The continuous film festival at home

This will be my first film festival since getting Netflix. It makes picking which films to see a bit different as a fair number of the documentaries will turn up. Sure I like to see film on a big screen and the non English language ones are less likely to make it to a streaming channel.

What I do like about Netflix are the large number of documentaries about film itself. A few of which I have seen recently are:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an epic consisting of 15 x 1 hour episodes.  Director, writer and film historian gets full marks from me for curating his collection of stories about films and everything related in a digressive and fairly random free-ranging style. He is also quite funny and his Irish / Scottish accent annoys many Americans which is a bonus.

I like that he is an oddball and later in the series when he gets to global cinema there are definitely sequences I really enjoyed say, on Indian and Egyptian film making. He does labour a few points such as going on and on about Hitchcock and for some reason when he interviews directors he places the camera at very odd angles. The best content comes from directors and the massive film archive he has trawled through.

He often quotes himself. Like – Presenter: “A lie to tell the truth. This is film making. The art of making us feel that we’re there.” And “Himself – Presenter: [about David Lynch] He worked with unconscious material the way that a carpenter works with wood.”

All a bit like writing a blog really (you’re welcome:). Idiosyncratic curation – I like it.

Great Directors – features conversations with ten of the world’s greatest living directors: Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Agnes Varda, Ken Loach, Todd Haynes, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater and John Sayles.

With that list it would seem hard to fail and there are great moments in there. What is hard to understand are the pointless reaction shots of the director Angela Ismailos. It would have been better if she stayed off camera – much less distracting as her on screen moments add nothing.

Life Itself is about the life and times of Roger Ebert. Having not seen any of the TV which featured him and Gene Siskal it was a revelation. Anyone interested in film criticism (or life) should see it.

Side by Side is my favourite out of this list. Many of the same directors we saw in the Mark Cousins epic and the Great Directors reappear along with “cinematographers, colorists, scientists, engineers and artists”  who share their thoughts about traditional film making and / or the impact of technology and the rise of digital story telling.

This doco is fronted by actor Keanu Reeves who gets to show us that he is not the Ted character from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure which is how I remember him. (Aside: I never bought the Nero character in Matrix.) However Keanu is an insider and he clearly has great rapport with many of the interviewees and after the initial shock he comes across well.


What is great about Side by Side is that it seems that a growing number of film makers (e.g. Danny Boyle) are genuinely  very excited about what they can now do with digital tools as almost every stage of the process. At the beginning there is clearly a certain amount of nostalgia and process comfort for making movies on film but as the conversations develop we get more useful insights into the overall impact and the benefits.

The embed from IMDB won’t work so Side by Side (2012) –

What we also get are a few great side stories on how the film business liked the way things were and got used to the overnight workflow and trusting the cinematographer and hoping the colour grader would get it right and so on.  In some cases interviewees portray emulsion based film-making as an art form but really in 2015 it looks more like a peculiar industrial process with all sorts of quality issues.

I have watched Side by Side twice now and I could see it again. There are some great little stories on the way through – Robert Downey ( as told by David Fincher) apparently doesn’t like digital shoots because he doesn’t get a break after 10 minutes when they used to load the camera.

Another great moment is when Keanu says “You are presenting complete unreality and making them (the audience) feel like its real” to James Cameron. Cameron immediately flips the script and asks Keanu “when was it ever real”. Exactly. Films are a constructed reality and the movie becomes an illusion we buy into – if it is done well.

Side by Side covers the digitisation of many of the film processes: cameras ( esp. the stunning Red range ), editing, sound, colour grading, special effects, projection and finally distribution.

There are other discussions in the doco about the democratisation of movie making. Is that a good thing? Just because anyone can now go an shoot High res video on their Canon 5D – is that a good thing? I know what I think and it is exciting to see the changes rolling through.

In my view – a great story well told will transcend the technology. Would Kubrick have come up with that amazing jump cut (when the bone is thrown up in the air) if he was making 2001: A Space Odyssey today? It would certainly be different. There is no doubt that the great directors have imagination and vision and often had to over come all kinds of technology limitations at the time.

Blade Runner – one of my personal faves was one of the last films where most of the special effects were composed using models and overlays “in camera” rather than computers to help out. I’d love to have seen Ridley Scott in this doco but he does not appear.

While there are limitations with old school film it can last a very long time while digital storage is still not tested over the long term. However that is a big enough problem for the industry that it will likely be solved also.

Ironically watching these movies on an internet stream is perhaps the most dramatic impact of digital film making. Digital distribution means that I get to watch all of this at home without having to buy a DVD or go to a film festival.

One of my picks for this years festival A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night 2014
Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. I’d like to see it on the big screen but it is already on Netflix. Being able to have digital distribution into potentially millions of homes must be great for a first time feature director like Amirpour.

On the other hand – I doubt that a film like Lamb 2015 Directed by Yared Zeleke will ever make it to Netflix. “The first Ethiopian film ever to play at Cannes is a lovingly crafted tale of a small boy sent with his beloved pet lamb to live with relations in the country – and discovering a culturally inappropriate talent for cooking.”

See you in the dark? I just noticed The Act of Killing (2012) and Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ (2013) are both on Netflix and previously were film festival releases. As they say geo distribution is dead. Like most other activities in the digital economy the movie industry is being re configured – ready or not.

Note: Hollywood’s Best Film Directors is a series worth tracking down. Each episode is short and focuses on asking the same questions (off camera) to a selection of directors including Ridley Scott, Milos Forman, James Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and others.