Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Up Series (1964-present)

Seven Up! (1964); 7 Plus Seven (1970); 21 (1977); 28 Up (1985); 35 Up (1991); 42: Forty Two Up (1998); 49 Up (2005); UK, 710 minutes, TV, documentary
Producer/director (except Seven Up!): Michael Apted

Except for the first entry in this series, intended as a one-off for the British newsy documentary TV series, "World in Action," producer/director Michael Apted has throughout been at the helm of this ambitious project, whose premise is simplicity itself: take a dozen or so British youngsters of age 7 in 1964, interview, shoot, edit, and repeat every seven years (and Apted was actually on hand for that first one too as an uncredited researcher). Seven Up! is confusing, compressed to less than an hour and forcing us all at once to sort out the numerous faces and stories and details. Then across the sum total of nearly 12 hours that the entire series now clocks in at there is an inevitable amount of repetition. Each project, after all, separated by seven years, necessarily has to seek its own audience and stand on its own, and must fill in the backstories right along. What's amazing is that, even watched virtually consecutively as I did recently, the repetition barely registers. That's because the stories are so surprising and unsettling and fascinating and normal. My favorite of the bunch is 28 Up simply because that's the one I found to have the most jaw-dropping developments per capita. These people never go in the direction you expect—and yet they always do: educations, personalities, marriages, children, divorces, deaths, hardships, victories, and losses. It's always predictable and not at all predictable every step of the way. The original selection of the subjects was deliberate in terms of class, geographic, and other formative backgrounds, and Apted's biases are often painfully at the fore in the interviews. But then these characters push back and obviously surprise him as much as they surprise us. Now that I'm finally in on this, I can't wait for 56 Up, due in 2012. I leave the last word to Roger Ebert, who notes that the movies are "an inspired, almost noble use of the film medium" and that "Apted penetrates to the central mystery of life."

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