It's a brilliant idea: Film the same eight people every seven years, beginning at age seven. It makes for the ultimate documentary, and a potentially revelatory gaze at the mysterious interaction between individual trajectory and social conditioning.
It's also a damn weird idea, especially now, in light of The Truman Show, Ed TV, The Real World, Behind the Music, Oprah, Jerry Springer, and all the rest of it. If you squint your eyes and look at it sideways, the Up series, which began in 1964, looks like it was the avant-garde of what would become a late-20th-century fascination (at least in the West) with documenting "real life" and magnifying it back to real people. Apart from its actual subject matter, the series itself is a curious historical document, and its subjects rather like guinea pigs. (Perhaps, in keeping with the fad, someone will one day make a documentary about the making of the documentary.) No wonder so many of the subjects have expressed discomfort with taking part. And how interesting that the child who became a documentarian himself dropped out entirely!
The series started with 7 Up, a look at class differences as expressed through the playground behavior of eight British schoolchildren. Luckily for the filmmakers--including a 22-year-old Michael Apted--the children did act out their class assignments through play. 7 Up was an act of social conscience, with a message less severe but not essentially different from Pink Floyd's in The Wall: The British class system molded children like so much ground beef. (When the announcer in 7 Up says, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man," it sounds more like a pointed political statement than a Jesuitical truism.)
Ah, but there's something evil, stupid, and capitulating about liberal propaganda that would have us believe we're all mere victims of The System. Kind of boring, too. So Apted's series gradually became a more personal exploration of people's emotional lives through the chutes and ladders of adolescence, young adulthood, and early middle age. It's not what you'd call hard-hitting stuff, and it's less revealing than one would hope. But at least the series is humane, and--unlike Springer--it always includes class as part of the context for people's individual troubles. Also unlike Springer, every one of the participants is remarkably thoughtful.
Humane or not, the films also illuminate the power struggle between documentarian and subject, played out over and over. Judging from articles (including no fewer than three separate, lengthy pieces in the New York Times), the Up films have only become more important to Apted personally and professionally. A mostly mainstream director, Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell, and, bizarrely, the latest James Bond movie) is respected but not lionized--except, perhaps, for the Up films. He has said: "When I pack it all in, I think [Up] will be my signature piece." But the films seem to give no joy to most of their subjects. In 42 Up, many of them look as uncomfortable as ever in front of the camera. And all of them, one senses, are retaining key bits of information about themselves that would help us to understand them better. The part of you that's burned out on invasive media wants to cheer for these independent people--but the truth-seeker would prefer something else.
Take Neil, arguably the most interesting of the bunch. In 21 Up, he was a vagabond in the countryside, obviously dogged by gigantic phantoms of misery and delusion. Apted did ask whether he ever feared for his sanity, but we never understood exactly what was going on. (Schizophrenia? Bipolarity? Unresolved childhood abuse?) In 42 Up, Neil surprises us with an almost supernatural renaissance of self--he's confident, self-nurturing, and productive. Obviously something major happened, and one suspects it has something to do with a crackerjack shrink and some heavenly meds. Then again, maybe not.
Or take Lynn, a working-class woman who became a children's librarian and has stayed happily married to her youthful sweetheart. She has apparently awesome kids and seemingly fulfilling work. Yet Lynn comes across as one of the most morose people in the film, uncharmed by life and no fun at all on camera. Again, we're obviously missing key info here. Does she have some horrid secret illness? Was she raped? Does she hate Michael Apted? Does she have tragically unfulfilled ambitions? Or is she just one of those people who always seem unhappy?
The guessing game only gets tougher with people's spouses. Tony, a teenage jockey who now drives a cab, seems to be married to a real sourpuss who just doesn't love her husband much, if she ever did. ("I couldn't get rid of him" was how she described their courtship in an earlier episode.) In 35 Up and 42 Up, Tony's infidelity is revealed. But you have to wonder which came first: Tony's misbehavior or his wife's awfulness. And do I feel sympathetic with this cheater because Apted does? Somehow, it sounds like a blessed sign of life when this man, who has seen his share of disappointments, explains his misstep by saying, "Life is for living."
In fact, Tony's episode is one of the more intriguing ones, partly because he's so open. (And could this have to do with his sideline ambition as an actor?) When he shows Apted his remodeled house and yard, his concern over money is obvious. One can imagine this couple believing that if they threw enough cash at their home, they might be able to salvage their family. Tony seems quietly desperate as he stands in his new back yard and says, "I think this must be the limits for me." Only the next episode will tell whether he meant the limit of his life or of his patience.
Viewing these people's lives in soap-opera terms--who got sick, who got divorced, who got married or quit their job--makes it hard not to feel a little cheap. But it's impossible not to focus on the surface when the marrow of their lives is hidden. One can't blame Apted entirely for this. Yes, his career is staked on the project and so he has to play nice. But at some point, it's silly for people to take part at all if they're not going to share their hearts. Maybe our aforementioned absentee documentarian understands this better than anyone.
The moments when the subjects do let us inside feel suspended, magnified. One thinks, "Ah, this is how it should be." My personal favorite, the upper-crust Susie, has come to realize in 42 Up, after many years of moody, guarded interviews, that she has something important to share. After losing both her parents in a short span of time, Susie became a bereavement counselor, and she speaks about the grieving process with an openness she could never muster as a younger woman recovering from her parents' divorce. And then there's Nick, the scientist with whom Apted admits he has much in common. (Both left England to pursue their dreams in America.) Nick has always been likable enough, but in 42 Up he becomes deep. When he returns to the remote farm where he grew up, we see that at the core of his scientific work lies a poetic pursuit of beauty.
As Apted grows more intimate with these people, his own absence from the films becomes more obvious. As he has pointed out, their age difference of 15 years is less significant each time out. And these days, when "objectivity" is officially recognized as a beautiful dream, it's more clear than ever that these films are, in an obscure way, also Apted's life story. Maybe someone--our elusive documentarian?--actually should make that documentary about the documentary. If nothing else, it would help us understand why so many of these people are so retiring in interviews with Apted. (It's tough to blame it entirely on British reserve.) Unfortunately for the film, the more people conceal (Apted included), the less chance we have to really love them. That is: to understand them and, in a sense, to forgive them for all the ways they remind us of ourselves.
42 Up starts Friday at U Film Society.
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