It’s telling that Up There, a 12 minute long documentary on the men who paint advertisements on the brick sides of New York buildings, is edited and directed by its cinematographer. For it is a cinematographers film, one that recognises its own beauty to the point that it preens and poses for the viewer: New York sunsets, light reflecting from windows, dirty paint pots hanging high above the city. It’s all in there, again, and again, and again. An HD Narcissus. After five minutes, though, Up There has told the viewer more or less all that it has to tell: that the art of the painted advertisement is dying. Everybody uses vinyl and computers now. These guys are keeping it alive and, man, is it cold up there.
Worth documenting, yes, but once these facts have been established, Up There has nowhere to go but back to some panoramic skylines. That is, of course, a little unfair. Up There has a nigh-on infinite amount of options to take, but it chooses none of them. There are, for example, fleeting glimpses of old, faded paintings, palimpsests from the Jazz Age – ripe for exploration, surely, with a line of enquiry into New York City as a blank canvas that has been endlessly superscribed. Or how about the painters themselves? One of them shows us his gnarled fingers, and they all drawl at us in their very authentic ‘Noo Yawk’ accents: “nubaddy dus dis no mawr”. But what ‘dis’ is, is painting by numbers on a colossal, metropolitan scale. Is there no scope for insight into these men as toddlers who have had the power to turn their colouring book from an A4 sheet into the side of a tenement? Clearly Malcolm Murray, the undoubtedly talented man behind the movie, doesn’t have the desire or the foresight to go there.
Up There is, perhaps, a perfect synthesis of filmmaker and subject. Our brave painters think little of what they’re painting, they simply get up there and paint. And, more often than not, it’s a giant glass of Stella. Again, and again. At one point, one of them (their names are never given, perhaps their own choice, but odd for a film that claims to be “excited to bring these painters stories down to sidewalk level”) proclaims that they’re doing it “just like Michelangelo”. Wow. What a claim. One suspects, though, that Michelangelo wasn’t simply painting for the sake of painting. These guys, however, are. It just so happens that they’re painting giant glasses of beer. With Up There, and its plinky-plonk music and portentous but ultimately vapid suggestions of the death of industry (or something), Michael Murray is shooting a documentary simply for the sake of shooting a documentary. It just so happens to be about guys painting a giant glass of beer.