At seven, Judge Jennifer Malkowski wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle when she grew up. At 21, she was no closer to realizing that ambition, but she remains hopeful for the 28 installment.
"In 1964, World in Action made 7 Up. We've been back to film these children every seven years. They are now 49."
Perhaps the most fascinating documentary series ever undertaken—partly through the sheer, steady persistence of those on both sides of the camera—the Up series is a profoundly successful experiment in "longitudinal documentary filmmaking," as director Michael Apted labels it.
Facts of the Case
Originally a 1964 television documentary about an economically diverse group of seven-year-olds who would give viewers a glimpse of "the future of England," 7 Up evolved into a decades-long project that would trace the development of all of these children over the course of their entire lives. Each of the original participants, except the one who chose not to participate, gets about a 15-minute update on the past seven years of her or his life:
Tony: The mischievous little boy who wanted to be a jockey failed in that occupation and became a cabbie instead. Now he and his expanding family (three grandkids) have mostly escaped a changing England for the serenity of a coastal vacation home in Spain.
Jackie: A mother of three growing boys, Jackie is coping well with her rheumatoid arthritis and has hopes of going back to school.
Sue: The divorced woman we last saw enjoying a good spot of karaoke is now happily married to her date from that night in 42 Up. The couple has a TV-addicted dog and dreams of retiring to "that little house in the middle, closest to the beach" in Cornwall.
Bruce: The newlywed working in an inner-city school in 42 Up has retreated with his wife to the less straining environment of boarding school teaching and now has two young children.
Paul: Still working hard and enjoying married life Down Under, Paul reports on overcoming some tough mental health problems in the past seven years.
Suzy: The much-talked-about girl who chain-smoked and seemed distinctly unhappy at 21 blossomed into a contented wife and mother by 28. Suzy still seems to enjoy those roles at 49, but announces that she will "bow out" of the series as her 50th birthday approaches.
Nick: An expat working at the University of Wisconsin, Madison has had some blows in the past seven years: a major breakdown in his research and a painful divorce. But by the time Apted catches up with him at 49, he is recovering and remarried.
Lynn: Fulfilled for decades by her library job, a portion of which involves group workshops with mentally challenged children, Lynn now faces the prospect of losing it due to financial cutbacks.
Simon: Sweet, playful Simon went through a messy divorce a while back, but is now remarried. He talks about work, his new wife, and the difficulties of keeping ties with his children from his first marriage.
Andrew: A successful lawyer for decades, Andrew is about to embark on a new line of work—if he survives sharing in his son's love of extreme sports.
John: After a willful absence from 42 Up, John returns to talk about life as a barrister and promote his charitable foundation in Bulgaria.
Neil: The participant audiences have perhaps worried about the most over the years is Neil, who was seen in 28 Up and 35 Up as a drifter on the verge of mental breakdown. In 42 Up he took a major turn, finding a civil service job as a low-level politician in London and staying with Bruce as a houseguest, for a time. Now he seems to have found the balance between his satisfying political work and the peace he finds in nature, having moved from the bustle of the big city back to the countryside, where he still holds political office.
Being negative-19 years old when the first of the Up films was shown in 1964, I have not had the truly durational experience that the series makes possible. For me, the change happens in the blink of an eye: a seven year-old on grainy black-and-white film advances seven years in the next shot, and the next, and so on until she becomes a 49 year-old just seconds later. This alone is a cinematic feat. But I can only imagine how profound the Up films must feel to someone who has been there all along, checking in every seven years on people who must seem like old friends by now. What must it be like to watch 21 Up at 21 and then 49 Up at 49 decades later? Among its many powers, this series has the power to make us really identify with these people and examine the progress of our own lives rather than simply voyeuristically investigating theirs. If we all had such a "vivid scrapbook"—as the wife of one participant phrases it—of our own lives, would it be a record of success or failure? Happiness or disappointment? For many of the participants, these seven-year checkpoints force that kind of painful evaluation on them.
One of the most interesting aspects of the series is Apted's willingness to include bits of interviews in which the participants discuss these hardships born from their very public lives. When he asks Suzy what it's been like to be in his films, she answers:
"Very difficult. Very painful. Not an experience I've enjoyed in any way. Every seven years it throws up issues I guess we all learn to put into compartment between the seven years…I'm not an outgoing, confident person. I like my privacy. I don't like a million people picking over my life."
After giving this frank answer, she kindly tells Apted that she will not appear in any future installments. Others, like Jackie, have problems not with the project itself, but with the way Apted executes it. She confronts him in a long argument, saying, "You will edit this program as you see fit. I've got no control over that…this one may be, may be the first one that's about us rather than your perception of us."
