Twilight of the Film Gods?

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Anne-Christine Loranger

The MET’s famous Swarovski chandeliers are rising, maestro Fabio Luisi is at the pulpit, the applause is fading. The first bars of Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods”, directed by Robert Lepage, are ascending in stupendous majesty. It is Saturday night in Berlin, and we’re enjoying a HD transmission of one of the world’s most famous operas, live from New York.

By interviewing some of the world’s best movie technicians and directors, the documentary Side by Side, directed by Chris Kenneally and produced by Keanu Reeves, explains how celluloid and digital technologies now co-exist, and also highlights the changes brought about by the digital revolution. Although the documentary shows no preference, its pace, aesthetics and content betray what the digital age of cinema is geared to bring us.

From: ‘How?’ to ‘What?’

 In the same way that the Internet has radically changed the face of journalism and that e-books are transforming the whole concept of book publishing, the digital era, (whether in HD, 2k or 4k) has changed the way films and operas are now being made and programmed throughout the world. Such has been the success of the MET and Royal Opera House live HD transmissions in the last few years that some more modest houses have had to rethink their whole structure. If the digital age has democratized the opera-going experience by making it affordable to the common man, this democratization might very well represent a death sentence to the smaller, regional houses who cannot afford world stars and famous directors to attract a public hooked on the cheaper prices and close-look experience of world famous singers afforded by the live transmissions. A whole opera industry, its costume makers, soloists, choir singers, musicians, directors and technicians, might be finding itself in jeopardy.

The digital age is changing the ways opera houses are functioning and maybe even the way singers are performing on stage. It is, however, not changing the fundamentals of opera, i.e., singers on a stage with an orchestra. The central question behind any opera production, which is how to bring a mix of words, action and music onto the stage, remains the same. In terms of opera, the main effect of the digital age, so far, has had to do with distribution. Digital technology, however, is radically changing the nature of movie making (although in much higher resolution), by switching its very paradigm: the question is no longer how to put a subject into film but what to show?

Zeitgeist of the Film Industry

One of the most interesting movies featured in the 2012 Berlinale’s Official Selection was Side by Side, a documentary directed by Chris Kenneally (Crazy Leg Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating) and produced by Keanu Reeves (Henry’s Crime, The Matrix, Speed). The movie overtly proposes to ‘investigate the history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation’. By interviewing cinematographers, colorists, editors, engineers, actors, students, scientists, artists and some of the world’s most famous directors, it tries to encapsulate the present moment in time, when two technologies of movie-making now coexist side by side.

It should not surprise us that this documentary has been produced by Keanu Reeves, who also conducted an impressive 140 interviews, of which 70 found their way to the screen: as one who played in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, one of the last movies filmed with the old Hollywood filming tricks (Coppola even went as far as shooting a segment with a 100 year-old Pathé camera), in the technologically innovative Matrix Trilogy as well as in the 3D movie 47 Ronin, Reeves is one of the very few actors alive who has experienced the whole range of the last century of movie-making, from old-fashioned celluloid techniques to 3D.

Reeves himself does an excellent job as an interviewer: his laid-back style and unpretentious tone make one forget the earnestness with which he tackles his subject. Shot in digital, Side by Side precisely explores the pros and cons of the various technologies behind every medium. The different developmental steps of the digital camera beautify it to the point of reverence. This quasi deification of technology is reinforced by the profusion of stupendous HD and celluloid footage, always shown at pace too rapid to let the poetry flower, from George Méliès’ Le voyage à la lune to James Cameron’s Avatar, from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. All in all, Side by Side offers an impressive array of movie experts (James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Soderberg, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorcese and Lars von Trier, among others) although the world’s best film poets, such as Andrei Sokourov, Theo Angelopoulos, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, Sally Potter, Werner Herzog or Bela Tarr are gloriously absent. This, once again, should not surprise us. Not because both director and producer are children of American cinema, but because they explore the coexistence of both media from the point of view of the winning one: the digital medium.

