Taking a leaf from the Steven Soderbergh book of aggressive aesthetics, Pablo Larrain films the whole of No in 4:3 on venerable videotape, turning it into a grainy slurry of images clinging onto 525 lines for grim death while the colour bleed changes with the wind. Inside this fuzzbox the Yes and No campaigns of the 1988 Pinochet referendum do their work, a tactic allowing for some splendid splicing of reality with fiction; almost enough to camouflage that not much else is actually happening. No is mostly history as inaction, at least on the part of Gael Garcia Bernal as a taciturn protagonist who barely lifts a finger. Artistic mastermind of the No campaign, Bernal occupies his time casting a few withering comments about the ads made by other people and calling for more merry rainbow choirs, before skateboarding off down the road in the company of a moppet son and the Scraggly Beard Of Truth.
There are a few faint flickers of menace and threat — Bernal’s ex-girlfriend gets beaten up at regular intervals, events he registers with a slight downward curl of the beard — but the meat of it is the unease between Bernal and Alfredo Castro, the former Tony Manero, as his weaselly opposite number. Larrain paints a nice scenario out of the pair being once and future co-workers, both squeezed at the beck and call of powers above and beyond. Or perhaps both just rendered equally inert; there’s a very mordant laugh to be had at the way they end up working together again when the dust settles, eying each other warily, or at least wearily. There’s another giggle from the contemporaneous messages of support from the likes of Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss, presented in a context that seems pretty ambivalent about the likes of Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss.
Visual aesthetics also to the fore in Side by Side, although only by omission. Keanu Reeves and Chris Kenneally’s well-intentioned ramble through the history of digital filming shapes up to be a more rigorous inquiry than eventually emerges, partly since the advocates of the digital way have an evangelical air about them that makes refuseniks seem like sourpusses left behind by history, but mainly since it leaves the aesthetics well alone. Apart from a plaintive cry early on that digital doesn’t have the punch and zip of celluloid, no one dares to try and express exactly what that punch and zip might look like.
The rest of the film’s language is of economics and workflow and process, with plentiful clips from Soderbergh and Danny Boyle to prove that zip need not in fact be in short supply down Digital Way. Having recently realised that Zack Snyder is an adherent to the 35mm cause, I’m more convinced than ever that original source material is not the issue, as one look at images from Che and The Social Network confirms. David Fincher, in fact, might be the key witness in the case, since his transition from film to video over the years remains endlessly fascinating. So is Michael Mann’s, and discussion of Mann without aesthetics is no discussion at all. These issues are best approached through feeling and colour theory and emotion, rather than history and heritage and halide chemistry. What oceans of implication are contained in the phrase “the blacks aren’t quite as deep”? If only film had a Robert Hughes around to bend his mighty intellect to the task. George Lucas is around, and turns up here to be duly hit over the head by no less a sourpuss than Vilmos Zsigmond about Lucas’s long-ago claim that film was dead. Guffaws from grown men sat in my vicinity apparently mean some still believe Lucas raped their childhood; a lifetime in a lift with the Sucker Punch soundtrack to them.