Oct 16, 2013

FILMING LIVES - "Binge" Viewing Michael Apted's UP Series

Director Michael Apted

Every 7 years, a new installment of Michael Apted’s 7 UP documentary series is released.  With 7 years between the films, I tend to forget when it’s time for a new one - that is until FILM COMMENT inevitably reviews the newest one or I see advertising for it at the cinema or elsewhere (usually though it’s FILM COMMENT that keeps me in the loop). 

Participants Bruce, Jackie and Neil at age 7

The series began in 1964 with a group of 7 Year-old children featured on a British TV special (SEVEN UP!) that proclaimed to give a glimpse of “Great Britain in the year 2000.”  With the quote “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man” the idea is that at age 7 you can tell exactly what type of adult that person will become factoring in social, economic and educational backgrounds with the reminder that these particular children would be among the ones running things by the time the millennium came around.

Every 7 years director Michael Apted (THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, GORILLAS IN THE MIST) returns to interview the subjects at a new stage of their life and follow-up on what they’ve been doing and how they have changed since the previous installment.  The latest edition – 56 UP – was released last year.  21 UP is the last time that all the participants have been together in the same room  (so far – I have yet to view 56 which I will be doing tonight) , although there have been times when some of their paths have crossed individually.  Participants have dropped out over the years (one following 21, that is always mentioned thanks to being featured in a three shot with two others who remain with the series) while a couple of others have opted out in particular episodes only to return again in later installments. One participant disappeared after 28 UP, but then shows up again in 56 UP.  Others threaten to walk but somehow keep coming back for more.

The progression of age of UP participant Tony 

The overall UP series has proved that original "give me a child at 7" quote very wrong as the majority of the children interviewed grew up and continue to grow to be quite different than their young selves would suggest [Warning, SPOILERS ahead].  For instance, NEIL, an overly cheery child grows up to be very serious at 14 then later suffers from mental and personality problems and ends up homeless for large portions of his life even though he comes from a very solid family unit.  SUZY at ages 14 and 21 has all the indications of being an angry and emotionally detached streak ends up in a very normal marriage with children to a man named Rupert at that (can you get any more British than with the name Rupert?).  Or how about NICHOLAS, a picture-perfect precocious 7-year old from a small farming community who ends up as a professor teaching at a Wisconsin University. 

Neil overly-happy at age 7 and a little more subdued at 49

My first “new” introduction to this series was 35 UP  and I caught up on the rest of them when I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-90s – although I vaguely remember seeing one or two of the others on Television without really knowing what I was watching.  For instance, a moment during 7 PLUS SEVEN where Suzy’s dog attacks and kills a rabbit in the background while the interview is happening is very vivid in my memory as something I saw at some point when I was young.  It is also one of the best surprise moments given that Suzy refuses to look at the camera the entire time, and when she does they are very defiant or incredulous looks of a girl being forced to do something she doesn’t want to do, and later we learn that her parents were divorcing at the time which further added to her unpleasant disposition.  The dog killing the rabbit just amplifies the tone, especially when she barely registers what has happened when it drags the rabbit carcass over to her.

Suzy at age 7

Thanks to the magic of Internet movie streaming, the entire UP series is available on NETFLIX including the most recent 56 UP.  Each new episode provides a recap of some of the important moments from the previous installments before presenting new material, so it has never been necessary to have to catch up when a new film is released which was impossible anyhow since I had to often scrounge at specialty video stores or the library to get my hands on them in the first place. 

Nicholas at age 21 

With this new ease of availability, I decided to revisit them all in a 21st Century “binge” fashion before watching 56 UP for the first time which has added a new level of insight into the series.  I feel this has had even more of an impact on my feelings towards the series because I am reaching the age of the “middle” period of life where some of the issues and feelings these people have become more apparent, and I have become more emotionally attached to them than I did when I was younger and I viewed them as just older people talking about their lives. The ups and downs as well as the clearly defined stages of life - childhood, teen years, early adult, middle aged - come through in vivid detail.