Making Sense of the Moment

Side by Side comes right at the moment when Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist has been honored at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. It also comes at the moment when Mark Cousins’ fifteen hour documentary The Story of Film: an Odyssey has also had its premiere at this year’s Berlinale. Interestingly enough, the beginning of aviation in the late 19th century also corresponds, almost to a year, to the early development of anthropological studies. No coincidence, here or there. A change of paradigm interrogates one’s evolutionary process. The Artist explores the hurdles and angst which lies at the root of the passage from silent films to ‘talkies’ in the same way as Side by Side explores the passage from photochemical to digital. The fact that the two movies were released 10 months apart tells volumes about the revolution taking place and the general feeling of loss that such a passage entails. Kenneally’s work could be seen as the technical pendant to Hazanavicius’ rich emotional tapestry.

Let us for an instant explore another moment when two paradigms coexisted side by side. In his recent 3D documentary Caves of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered at the 2011 Berlinale, Werner Herzog explores the hidden world of the Grotte Chauvet in France, where the world’s oldest frescoes have recently been discovered. The frescoes date from 30,000 years ago, one of the most interesting periods in the Earth’s history: this when Homo neanderthalensis, the biggest-brained species of Homo ever to walk this Earth and Homo sapiens, our smaller-brained ancestor, coexisted side by side. Unable to compete with Homo Sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis rapidly became extinct, although some cross-breeding occurred.

If a modern-day team of anthropologists were to travel 30,000 years back in time to explore how the two races co-inhabited, they would find out that Homo neanderthalensis, which had then been walking the Earth for over 225,000 years, had a hugely developed back cerebral cortex, which enabled him to virtually remember the whole knowledge accumulated by his gene pool.  They would see that his big brain was so packed with the knowledge, culture, hunting and feeding habits of his forefathers that he had no more ability to innovate. The anthropologists would, of course, also explore the world of smaller-brained Homo sapiens, their ancestor. They would see how much more developed his frontal cortex is, allowing for greater creativity. They would observe how, in a relatively short time, he domesticated fire, wolves and horses and created musical instruments which enabled him to make music much like ours. Much as Herzog’s audience in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, they would be fascinated by the splendor of his art.

In the same way as we marvel today at being able to see 100 year old 35 mm films in excellent condition, the anthropologists would be awed by Homo neanderthalensis’ archiving capacities, his physical resistance and observance of the ways of his forefathers, which allowed him to survive for such an extraordinarily long time. Their perspective would nevertheless be that of the descendants of the Homo sapiens, i.e. the winning race. The team’s researching methods, tools, focuses and results would be framed with Homo sapiens’ thinking paradigm. Much is the same in Side by Side. Its pace, content, shooting style and editing scream digital. As Marshall McLuhan would say, ‘the medium is the message’.

What Message?

Digital TV editing and filming pretty much signed the death of content-oriented television features, the journalists now running so fast to keep up with the increasingly powerful computers that they are generally unable to feed the demand with well-absorbed, in-depth content. The Internet, as the most powerful film resource in the world, is bunking together film critique veterans with the new kids on the block, who now can cram their articles with info (let’s not hem! hem! mention the copying and pasting). Information, sadly, is not knowledge. It also gives one no capacity to understand a film’s underlying myths and poetry. The multiplication of TV channels and Internet websites, combined with the much cheaper technologies, also means that less money is allowed for every feature, thereby less time for thinking and reflecting, an observation also relayed in Side by Side by legendary film editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia).

What, then, might the digital age bring us? What are its pros and cons?

A comment of George Lucas in Side by Side, with which Chris Kenneally wholeheartedly agreed in an interview, is that digital movie making democratizes the art of cinema by making it affordable to everyone to make a movie. The journalism crisis of the last years however proves that democratization, which multiplies the sources, also means that money is stretched thinner, therefore allowing for less time for each movie. The documentary also brings about the whole problematic of archiving, most hard disks having a short life span, sometimes little over a year. The artwork literally has to be saved with its own technology; otherwise the movie might be forever lost. Even then, the problem of safeguarding the files remains.

