, some of the world's most-respected cinematographers, technicians and innovators on the forefront of the new digital cameras as well as digital coloring and editing technologies, plus Lena Dunham. Whom do you choose?

To be fair, not every subject of Christopher Kenneally's documentary so firmly occupies one of the two camps. Actress and rising director Greta Gerwig seems conflicted, as does David Lynch, who provides one of the movie's true geek pleasures: Narrator and host Keanu Reeves puts him on the spot during their interview in a red-cushioned screening room, asking "Are you done with film?" "Don't hold me to it, Keanu," comes the hesitant reply, "but I think I am."

The documentary consists of more than just sit-down chats with Reeves, of course, though he's an engaging presence who comes across much better sitting across from interviewees, referring to his sheafs of notes and often practically jumping out of his chair as he phrases each question, than he does narrating some of the drier bits, like an animated breakdown of how exactly celluloid photography works. In addition, Kenneally treats the audience to brief histories of how digital innovations have changed coloring, editing, visual effects, and the construction of new movie cameras. Editors and post-production technicians get their fair share of screentime in these scenes, and it's here that Side By Side is at its most informative and least bombastic; there's little sense that these crew members are trying to sway the audience toward one side of the debate or the other.

As enjoyable as it can be to hear quotable soundbites from highly respected figures within the industry, after a certain point it becomes difficult to know how seriously one should take the documentary. George Lucas, for example, may not have been the best choice to narrate a segment about how Lucasfilm and The Phantom Menace really made it possible for digital cinema to enter theaters all over America; in this way the approach which Side By Side takes is rather introductory.

On the other hand, hearing from so many of these filmmakers in their own words allows the viewer to form their own opinions about them, if one is willing to listen carefully. Celebrated auteurs like Martin Scorsese come off as high-minded idealists, whose talk of painting and classical music seems to belong in a different documentary. Among the better advocates for film include director Christopher Nolan and his regular collaborator Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar for his work as Director of Photography on Inception. Pfister and Nolan have a solid, respected track record as collaborators and sound critiques of digital cinema that include the cinematographer’s concerns about digital’s capacity to capture a range of blacks and the director’s points about the eventual obsolescence of all digital storage technologies. Intelligent as they are, however, neither man expresses a refusal to work with the new cameras; Pfister only intends to be “one of the last guys working on film”.

The best man in digital’s corner, somewhat predictably, is Steven Soderbergh, whose versatility across styles and genres of filmmaking helped him to legitimize digital cinema by shooting his magnum opus Che on the Red One. Soderbergh’s impatience with the limitations of film cameras, whose bulk would have hindered his location shooting on the four-hour biopic, is a quality he shares with David Fincher. Fincher sneers at the developers of early Red cameras for pandering to film users by modeling their initial prototype after a 35mm camera, accepting only of tireless innovation. A crucial perspective missing from this conversation is Michael Mann, whose Collateral took advantage of digital video’s particular strengths to shoot a nocturnal cityscape that looked unlike anything before it; several clips are shown even in Mann’s absence.

Kenneally’s focus on the American film industry can’t help but handicap the debate somewhat, as the trump card in digital’s deck might actually be Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film; a political statement that would have been impossible without the innovations of digital video. Instead, the most interesting facet of Side By Side’s industrial, rather than aesthetic, approach to the debate surfaces in the conversations with cinematographers and technicians who express concern with the managerial changes threatened by digital filmmaking. Specifically, the director of photography loses a great deal of on-set authority -- mocked by some as a egotistic mysticism in the documentary -- with the innovation of instant playback. Soderbergh, who hates viewing dailies well after shooting has completed, views playback as a good thing.

By speaking to so many recognizable directing personalities, though, Side By Side only hints at what cinema stands to lose by unilaterally adopting digital. If, as Scorsese suggests, celluloid will remain a “choice” for some time, the choice will likely be limited to those filmmakers with the celebrity and authority within the industry to merit an appearance in documentaries like this one. Most young people now entering the game may never get the chance to handle a 35mm camera. There may, furthermore, come a time when Renaissance men like Soderbergh and Nolan are replaced by a generation of filmmakers skilled at adapting to change, but less well-versed in the nuances of the technologies they use. The presence of the egocentric Robert Rodriguez is hardly encouraging: interviewed in his studio in a cowboy hat, framed against walls lined with posters of his films, he proudly claims he instantly knew digital cinema was “the future” after seeing a test... and ran home to begin adapting Sin City.

Even worse, the evenhanded, pros-and-cons tone of this documentary can be highly deceptive. Talking heads go back and forth, rebutting each other’s points about the benefits and drawbacks of shooting on either medium, resulting in a bit of a shrug: whatever works for you. All else equal, though, the studios will choose digital every time. It’s cheaper, it gives the producer more power over the cinematographer, and you can jack the prices up for 3-D screenings. As admirable as Kenneally’s commitment to fairness might be with different subject matter, this is one debate where a draw still results in both a winner and a loser.

Extras are lacking, with only about 15 minutes of additional snippets from interviews with directors, including an admittedly hilarious anecdote from Rodriguez about Tarantino's failure to manually achieve the same "beat-up" look on the Death Proof print that Planet Terror arrived at through computerized manipulation.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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