This doc about people living on society's fringe offers little beyond its gorgeous visuals.
Above and Below
Many documentaries, no matter how good they might be, either follow a traditional structure or achieve the same general narrative goal along a nonlinear path. Even a doc like Listen To Me Marlon, which presents Marlon Brando’s personal audio recordings in such a fashion that the actor posthumously “builds” his life story, is essentially a clever telling of a nonlinear tale. But a new documentary from Swiss writer/director Nicolas Steiner, Above and Below, eschews traditional structures and even clever devices, embracing documentation on film in the most literal of senses.
The film examines the daily existences of five people living on what society would be generous to deem its “fringe.” Cindy and Rick are a couple living in a flood channel beneath the streets of Las Vegas; Lalo, aka The Godfather, lives in the same series of tunnels; Dave is a military veteran living alone in an abandoned bunker in the California desert; and April is a member of the crew at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, living her life simulating exploration on the red planet in the middle of nowhere. These five souls, and their four stories, have more in common than one might think, but the history of that commonality leaves much to be desired.
Above and Below opens like a crackling horror movie. Lalo acts as a tour guide of sorts, leading the viewer into a tunnel as he tells the tale of a family who once lived underground but died during flooding caused by heavy rain; he says the little girl still appears. Lalo’s theatrics, combined with Markus Nestroy’s sumptuous cinematography, is beyond compelling—it’s demanding.
Some technical wizardry continues with wide shots of stunning vastness, paired with great audio, used to frame April’s world as someone preparing to one day colonize Mars (perhaps in the event of the end of Earth). In the desert, Dave takes an acetylene torch to fire ants, crisping them on contact while explaining the pain they cause when they bite, as if he feels compelled to justify his killing. Also using a torch, although as a means to cook dinner, are Cindy and Rick, whose perpetually candlelit underground world has order alongside its chaos.
It’s all so riveting, and yet something isn’t quite right.
Still, Steiner continues to impress by finding connections between and among his subjects that forever link them. Some are superficial, like April playing ping-pong with a crew member, compared to Dave sitting alone in his bunker and bouncing a ping-pong ball off the wall to pass the time, compared to dozens of ping-pong balls flowing through drainage as if en route to Rick and Cindy (while aesthetically pleasing, this bit reeks of being contrived). Others are not so superficial: April and Dave are both military veterans with harrowing experiences, while Cindy and Dave have children and grandchildren in the “real world” they don’t see because they have lost touch with their families.
There is also contrast, not only between those who live above the surface versus those who live below it (thus the title), but also between people’s faith, the creature comforts they have access to, and the degree of solitude in which they live.
But as the film continues, that not-quite-right feeling takes shape. And I use the term “continues” specifically because there is no real progression to be found here. Despite a runtime that’s just shy of two hours, very little happens beyond the observational. It’s quite maddening, really. On one hand, and to Steiner’s credit, there is no opportunity to pass judgment on these people beyond basic moral thumbs-up/thumbs-down consideration, because there is no context available to use as a frame around current behavior. For example, Cindy goes trick-or-treating on Halloween so she and Rick have candy. She’s petite enough to pass for teen-sized, and with a full mask hiding her age and an over-exaggerated squeaky voice belying it, she scores big. Is it wrong? In spirit, sure; trick-or-treating is for kids. But how wrong is it? There’s no way to tell because there isn’t enough revealed about Cindy to make that call.
Therein lies the other hand: with no traditional backstory to these people, and only tidbits of information randomly presented, there is nothing to invest in emotionally. Yes, some sympathy is garnered for April because of her parental situation, and one can’t help but feel sorry for how Cindy or Dave are detached from their children and grandchildren, but without more context, these stories are nothing more than bits of discussions overheard at a café or in an elevator. For two hours.
This sterile, arm’s-length view is a glimpse at lives and not into them, and that is a big distinction. The viewer gets to see Steiner’s subjects, but the viewer never really gets the chance to look at them. Above and Below has artistic merit, but it begs for more from its viewer than it is willing to offer in return. Told without narration or title cards, the film is the epitome of observation, and Steiner tries hard to have it both ways. He offers subjects who might be worthy of sympathy, but never delivers on anything sympathetic, instead remaining all-observant. By the end of the film, the viewer is left wondering if there is something more compelling to look at.