Thursday, January 3, 2013

Life and learning continue as Michael Apted's landmark series reaches 56 UP

If you already know of the memorable and magnificent "UP" series, the latest addition to it will most likely be on your must-see list already. If you don't, it's never too late to come aboard. TrustMovies himself came aboard maybe ten years ago -- somewhere in the time between 42 Up and 49 Up. He began with the first in the series, now called Seven Up, shot back in 1963 for the British television documentary series World in Action. It covered a dozen 7-year-old British school children, all white with one mixed-race boy included, from homes upper-, middle- and lower-class (a couple of kids were in group homes).

The children, being kids, were very open: funny, charming, unique and generally delightful companions. So it was decided (probably more likely hoped) that the series could continue to document the lives of these children as they grew and matured. Indeed it has -- every seven years until this latest offering 56 UP -- with its original director and producer, Michael Apted (shown at right), continuing his yeoman work of interviewing and documenting these rather ordinary lives in a way that makes us realize how special and amazing they are. Just like yours and mine. In fact, if you don't identify -- and not just with one but with many of these people at different points along the way, I would suggest that you're not paying enough attention. The result is unique: the kind of documented personal history we've never had the opportunity to see until this particular collaboration, and the effect is equal parts bracing and moving. There is a profundity here that is in no way manufactured or strained. It simply is.

If you are new to the series, I would beg you to tackle it in a different way than I did. I watched the initial episode, along with its follow-up (called Seven Plus Seven), and then within two weeks had seen 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up. This proved too much too soon, and I felt there series contained far too much repetition. It doesn't, however, because the real waiting time between episodes is seven years.  We need the repetition at that point, because we've forgotten so much. So if you plan to watch, beginning-to-end, give yourself a respite of at least a month or two between episodes. Maybe even more time.

I met another critic at the press screening yesterday, who first came to the series by watching the penultimate episode 49 Up, and then went back to the beginning. That worked just fine, she said, and so I suspect you can enter the series via any of its (at this point in time) eight portals. What we get from all this is an understanding of the children we first meet, and of the young people they grow into, then the adults that come from these and finally, rather slowly in some cases, to the maturity and aging we have now. To call this a rich experience is woeful understatement.

It occurred to me only with this most recent addition to the series that I may not live long enough to see another segment; if I am lucky perhaps I'll see two more, which will take our people to the age of 70. And since Mr. Apted and I were born less than a fortnight apart, it also occurred to me that he might not live to finish the series, but I surely hope that he does. The fellow has made some other good movies in his time, but nothing to equal this. The Up Series will be a memorial not just to its participants but to the filmmaker.

Interestingly, we have noted along the way that those participants are not always happy with their participation nor its result. They feel, and rightly so, that the series is only showing a small piece of them. Yet when you total all those small pieces, you get -- maybe not the full character you would if you lived with the man or woman -- but still something vital and amazing.

Another caveat expressed by a couple of the participants is that of the filmmaker having an agenda -- to show up the British Class system. I'd love to speak with Apted about this, but from what we see and hear here (and have elsewhere over the past, what, century or three?), that system indeed exists (does anyone actually doubt this?) and the series' more affluent participants express it notably along the way. In 56 Up one fellow says it has changed and gone away; another says, Oh, no, it is still with us. (Both of these men are of the upper class, it is worth noting.)

Yet every one of these eleven people, from whatever class they come, are worth watching and listening to. TM is not going to go into the specifics of what we learn from this installment. Be there and find out for yourself. Once you've seen even one of these films, I believe you will be hooked for life -- theirs and yours.

56 Up, from First Run Features and running 144 minutes, opens tomorrow, Friday, January 4, in New York City at the IFC Center. Beginning January 17 and 18 , it will open in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively (and in Ottawa, too!) and from there appear in cities all across the U.S. in the months to come. You can see all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here.

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