From an outsider's perspective, it seems that Apted really does an admirable job of limiting his own "perceptions of [them]" in the editing room. The tone in 49 Up, as always, is very matter-of-fact. So-and-so did this job at 42, now he does this one. So-and-so married at 28, and by 35 she was divorced. Apted keeps the narration and the editing quite stark, more willing to risk audience boredom than directorial distortion. Some, like Roger Ebert, are tempted to generalize and impose themes on each of the films: in 49 Up, they are all content and happy and love their grandkids, for example. But these really are projections, as Apted never attempts such a reductive collective narrativization of these separate lives. In the interview with Ebert, he explains his caution, saying that he feels a "terrible impulse to play God," to insert an agenda and predict the course of their lives. But he fears that such a move would create "self-fulfilling prophec[ies]," and seems genuinely haunted by his prediction of Nick's divorce, and relieved that his marking of Tony at 21 as a future criminal turned out to be inaccurate.
So why, if the experience is so difficult, do these participants keep coming back? A few have practical and direct answers; wealthy barrister John hopes the screen exposure for his charity will bring in more donations, for example. But for the most part, we are left to guess. Perhaps even from such a close distance, they can see the extraordinary time-capsule potential such a series has for this and future generations. Or maybe the self-reflection and watchful eye the process provides is a grounding influence for them. Whether realizing important life stuff because of the documentary or just articulating it for us, many of those filmed have broad, meaningful, big-picture things to say about what they've learned in their 49 years on the planet. Paul reckons that, "Without a family, what've you got? Nothing…it'd be awfully lonely without a family." And Neil finishes the film with the profoundly simple truth: "I see that life comes once, and it's short, and you have to appreciate what's good in it." These statements might seem mundane, but when they are spoken, we can understand how those bits of wisdom have been earned through lifetimes of experience. We understand because we've watched those lifetimes develop, and having been there all the way through makes these truths ring even truer.
To those who would compare this series to reality television, I ask: what reality show would exhibit this kind of patience? And what reality show would be smart enough to focus their lenses on such "ordinary" people? John criticizes: "I suspect that why this program is compelling to viewers…is because, really, it's like Big Brother…with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, get fat, lose their hair; fascinating, I'm sure. But does it have any value? That's a different question." Different, yes, but hardly difficult. Only a spectator devoid of imagination, social intelligence, and human feeling could fail to find value in the Up series or in the particular 49 Up installment.
49 Up marks a technical departure for the series, as it is the first to be shot on digital video, offering a quite different visual feel than the previous films. But compared with the grainy, oddly-colored footage from the previous films that is cut into 49 Up, the bright, clean look of the image is basically a welcome change. Also, as Apted points out, it allows for longer interviews with fewer interruptions, producing some very engrossing exchanges this time around. The sound quality is reasonable, but the thick accents and unpredictability of on-location documentary shooting will make you wish First Run Features had provided some subtitles. As for extras, the Apted biography is your standard on-screen text fare. The photo gallery is small and not particularly interesting. What is interesting, despite dreadfully hollow sound quality, is the interview Roger Ebert conducts with Michael Apted. This half-hour sit-down is perhaps more worthwhile than a standard director's commentary, as specific questions are posed to Apted, who answers thoughtfully. He explains his pointed exclusion of specific political issues from these films that "dramatize politics" rather than discussing it. Commenting on the question in the back of all of our minds, he hopes that the series will continue if he should pass away, and even wishes to precede his subjects: "I hope I go first. I hope they all outlive me." More interesting still, Ebert seems to convince him to go film at his participants' deathbeds, should any of them fall terminally ill. Some might call him callous, but I agree with Ebert in his assessment that it would be too hard just to hear the narrator say that one of them had died, and that the subjects might want the opportunity to look back on their lives within the context of this series that has so permeated them.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Seven year intervals might be just about right for installments of this series, from an audience perspective. Having watched 42 Up for the second time just a few months ago, I found myself a bit restless through all the recaps of each character, even showing the same clips that the previous recaps had featured. In a film that already feels a bit long, enduring these reminders can be unpleasant if you don't happen to need reminding. Another obstacle to enjoyment is the relative blandness of the actual visits. The director tries to capture or stage some visually interesting events—a hot-air balloon ride or a visit to an amusement park—but one can't help but miss the absent emotionally interesting events that don't happen to be happening on the one day Apted is present in each seven-year span.
Having seen the results of his work, we can forgive Apted's brief sentimentality when he says, "Every life is an act of courage and everybody has a story. And that's what I love about the films—these are ordinary lives and ordinary stories." Through the fixed attention of Apted's camera over the years, these ordinary stories become epics, mesmerizing to behold, that always keep ordinary viewers on the edges of their ordinary seats for another seven years.
The court finds director Michael Apted guilty of incredible patience and stamina. Judge Jennifer Malkowski sentences him to revisit these subjects on film every seven years. I'll bet he didn't see that sentence coming, huh?
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