Category Archives: 2006 Movies
In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) interviewed 14 seven-year-old kids from different British backgrounds asking them about their futures. The half-hour TV special by Granada was called 7 Up and it aimed to show the world where the future politicians and doctors and trash collectors would begin. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to those same kids and peaked in on their lives, chronicling their lives. It’s one of the most famous documentary series in history. Thanks to the virtues of Netflix’s streaming service, I was able to watch six of the seven movies in the Up anthology (sorry 35 Up, the lone film not available for streaming). I spent the next twelve hours watching the lives of 14 complete strangers from childhood to middle age, and by the end they didn’t feel like strangers any more. They felt, weirdly, like family. And that’s the true appeal of the ongoing series: you are watching the evolution of human beings. It’s not everybody that gets a visual scrapbook of their life that’s viewed by millions worldwide.
Finally, after many hours, 49 Up is the first in the anthology to address the ideas of selective editing and building storylines to suit the “characters.” Long before reality television smoothed away life’s edges to make everybody fit into archetypes, Apted positioned the Up series as his thesis on class struggle. He purposely selected a cross-section of English schoolchildren from private schools and public schools and even two from a boy’s school for orphans. You can see it at 14, 21, and 28 how Apted sticks to his same line of questioning about class advantages and disadvantages, peppering his subjects with questions about what they didn’t have and then showing their current situations in a specific manner to make the audience feel a specific emotion. It’s not deliberately diabolical or partisan but the class warfare ideology certainly can chafe. Do the kids at the top still get all the perks? Are the kids at the bottom suffering with limited opportunities? Has anybody transcended class? Apted starts attributing achievements by the upper class boys as part of their upper class advantages and not due to their hard work, dedication, or talent, which they have every right to complain about. John complains at 21 that when, at seven, they declare their education ambitions, and Apted follows it up with narration, “John did attend such and such,” that it creates the illusion that everything has been handed to them. The hard work and long hours are not shown, and fair point. A few of his subjects actually begin to challenge Apted over his perceptions. Suzy takes aim at his line of questioning, hinting at her life’s disappointments, and fights back, accusing Apted of trapping her into a small narrative box. She even brings up another heated conversation in the history of the series, when Apted questioned whether Suzy, at 21, had experienced enough of life to settle down (she eventually divorced years later). You witness her youthful indignation and she remarks, with some resignation, that Apted is free to edit this outburst as he will and she is helpless (obviously Apted kept this in). It’s the first time I’ve seen the stars of Up contest their onscreen portrayals.
It is also with 49 Up that the film series starts to finally reflect. Part of that comes with living half a century, and many of the 12 on camera subjects are now at an age where they have grandchildren and are setting up retirement (I wonder what the economic meltdown of 2008 did for those plans). They can reflect about the accomplishments of their lives, the past dreams captured on camera that never came true, the marriages that dissolved, the joys and struggles of rearing children, the pains of burying parents, etc. They seem to be at that stopping point where they can take stock of a life lived. On top of that, the participants now begin to reflect on what being apart of the Up series has meant to them. It certainly shapes public opinion about who they are as people, and Apted gropes for any new info to connect with the prior material in the earlier movies.
Perhaps Apted feels like he has to keep flogging his class thesis because most of his subjects are pretty regular, i.e. boring, people. They’ve lived lives of modesty and hardship and persevered, but they’re at heart no more interesting than your neighbors. The problem with selecting a bunch of seven-year-olds you plan to follow for the rest of their lives is that you have no clue what will happen. The narrative is completely up in the air. This is why Apted, early on in the series, sticks doggedly to his class thesis to provide some sort of framework he can revisit every seven years. That’s why the series starts to become something of an echo chamber. The exact same sound bytes get used over and over again, trying to find new relevancy. The adults get forever defined, and continuously redefined, by something they said at seven years old, like Neil’s worry that a wife would force him to eat greens and he “don’t like greens” (I’m in the same boat, kid). The echo chamber effect is even more obvious if you watch the Up series in a row. You will start to memorize the childhood catch phrase of everybody and then watch the same clips recycled from 7 to 42. Each is like a little stepping-stone to the present. When viewed as a whole, the series can almost come across as facile. Apted doesn’t probe very deep into his subjects and their lives, mainly sticking to the Life’s Checklist of Accomplishments of Being an Adult: school, job, spouse, family. Personally, I hate how we become defined by a profession. That seems to be the second question that rolls off our tongues when we meet a stranger: “Who are you and what do you do?” What do we do? That’s a loaded question and I object to the idea that our job is the only relevant thing that we “do.” But that’s just my hang-up, I suppose. Apted also lets his subjects reveal the biggest changes in their lives, meaning that if somebody doesn’t want to broach a topic then it gets left unanswered. It can get frustrating and makes for some opaque follow-up visits.
