Filmmaker Michael Apted began his “Up” series back in 1963 when he and his camera followed 14 seven-year olds from all social and economic walks of life in England. Since then, the director has revisited his subjects every seven years and the latest edition to this history making film series is “56 Up.”
There is nothing, I believe, even remotely similar to the amazing sociological and political analysis that creator Apted began 49 years ago and has faithfully revisited every 7 years since. Also amazing is that the has maintained the 7-year cycle with all but one of his subjects, Peter Davies, who dropped out of the project after “28 Up” because of what he called “media malice.” Davies returned to the project with the latest in the landmark series, mainly to promote his band.
The 14 subjects of the “Up” series came from all walks of British life from blue collar to pampered elite backgrounds. As we view the chronological interviews from each seven years we get the striking image of an entire life – its dreams, sorrows and ambitions – taking place over a few minute’s time. One of the subjects, Nicolas Hitchon, complains to his interviewer (Apted) how his life, in the films, seems trivialized, reduced to snippets from each of the seven year intervals. Another, Suzanne Dewey, talks about how she has, over the years, had a love/hate relationship with Apted and his project.
Each of the 14 is given the opportunity to air his or hers views about life, love (nearly all of them were divorced at least once but one, Neil Hughes, who never married), success and failure. The sociological and demographic impact the world has experienced since 1963 is telling when the original subjects, from across England and from all walks of life, are, with one exception, white. Symon Basterfield, born of biracial parents, is the only of the 14 to show any racial diversity. Think what the cross section of British society Apted would select if he were to begin his ambitious project today.
For anybody, a body of work like the “Up” series would be the successful culmination of a long film career but Michael Apted, age 72, may still have it in him and his subjects to make the next installment in his series, “63 Up.” “56 Up” can be seen and appreciated by both those who have followed series and those to whom it is all new. I give it an A-.
Back in 1964, Michael Apted ("Gorillas in the Mist") began his career as a researcher on an experimental British television program called "Seven UP," which was designed around the idea that our personalities are set by the age of 7. Apted and director Paul Almond interviewed fourteen children from different parts of England, some working class, others more privileged. Apted took over the series with its third 7 year check-in and has been involved throughout his entire career, even as some original subjects dropped out. Now, some have returned and developments continue to surprise in "56 Up."
This series has always been intriguing, but now, after half a century, it has become astounding, a document that defies the fragility of memory. One cannot help but reflect upon one's own life, one that as a contemporary of the subjects was not archived on video, and wonder what Apted and long term editor Kim Horton ("28 Up") might have derived from it. Those decades younger than these subjects have the opposite conundrum, lives over documented because of changes in technology and the rise of social media. Almond couldn't have picked a more exciting time to kick off his project, with the last of the baby boomers about to face change paced more rapidly than at any other time in history. It's like the startling time lapse photography of "Chasing Ice" had been applied to the human race.
But it's not just the novelty of skipping around someone's timeline, from fresh faced naive young schoolchild to grandparent that makes this so involving. We've watched these people voice their dreams and intentions at various ages, only to be able to see just how closely they've hewed to their original ideas. We see two children as best friends at 7 become vastly different men on opposites sides of the earth. The rate of divorce among these subjects is staggering and we must wonder if this is a reflection of their time, or, as one woman puts it, the desire for children coming at an age before one fully knows oneself?
The series itself pokes its head into the spotlight more than once. One couple appears to be dating after years of being involved in the project separately. Neil, the series' most troubled subject, is frustrated that his involvement hasn't made getting what he wants in life, to be paid to be a writer, easier. Interestingly, Neil is also the series' loudest critic, objecting to the idea that he's been really represented and that its audience could have the gumption to claim to know him.
There's a tremendous amount of hope here as well. Those pegged as well to do at 7 all seem to have veered into working for the public good. Sue, one of the three young women pictured above, experienced some tough times in previous episodes, going through divorce and problems raising teenaged children as a single mom, but now, she couldn't be happier, dismissing the dark years as normal growing pains. Sue even went on to prestigious career at Saint Mary's College without a college education of her own. On the other hand, those two other women in the picture had quite different experiences. Jackie has gone through a series of tragedies with breakups and deaths. She's forced with having to earn a living after her benefits were cut, but one gets the impression reading between the lines that she's taken the system for more than she's given. Lynn called her career as a youngster, but after a satisfying life's work may see her livelihood taken away by budget cuts. Three women starting at the same place, three completely different work rhythms - ambitious, diminished and steady but precarious.
"56 Up" is something like an epic novel whose characters intertwine and diverge over the span of decades. But this is real life with all its everyday events and yet Apted and Horton awe us with their time lapse tapestry.
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10 | Video
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