The documentary also questions a massive shift of power.  The director and cinematographer, being the only ones to see the movie as it was being filmed, used to be the Gods of movie making. This power is now being transferred to a much vaster array of people. Keanu Reeves, during the Berlinale Talent Campus, recalled how he observed Francis Ford Coppola watching the takes on his own unique monitor on Dracula and contrasted it to the twenty-three monitors watched by producer, actors and technicians, twenty years later, during 47 Ronin. When actors and producers can see the film as it is being filmed, how does their feedback affect the director’s decisions on the takes? One may recall how the very first Star Wars episode was funded. As a young George Lucas explained the project to a bewildered producer, the later answered ‘I don’t really understand what you’re talking about, but I like American Graffiti, so go ahead.’  One may wonder what direction the film would have taken had this same producer been watching the step-by-step results of Lucas’ innovative approach to movie-making on the set. Adding to this the fact that movie directors may from now on (might) be given less money for every film; won’t the directives of the often apprehensive producers change the balance of power, from artists to money-lenders?

This corruption could also extend far more deeply than expected. The need to make perfect-looking pictures, coupled with the seduction of technology, may conflict with the truth of the film’s emotion, as it already does with photography.  The digital medium makes it very tempting to beautify at any price, as many ‘photo shopped’ actresses may testify. When the technology will be so powerful as to make it cheaper to synthesize the actors themselves than pay for live ones, what will then happen to cinema as an art form?

The experience of theater-going has rapidly changed in recent years, from a collective emotion shared in front of the silver screen, to home cocooning with rented DVDs, to movie-watching on one’s I-phone while waiting for the bus. We might now be seeing the last years of theater-going, something that the advance of digital projections in commercial theaters could, ironically, further enhance. Movie-hungry Czech Republic will see thirty-five of its commercial theaters close next December due to the overwhelming wave of digital technology. Unable to pay for the higher 4k resolution projectors which are rapidly becoming the norm and to get the EU subsidies reserved for art houses, these theaters will simply have to close. Movie distributers worldwide are rethinking their strategies. A major shift in paradigm is occurring in this area also, from where to see a movie to how?

The Age of Fascination

The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard implacably affirmed in 1981 that we were ‘entering an era of films which give no more meaning, great synthetic machines of variable geometries’. This era, he said, would be one where emotional seductiveness for content and stars would switch to fascination. In a series of interviews given in 1993 about cinema, he further denounced the ‘obscene pursuit of realism’ and the ‘mediated technologies of virtualization’ as being problematic to the quality of the cinematic image. He mourned the loss of cinema’s ‘mythical qualities’ and the loss of its ‘magic appeal’. George Lucas and James Cameron’s latest movies illustrate this: one is much more entranced by the possibilities of the medium itself than by their subject. We’re not moved by the stories. We’re fascinated by the medium.

‘Film is dead’ thought Keanu Reeves with a shock while working on the post-production of Henry’s Crime with Chris Kenneally in 2010, a realization which prompted both men into the Side by Side journey. If the result of their work (which could find its way to the Oscars) can give us any indication of what the future may bring, what we can expect from the digital age is a beautiful, varied, fast-paced, technologically-oriented cinema. Artful maybe. Entertaining, certainly. But devoid of poetry.

On the stage, Wagner’s Norns sing the search of Wotan for the gold, as they weave the threads of destiny. Robert Lepage’s 70 ton articulated machine, the biggest ever put on stage, rises above the three female figures. The machine parts start to cascade, faster and faster, grazing the standing women who stand, mesmerized by their stories of humans and Gods. Suddenly, the threads snap, mercilessly ripped by the thoughtless monster. The age of the Gods has ended. The humans will now rule the world…