Bruce at age 7 and not loving school by the look on his face

First there's the fact that almost all the men’s hairlines either recede, thin or disappear completely between the ages of 42-49 which for me places the later UP installments in the genre of “horror movie” (as I type this, I gaze lovingly and terrified at my full head of hair in a mirror which I would very much like to keep, however according to UP could be losing soon).  The changes with the women come through even more as with each episode their hair styles and clothing change more clearly with the decade then the men's do.

John at various age stages

Then there is the fact that 49 UP is my favorite of the series – and even more so now.  I feel it’s the one where the participants are all full-on facing their regrets, decisions and road-bumps in life, and some are visibly and verbally upset at director Apted for the way they have been portrayed at various points in the series (although none of them really comes off as bad, except an ex-wife of Nicholas who disappears from the series after her initial interview) and more importantly the fact that every 7 years their past gets thrown at them and laid out in full detail on film and television, drudging up memories that they would have ideally left forgotten.  I mention Nicholas’ ex-wife in particular because I can’t imagine that it is fun watching footage of yourself happily with a former spouse while you have moved on with or without someone new (this occurs with a few of them).  There is no way this wouldn't bring up old feelings of anger or hurt, and these people are now reminded of it every 7 years!

Also in 49 UP one of the women - Jackie - calls out Apted on a question he asked her at 28, and flashing back to that moment it is evident that she is seething in anger towards him.  Until that revelation, I always thought she was just waiting until the other participants were done speaking or was in disagreement with them, not the director.  As well, one of the women's weight fluctuates drastically depending on whether she's single or attached.  For instance, when married she seems to have more weight but during one of the episodes where she is a single mom and dating, she is thin, better dressed and wearing more makeup.  Does this provide some sort of insight on the mental process of people when they're married or single?  I think so!

Jackie, Lynn and Sue - 42 UP

Watching 49 UP made me think that 28 UP is the most significant "turning point" installment in the way their lives eventually shape up following it.  A friend of mine and I both agree that while watching it, 28 UP is the least interesting (with the exception of Neil’s story as his troubles are in full swing by that show) given that it’s the “hey look at me, I’m married with kids ain’t life grand” edition.  As the series progresses you start to realize that this was a peak moment in their lives, and that everything that follows is more rocky and a downhill progression than they expected.

Neil - 35 UP

What really strikes me by binge watching the series is how important it is as a whole.  At one point John, who has opted out of two installments of the series but comes back now and then and is very critical of it, states in 49 UP that it’s more like BIG BROTHER with the audience tuning in to see what problems the participants are having, how much hair they’ve lost or how much weight they’ve gained.  While there is a level of that (and I’m sure some people do in fact tune in just for that) I think that this series is and probably will be the only legitimate full look at the progress of life.  Had this series started now, it probably would come out more like a HONEY BOO BOO or bad reality show given that our society is so much used to reality television and the fact that it is completely manipulated.  Although I am sure in the editing room, the producers and Apted do take their liberties to get their point across, the interviews and B-roll footage don’t feel as staged as anything that the Kardashians do on their show.  And let’s face it, Facebook and other social media platforms are really the new UP given that you can get a full hour-by-hour update on anybody’s life at a glance.

Suzy various ages

I hope that the UP series continues on until these people are either in senior homes or even better, through until the last one is standing.  I do fear though that they won’t make it given that director Apted is already in his 70s, and he has a familiarity with these people and their progress that nobody could successfully step into his role or even want to.  In 42 UP and 49 UP, the participants start referring to him off camera as “Mike” or “Michael” which makes him more than just the faceless voice asking the questions, he’s now a significant part of the experience and their lives.  Also, my friend who I mentioned above has stated that they have come to trust Apted (even though they do call him out on on things from time to time) with documenting their lives on film and especially in the later senior years, it would be tough for them to reach a level where they would open up like that to anyone else.

Here’s hoping that sometime in 2019 or 2020, I will open up my new issue of FILM COMMENT (or log into the new issue via the Apple of Google device implanted in my skull) to discover that 63 UP will be coming to a theater near me, giving me and others the opportunity to catch up with old friends as well as continue this important documentation of the stages of life.