49 Up & The Up Series as a Whole
You can watch this film without having seen what has come before, but I wouldn’t recommend it. On its’ own, it’s an intriguing display of documentary filmmaking that stands with the year’s best, but with the added context of the previous films, it grows into something quite more. In 1963, Granada Television in England embarked on an ambitious project- taking 14 children of different backgrounds (10 male, 4 female, one black, some upper class, some lower class) at the age of 7, and every seven years catching up with them, asking questions about their lives, their hopes and dreams, and how they look at themselves in the past. Roger Ebert calls it one of the 10 best films ever made, and indeed director Michael Apted’s imaginative work- he’s been the director on the series since “Seven Plus Seven” (he was a researcher on “7 Up”) while continuing to have a career in feature films (“The World is Not Enough,” “Gorillas in the Mist”)- is perhaps the finest use of film as a historical document in the 100-plus years since the medium’s existance. Not only do you become engaged in the lives of its’ subjects, but the films also engaged you in an exploration of your own life. They make you remember what you were like at 7 or 14 or 21 or 28 (or older if you’re one of my older readers), and contemplate, “Am I doing what I want to do with my life?”, “Am I the same person I was as a child?”, “Am I happy?”.
I first became aware of this series through Ebert’s “Great Movies” series four years ago, but it took the release of “49 Up,” the latest installment in the series, for me to finally dive into it. I wouldn’t dream of ruining the experience for anyone else, though now that I’m caught up, I’m now at the place where it’ll be another seven years before I see another new chapter in the lives of Apted’s subjects. In the first two films (“7 Up” and “Seven Plus Seven”), the format is established, with Apted dealing with each subject’s life separately, though not necessarily in a particular order in each film (although he usually begins with Tony, who wanted to be a jockey as a child, was for a couple of moments of fame, before becoming a cab driver with a family, Bruce, who wanted to be a missionary at seven, and grew up to be a teacher in London, not far from that initial impulse, and Suzy, whose always been a reluctant particpant, but whose transformation over the series has provided one of its’ most interesting narratives). The lack of a particular order was most noticeable for me in “49,” when Apted shook up the order more than in previous installments (you do grow accustomed to a certain inevitability in terms of who follows whom from film to film). In the later films, you’ll notice subjects who’ve dropped out at say 21 or 35 (two- Charles and Peter- have dropped out completely), but you’ll normally see them in the next film (John, for instance, was in “21,” out for “28,” back for “35,” and out for “42” before returning for “49”). In “49,” though, I found myself relieved when subjects who normally are early in the films- which move by quickly at running times maxing out around 135 minutes, a remarkable task by Apted and cinematographer/editor George Turner given how much goes on as the years go by- showed up later. That’s the power of any great film (be it a feature narrative or documentary)- to get the viewer involved in lives not their own; it’s not unreasonable to consider Apted’s “Up” series as one of the greatest- if not the greatest, since these are real people- examples of this principle in the history of cinema. In watching the early films, you see the central personalities that will be there for the remainder of their lives. Some peoples’ lives continue with a degree of inevitability (Tony and Bruce, in particular), while others see drastic changes of fortune over the years (Suzy and- most drastically- Neil, whose life is the one most viewers- myself included- finds the most fascinating), but all of them- for the most part- stay fundamentally the same as people. For its’ subjects, it’s more vivid a memory of who they were when they were younger than perhaps their own memories will be in the future.
Experiencing the series for myself, I find myself thinking about how the pieces fit in my life, and how it’s progressed. At 7- and even 14- I never really gave any serious thought to what I wanted to do when I grew up; by 21 I knew more clearly, although even at 28 I was still trying to figure out how exactly I was going to make that happen. But digging deeper, I find that like some of the children in the “Up” documentaries, some of the impulses that would flourish later in life were there early on. Still up in Ohio, I became familiar with the “Friday the 13th” movies, and almost obsessed with them. Granted, for a 10 year old, probably not the best type of obsession (and the psychological aspects of that can be considered later). But I vividly remember thinking up ideas for further “Friday” sequels- though probably more imaginative than most, I’m sure (even if I can’t remember the stories exactly), not stories that could be published. But when you think about it, that same impulse would come into fruitation in the forms of now feeling able to tell my own cinematic stories in films like “Unwinnable Hand” and “Red Cup Mafia.” At 14 I had been playing trombone for two years, and though a genuine love of music wouldn’t take shape until high school, that early experience did pave the way to me eventually spending high school in the band, and majoring and music- and continuing to compose music- to this day. How many films- including documentaries- inspire such serious thought about one’s own life? Already a genuine original, Apted’s “Up” series is indeed in rarified air in that respect.