Not every participant is thankful for the Up series. In fact, many of them are wary and somewhat disdainful of participating. Every seven years these people have to rehash their life’s highs and lows, boil them down into a package, and then have it picked over by Apted and his leaning questions, stirring drama anew. It’s easy to see why this becomes a difficult and challenging experience for most, something akin to a cross-examination about your life. So why do most of the 14 return every seven years? Is it the secret hunger for fame? John Brisby ducked out of the Up series after the third installment, upset that he had been made into the series villain through editing. He came across pompous and like a prototypical “old money” sort who lived in a small privileged world (fox hunting!) and reinforced Apted’s thesis on class advantages. Of course his interviews didn’t help him, but I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I’d hate for everything I said when I was 14 and 21 to follow me for the rest of my life. Well, in 35 Up, John returned, though begrudgingly. He had a reason. His wife and he had begun a charity to raise funds to help the beleaguered educational state of Belarus, a country where John’s family once resided. In 49 Up, he travels once again to that ancestral country and he remarks, somewhat graciously, that it was directly because of exposure on the Up series that donations increased and the kids in Belarus today have books and school buildings and dedicated educators. John made the most of his fame and directed it to a worthy cause. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that John’s passionate desire to help Belarus (his wife is the daughter of an ambassador to the country) feels like the “character” of John has matured.
Is there any sense of privacy when you know that cameras will be regularly scheduled to appear? There’s this enormous pressure to continue with the Up series, I imagine. But whom do these lives belong to? They were chosen by school officials and Granada at age seven, so they never really had much of a say in what has turned into a lifelong commitment. It seems that the world has a sense of ownership over these 14 individuals’ lives, an ownership that they never granted permission. They must feel an enormous obligation to keep informing the public about their lives, much like a nagging relative. We are a nosy, intrusive lot, human beings are. And I must say that I personally feel weirdly paternal about them. I feel happiness when they too reach happiness through whatever means. I was smiling from ear to ear when Nick, who at 14 was so shy and awkward, became a wonderfully charismatic, articulate, thoughtful, and rather handsome 21-year-old man (he looked strikingly similar to Andy Samberg). I feel despair as well when marriages don’t work out or once secure jobs vanish. Watching the Up series is like watching the evolution of a human being through time-lapse photography; it’s voyeuristic but at the same time it’s like having an extended surrogate family that requires no commitment. We can watch people grow up, mature, gain wisdom, and without anything more than the click of a button. We can watch hairlines get thinner, faces get larger, bodies get saggy, wrinkles multiply, all while playing the visual game of connecting the current iteration of participants with their past selves. We have these 14 people’s lives at our disposal for entertainment.
The Up series aren’t individually great documentaries. In fact, they’re pretty plain and not fairly insightful. As a whole, they present a fascinating document of the human experience and make for a great way to spend a rainy day. You can’t help but reflect on your own life after watching several of the Up movies, and curiously wonder what you have done with your own life at various intervals. As of this writing, all 14 original participants are still alive, which is somewhat amazing in itself. It will be morbidly interesting to see how the film series carries on after one or more of the participants pass away. Millions around the world will mourn what otherwise would have been a normal stranger passing. It’s probably selfish to keep hoping for future installments, and for the participants to keep updating me about their personal lives, but after a 45-plus year investment for some, it’s hard not to feel a sense of attachment to these people.
Nate’s Grade: B
Series Grade: A-