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Failure Is Not An Option: As Above, So Below

written by Liz Lerner June 13, 2016
Failure Is Not An Option: As Above, So Below

It may seem peculiar to go back and talk about a film two years after its release, especially one as forgotten as 2014’s As Above, So Below – so let me explain why anyone should care about the film first.

It’s a general rule in clowning – and I know with that phrase I’m already in danger of losing some of you, but stick with me – that you have to do something really cool and skilled before you can fail amusingly.

If you just start juggling and drop all your balls, no one knows whether to laugh or not, because they’re not sure if it’s a choice or a mistake; if you juggle perfectly, then fail on something easy, they know you’re choosing to fail, and are comfortable laughing. (Andy Kaufman famously inverts this with his brilliant Elvis interpretation routine.)

Something similar happens with filmmakers.

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Many filmmakers’ first efforts dole out narrative pleasure in a traditional way, before heading in more experimental directions. This is often just because of the realities of production. But their later filmography seems to make a promise: if the movies are not actively entertaining, it’s on purpose.

But what if we read all films against the grain? What if instead of merely discounting films that fail to thrill us traditionally, we took them at their word, and explored those places they weren’t quite right as interesting in and of themselves?

That’s my general methodology: I’m obsessed with films that fail, and believe that films that fail often can do more to change how we watch movies than those that succeed. Take 2014’s As Above, So Below.

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It’s a peculiar mashup of Indiana Jones-style archaeology thriller and found-footage horror film. It is a stretch to call it a found-footage movie, though. Such films usually make open spaces feel claustrophobic – for instance, the giant Californian houses of Paranormal Activity, or the forest of The Blair Witch Project.

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While the cameras are explained diagetically in As Above, So Below, almost all of the movie is spent investigating the catacombs under Paris, in places so narrow that even extradiagetic cameras would have nowhere else to be placed. The viewer can easily forget for long stretches that it is “found footage,” and even the filmmakers seem to forget: hallucinations that seem to be subjective are shown by the camera in moments.

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What the film wonderfully depicts, however, is the profoundly unromantic nature of caves. Almost all found-footage movies – with the exception of The Visit – are just visually ugly. The closest analogue I can see for many of these films are the Dogme 95 movement’s output.

Roughly 75 minutes of As Above are lit in various shades of brown, and one can’t help but think of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones’ green and verdant caves, full of natural beauty. These catacombs do not even have the color to be ominous. There is nothing in this film but the slow claustrophobia of thin caves going nowhere. (Interestingly, one character is introduced as being profoundly claustrophobic… a characteristic that is never brought up again.)

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And yet, we as the viewer are never able to fully give in to the claustrophobia, because even as they endlessly dig down into the rock, we know there will always be a path forward. There will be no absolute dead end, because the film has not reached the 90 minute mark after which it can safely terminate. The climax and finale, in fact, serve as a sort of breath of wafting fresh air waiting for the protagonists down every spindly crevice.

There is much more to say about this film. The narrative doles out one major past sin to each character to confess, there’s the invention of the term “individual” in the Catholic confessional, and the found-footage film itself offers us the indivisible Cartesian cogito observing the world objectively. But what is interesting here is exactly how badly it fails, and how thoroughly it makes adventure seem unadventurous.

After this movie, those cavernous passages of National Treasure, with their perpetually well-lit torches and complex puzzles of light, will never seem quite right.

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