Saturday, April 18, 2009

Up, up and ... away?

I've had the "Up" series of documentaries on my radar for quite some time. If it's not on your radar, let me explain a little something about it.

In 1963, a director by the name of Paul Almond, as part of a British television show called World in Action, randomly chose 14 British private school children, all age 7, and interviewed them about their lives and backgrounds. This project was known as Seven Up, and it might have amounted to nothing more than a one-off curiosity if it hadn't been for Michael Apted. The young director had been an assistant to Almond on the original project, and seven years later, he decided to revisit these children to see how they were doing at age 14. The resulting 1970 film was called Seven Plus Seven, and a tradition was born. Apted continued visiting these children, soon to be adults, at seven-year intervals throughout their lives and his, resulting in 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1983), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998) and 49 Up (2005). If you ask me, this most recent entry should have been called Seven Times Seven, as a little shout-out to the earlier history of the series.

I'd been fascinated by this ongoing project for years, since it's been made possible only by the continuing health and willingness of at least most of the participants, as well as the health and artistic viability of the director.

So I finally got it on my Blockbuster queue sometime last year, and a month or two back, I promoted it to the upper end, so it would come up for viewing in the near future. When I received the first installment in the mail, I mentioned its arrival to my wife, who had also always wanted to see it, and was excited to proceed on this journey with me.

Well, that was about a month ago. And it has not made it into our DVD player yet.

Yes, it's been a busy month, but that's not really the reason. You see, I've started to drag my heels on the whole thing. I have a very stupid reason for doing so, but if you know me and my stupid reasons, you also know that for me, it's legit.

Namely: I'm not sure if Seven Up is actually a movie.

(Of course it isn't, it's a soft drink, ha ha.)

It all started when I went back to look in my queue, to see when Seven Plus Seven was scheduled to come up. But I couldn't find it. I looked and I looked, and all I could see was 21 Up and then the rest. I didn't know if I wanted to start on this journey if I couldn't get my hands on Seven Plus Seven.

It was then that I realized I already had my hands on Seven Plus Seven. It had come with Seven Up. They had come together because Seven Up had a scant 30-minute running time.

Seven Plus Seven doubled that up to 60 minutes, but normally, neither a 30-minute program nor a 60-minute program would meet anyone's definition of what constitutes a "movie."

Okay, so, my mind shifted to no longer thinking of this as a conquest of a movie series, something I would be able to include on my many various film lists. That's fine, it's a TV show. A different experience, but no less valuable.

But the most recent five installments in the series are most definitely movies. 21 Up clocks in at 100 minutes, and then the next four are each over 120 minutes. And they all had theatrical releases.

So what exactly is the "Up Series"? I'd love to hear your opinion.

Assuming that I'd treat them all the same way, are none of them a movie ... or all of them? Or should I not treat them all the same way? Should only 21 Up and onward go on my lists, while I categorize the others as TV episodes?

What qualifies for my movie lists is an endless source of consternation for me. Of course it doesn't matter in the strictest sense of the word, but on some level, it does.

For example, if a movie originated on TV, is it really a movie? What if it's a miniseries? I have handled this in different ways over time, partly depending on my whims, partly depending on how I felt at the time, even if it's different from how I feel now. For some reason, I have included both Stephen King miniseries It and The Stand in my movie lists. In the case of The Stand, that may be because I actually reviewed it for the website. That has to make it qualify ... right? Yet I wouldn't have included The Shining miniseries that aired a couple years ago, even out of precedent, because I've changed my own rules since then. (While the others have stayed grandfathered in). The Shining was so terrible that I never finished watching it, so it was a moot point anyway.

HBO movies probably give me my greatest pause nowadays. For some reason, I have decided I should not include them. So when we saw (and loved) Recount, the story of the 2000 presidential election, it never made it on any list.

Yet if I were to review that same movie for my website, I'd have to reconsider my stance. My editor assigned me some "films" to review a few years back that included such titles as Sometimes in April and Lackwanna Blues, both of which premiered on HBO. I first became aware of them in the context of them being assigned to me, and it wasn't until I popped in the DVD and saw the familiar HBO emblem that I realized they premiered on cable. So in those cases, I added them to my movie list.

Well, why them, but not Recount? Because I'd already started to think of them as regular movies, and couldn't turn back, whereas I'd been aware of Recount's cable origins from the get-go?

Then the question is, if a movie does premiere on cable, why does that make it any less of a movie? I don't ask the same qualifying questions of straight-to-DVD movies. If the standard is whether a film had a cinematic release -- an Oscar-qualifying run, as it were -- then both cable movies and straight-to-DVD movies would fail on that account. So that standard is clearly too rigid. Why then should straight-to-DVD count, if a movie made by HBO, which is likely to be better made and far more cinematic in general, does not count?

I don't have the answers. Hey, I don't pretend to understand my own rules, I just try to interpret them.

And I'd love to hear what you think. Please, I really want to return Seven Up and Seven Plus Seven so I can get my next movie. And I'll make sure it's a genuine, no-questions-asked, certified, popcorn-and-darkened-theater movie this time ...

No comments: