Writing about the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking tends to take an elegiac tone. “Cinema as we know it is dead,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz in his obit for the movie camera in Salon. “Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?” wondered the Atlantic in a feature this past November. “The advent of digital … may well be the final blow to the dying art of the projectionist,” wrote LA Weekly. “The celluloid dream may live on in my hopes, but digital commands the field,” said a wistful Roger Ebert in his appraisal on “The Sudden Death of Film.” At least a portion of critics are self-conscious about this: “It’s become difficult to parse out how much of my grief is rooted in nostalgia and how much of it applies to real concerns about how the landscape is changing,” confessed Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club. I could go on.
Amid all this mourning, you could be forgiven for forgetting—or never being told in the first place—that most of our filmmakers have made this move out of choice. That they prefer digital, and not just for its cost-effectiveness, but for its aesthetic and artistic freedom. That as loud as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino may talk, they and the few remaining celluloid purists are vastly outnumbered. And not just by philistines, like Michael Bay. By visionaries like David Lynch, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Michael Mann, Lars von Trier, Richard Linklater, Kathryn Bigelow, and Steven Soderbergh—even Martin Scorsese. The title of the digital vs. film documentary Side by Side might suggest that it’s an even fight, but judging from the long list of filmmakers they interviewed, it’s no contest.
All of which is why it’s heartening to see a film critic writing in the Guardian this week finally frame it right. I’m speaking, of course, about Keanu Reeves, who also happens to be the producer of Side by Side. The story of the last few years isn’t about the “death of film,” Reeves insists:
The debate isn’t about whether digital is better than celluloid. It’s about giving an artist the choice … about the individual’s style. It’s not pining for the past, nor championing a digital revolution. It’s arguing that it’s an exciting time for the industry.
Of course many critics have acknowledged many of the same benefits that Reeves notes: that digital offers more control for directors, more mobility, more consistency when it comes to projection, a more democratic art form for everyone. But if this is an argument about aesthetics and grain and tone, then I fear that the critics who paint this moment in a sort of ‘70s underlit darkness, like something shot by Gordon Willis, have gotten it all wrong. The “death of film” or the “digital revolution” may be a moment of loss, but it’s at least as much a moment of thrilling new life.