Friday, August 19, 2011

Up and over and out. For now.

On April 17, 2009, I announced on this blog that my wife and I were set to undertake the Up series. You know, Michael Apted's documentary series that catches up every seven years with a cross-section of Britons, starting at age seven and continuing onward throughout their lives. It started in 1963 with Seven Up! and has continued unabated through 2005's 49 Up. Apted and most if not all of his subjects are still alive, so 56 Up should be due out next year.

At the time, I expected we'd go through all seven existing movies rather quickly. You know, by the end of the year or something.

But on Monday night -- two years, three months and 28 days later -- we finally finished. Or maybe I should say "caught Up." In any case, watching 49 Up is what we finally did on Monday.

So I thought I'd give a quick run-through of my thoughts on the series. Forgive me if some of the details of the installments run together -- that's kind of the nature of the project.

Seven Up! (1963, Paul Almond). Watched: April 20, 2009

The first Up movie is not really a movie per se -- it's a half-hour TV special on a British TV program called World in Action. And Apted was only an assistant on this project, which was the brainchild of a gentleman named Paul Almond. When I reviewed this "movie" for the website where I freelance, I described it in the following terms: "Since few of those who've seen it caught the original broadcast, watching Seven Up! is kind of like discovering the early songs of a band that became popular after their fourth album: The penetrating emotional complexity of the later works may not yet be present, but the raw early stuff has its own immediacy, especially as a preview of things to come." At the time it was made, no one knew it would become an enterprise still going a half-century later. Since almost everything that's interesting in this film is seen in flashbacks in later movies -- often, numerous times -- you have to see it mostly just to check it off your list. Besides, why would you want to start anywhere else?

7 Plus Seven (1970, Michael Apted). Watched: April 20, 2009

The same night we watched Seven Up!, we also watched its sequel, since they run only 90 minutes combined and came together as a package from Netflix. With the kids at age 14, there still isn't so much life experience that the program needed to reach feature length, and I believe this was only shown on television as well. I enjoyed watching them being slightly older and still being sort of cute in their naivete, but I felt like the really good stuff wasn't coming until later.

21 Up (1977, Michael Apted). Watched: July 25, 2009

It took us another three months to get to the next film in the series, the first one that can really be properly described as a "film" in terms of its length, clocking in at 100 minutes. Apted has a lot more life story to cover for these guys now -- university, in some cases marriage and children -- but he hasn't yet figured out the best structure in which to present their stories. 21 Up is all over the place, literally, as it dips in and out of the lives of all the characters, based kind of on the topic being discussed. That's more or less the format of the first two films, but by 21 Up it starts to feel scattershot and kind of stressful. This was my least favorite film in the series to date.

28 Up (1984, Michael Apted). Watched: October 10, 2009

Even with the weaknesses my wife and I both perceived there to be in 21 Up, we got back on the horse less than three months later and watched 28 Up. Ah. What a relief. Through one simple structural change that would become his new narrative template, Apted made the movies instantly more digestible. That change was to catch up entirely with one person before moving on to the next. Not only is this approach cleaner and more segmented, but it also serves as kind of a progress bar along the bottom of the screen. If you know you've visited with six of the 12 subjects (two of three upper-class boys had discontinued participation in the series, one temporarily and one permanently), you know you're about halfway through the movie. Convenient. The improved structure makes up for the daunting running time: 28 Up runs 136 minutes, as 2+ hours becomes the standard running time for movies in this series. 28 Up is also interesting because it starts to include some of the real dramas of life -- divorces, death of parents -- as well as portraying one character (Neil) who seems to be in the depths of a potential mental illness that has left him homeless. Fascinating stuff.

35 Up (1992, Michael Apted). Watched: June 30, 2010

Perhaps this longer running time daunted us more than we thought, because it was another eight-and-a-half months before we got on with 35 Up. I should say, this delay also coincided with the anticipated outage in my ability to review the films. Having reviewed each of the first four films in the series, I was going to miss the next two because they had either already been reviewed or already been promised to other writers. However, having 49 Up hanging out there in the future, assigned to me to review, made sure I was incentivized to keep going through the series. (Not that I would have given up, just that it might have taken me even longer to keep moving through. You know how life gets in the way.) I don't have a lot to say about 35 Up because it was at this point that the stories began to blend together a bit. As you grow older, seven years starts to mean less in the overall trajectory of your life -- fewer things have changed, you're more set in your ways. But I liked the movie quite a bit.

