Film Review: Above and Below

Errol Morris appears to serve as the inspiration for Nicolas Steiner's documentary, which possesses some of that director's artistry but lacks his inquisitive spirit.
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Through movies like Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death and especially Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Errol Morris long ago became one of the guiding lights of the non-fiction Cinema of the Oddball. Those films, and the ones they've inspired—think of titles like American Movie or Marwencol—train the unblinking camera eye on the fringes of our culture, capturing the people and stories that all too often slip between the cracks of the national consciousness.

The most successful entries in this subgenre tend to view their subjects with a healthy mixture of curiosity and empathy, as well as a certain dash of skepticism, but arriving at that precise balance can be tricky. If the filmmakers' skepticism is too pronounced, it can come across as mocking, as in 2002's squirm-inducing portrait of movie addiction, Cinemania. (American Movie got hit with similar complaints, for that matter.) On the other extreme, pure empathy without curiosity can result in films that feel incomplete, like the director refrained from asking tougher questions so as to not upset the person who agreed to have his or her life captured on camera.

Morris has found that sweet spot over and over again, with Fast, Cheap & Out of Control perhaps being the standout amongst his eclectic portraits of eccentrics, as much for its style as for its substance. That 1997 movie, which profiles four different men with fascinatingly odd careers, unfolds somewhat like a symphony, with Morris constructing a central melody out of seemingly disparate footage and testimonials. Watching Nicolas Steiner's new documentary, Above and Below, one gets the sense that Fast, Cheap was a possible influence on this young Swiss director, who brought his camera to America to record the lives of five individuals who willingly exist off the proverbial grid. Their specific circumstances differ, but they're all united by a disaffection with the societal status quo, as well as troubled pasts that they prefer to let lie.

Above and Below is a study of different spaces as well as different people. The "Below" in the title refers to the flood tunnels that underline the glittering metropolis of Las Vegas, which provide three of the film's subjects—the Godfather, a.k.a. Lalo, as well as joined at the hip couple Rick and Cindy—with shelter from the Nevada heat. "Above" is represented by the Californian and Utah deserts, where the vast landscapes and big skies resemble the terrain of a different planet. In California, Dave builds a makeshift home out a military bunker, while Utah provides the base for the Mars Society's desert research station, where volunteers like April sign up to simulate life on the Red Planet while their feet are still planed on the Blue Planet.

Steiner emphasizes the sense of emptiness in all three locals, often making it appear as if his subjects are each the sole inhabitant of their own private universe. And, to a certain extent, they are—with the exception of April, who shares the station with other Mars Society recruits. Otherwise, Dave, Lalo and Rick and Cindy express little interest in the outside world and, based on the impression we receive here, are able to pass days at a time barely encountering another soul. Considering the dramatic nature of their individual environments, it's no surprise that Above and Below has moments of arresting imagery. A sequence of ping pong balls floating through the Vegas flood tunnels, for example, is beautiful to behold (even if it also feels like a slightly calculated attempt at a Koyaanisqatsi moment), as is an image of Dave preparing to play the drums against the backdrop of the setting desert sun.

It's a shame that the people who are part of these lovingly framed landscapes never quite snap into sharper focus. Like all of Morris' films, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is the work of an inquisitive mind that pushes and prods at its various subjects to get them to reveal unexpected layers beneath what we see on the surface. Steiner, in contrast, is all too comfortable hanging back and letting these men and women control the direction of the conversation. Eventually, they do let him—and, by extension, us—in, but only up to a point, and rather than dig any deeper, Steiner arrives at a kind of stasis as the movie meanders its way into a second hour. It's as if he allowed his empathy to stifle his curiosity and completely erase his skepticism. That formula results in a movie that's thoughtful yet doesn't really inspire any deeper thoughts.  

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