42 Up (1999, Michael Apted). Watched: July 18, 2011

If eight-and-a-half months seemed like a large gap, how about more than a year? That's how long it took us to finally move on from 35 to 42. So, close to two years between 28 and 42. To be fair, during this year -- when my wife and I were also between the ages of 35 and 42 -- we had plenty of life changes of our own to deal with, let alone worry about someone else's. Our son was born last August, and that's just one of things that has kept us busy. In fact, it took our summer series called Documentary Mondays to finally get the penultimate and final Up movies on the schedule. When we did finally watch 42 Up, however, it felt good to return to these lives and learn of the many new marriages, divorces, children and job changes. Spoiler: Still no deaths yet. However, the movie did contain one big surprise (spoiler): Homeless Neil ends up getting elected to low-level political office ... despite still not having a job.

49 Up (2005, Michael Apted). Watched: August 15, 2011

And in our shortest gap in the series, we hurried on to the final film (so far) less than a month later. Thanks, Documentary Mondays -- finally another Up movie I can review. (I wrote the review yesterday.) 49 Up was a bit more interesting than its immediate two predecessors because there's a real sense of revolt among these people whose lives have been publicly dissected (or at least, that's how they imagine it) for 42 years now. Two of the women basically go at Apted, accusing him of prying too deeply and asking questions that are more negatively weighted than the questions he asks other people -- especially the people with more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. (In defense of Apted, I didn't really see it -- but I guess I might have seen it a little bit, now that they mentioned it.) Then a third women talks in more resigned, exhausted, non-accusatory terms of wanting to bow out after she turns 50 next year. Odd, since this woman -- a social outcast and firecracker when she was young -- seems to have turned into one of the most contented and generally well-adjusted people in the project. In none of the last three installments did I get the impression there was a burden weighing on her.

I feel like I should summarize what I've learned so far from the Up series in some deep and profound way. But per usual, I'm writing this under something of a time crunch. I'm sure there would be plenty to say about cause-and-effect as related to Apted's project, and whether these people would have turned out significantly differently if they had never been involved in the Ups. While there's a presumption that this project has been damaging to most of them, I'm not sure if that's entirely true. Did it hurt their self-esteems? Possibly. Did it strain some relationships in their lives? Almost certainly. (In fact, one couple discusses the effect on their children of discussing the husband/father's infidelity in the previous film.) But we live in an era now where many people would kill to be celebrities -- even "reality celebrities." And though most of these folks are representative of British above-the-fray stoicism in one way or another, one senses they wouldn't keep doing this if it didn't titillate them, if there weren't some kind of inherent reward. And in the particular case of Tony, the cab driver/would-be jockey/small-time actor, a play has been based on his life. That wouldn't have happened if he'd been a cab driver/would-be jockey/small-time actor outside of the public eye.

I got a little off course there. As I was saying, I should sum this all up in some profound way, but I just don't have the energy for it today. So let's leave it at the fact that this has been an incredibly interesting series of films to watch ... interesting in all the ways you might expect it to be interesting, without me going to the trouble of specifically outlining that for you in philosophical terms.

So ... 56 Up is next up. I read on wikipedia that the idea is to shoot the footage this fall and air it in May of 2012. (I'm still unclear on whether these films get U.S. theatrical releases -- I should be able to remember whether the was a theatrical release for 49 Up, since it was less than seven years ago -- but I believe the series airs on television in England.)

So it'll be at least another nine-month gap before we continue Upwards. Maybe, if it does play in theaters, we'll honor 56 Up with a theatrical screening.

After all, it could be the last one. Michael Apted is 70 years old, and who knows if he's got an assistant willing to pick up the project and run with it until all the seven-year-olds from 1963 go to their ultimate reward.

And, if we're to believe them, for some it really will seem like a reward to finally be free from Apted's camera.

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