Saturday, February 02, 2013

56 Up (and the entire "Up" documentary series)

Hello my dear friends -

I spent a good chunk of the past two days searching and searching and searching the bowels of this blog because I could have SWORN that I'd written about the Up documentary series before. But if I did, that post has been sacrificed to the Blogger demons and I just can't find it. It's gonna drive me nuts.

Since I can't reference the post I thought I wrote in order to give you some background, let me start out by saying that the Up series is — by far — one of the best, if not THE best, film-viewing experiences of my life. It has affected me profoundly, and I think it will do the same for you, which is why I chose to not only fire up this long-neglected site today, but also promote a competitor's product (56 Up is now in select theaters, but Netflix has all of the past Up movies on DVD and Instant (as you guys all know, I've been a freelance writer for Redbox since 2008) Also, since I first posted this an hour ago, others have let me know that the past installments are often at public libraries as well).

The series began in 1964, when a British filmmaker decided to test out the maxim "Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man." Ten seven-year-old boys and four seven-year-old girls were interviewed that year to establish their attitudes about certain issues, their dreams and their life plans, and then these same individuals were revisited every seven years since to see how they've changed and how things actually turned out.

TOTALLY AMAZINGLY, all but one of them have remained a part of this grand cinematic experiment for nearly half a century. (And happy spoiler alert: they're all still alive, which I guess is also pretty amazing.) The great irony is that the one guy who dropped out, Charles Furneaux, went on to become a documentary producer himself.

Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the first film (entitled Seven Up!), took over the reins with the next installment (7 Plus Seven) and has stayed with the project ever since. While you can't see him in 56 Up, you can hear him — and the age creeping into his voice (he's 71). Thankfully he has made arrangements for the series to continue on when he is no longer around to do the interviews.

My hope is that the interviewees will want to continue on after that point, too. The series was enormously popular in Britain, and the participants experienced a strange sort of fame. Almost all of them have struggled with how their "characters" have been depicted, and they clearly have a strong love/hate relationship with the project — and I'm sure with Apted himself to some extent.

Despite the negatives that have come with the series for the thirteen participants, after watching 56 Up my husband and I were talking about how cool it would be to have your life documented in this way. What a gift these people have for their children, their friends and their other family members! And really, themselves, too. How many of us would jump at the chance to see and hear what we were like at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and 56? To be reminded what we thought about the issues of the day and what are dreams were at that point in time? It would be nothing short of extraordinary. It's not the same as home videos.

So now I guess I better talk a little bit about why I feel so strongly about the Up series, besides the Cool Factor mentioned above.

I love these movies because — for the most part — they radiate a sense of hope, a sense of peace, a sense of happiness, and a sense that everything's going to work out. However, they accomplish this in a way that is very much NOT what the original filmmaker planned. He seemed to be out to prove that a British family's educational, class and social standing would ultimately determine how their children ended up. That's true for some of the participants, but couldn't be further from the truth for others—coming from money didn't always guarantee happiness, and growing up poor didn't always prevent success. Luck, determination, optimism and personality have played HUGE roles in the interviewees' lives. Perhaps they, too, have realized this at age 56, because few of them have any real regrets (even when what's happened to them isn't all rainbows and puppy dogs). The general sense seems to be "I've done the best I could, and for the most part I'm happy."

One of the most memorable interviewees is Tony, whose boundless energy has hardly waned since he was a wee lad. Here is a person who had big dreams, went after them, and achieved almost all of them despite great odds. But he's not perfect, and his many personal and professional missteps have been documented right along with his achievements.

Tony through the years

Then there's Neil—one of my favorites from the original installment—who was just a bundle of personality at age seven. But at some point before he turned 21, things went horribly off track. His is the most concerning of the updates in 56 Up, though my hope is that he's currently more content than he lets on.

Neil, now and then
If you are able to watch the very first film in the series, I'll forewarn you that there's lots of talk about the British school system, and all of that went over my head. But you'll still get the point the director is attempting to set up for the rest of the project, and the UK-specific parts lessen as the series progresses.

You don't need to see all of the other films first because they recap the life story of each of the interviewees and show clips from all of the previous Up films ... BUT I think if you have some time, I would do everything you can to at least try to catch a few of the early installments beforehand. It would be hard to have much of an emotional connection to the group otherwise. Though make no mistake, if all you can make time for is to only see 56 Up, do it. It will still be an incredible and moving experience.

If you're here in Chicago, 56 Up is playing at the beloved Music Box Theatre all week.

If you're not in Chicago, you can see when 56 Up is coming to a theater near you here.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's watched any of the Up installments. Are you as obsessed with them as I am?

A trio of friends from the series


Aunt J-ha said...

This documentary series is so interesting. I also remember being worried for Neil and also maybe Susan? Although in 49 up I remember she had made some peace with her choices and life and I think she said at the time she was finished with the interviews. I can't wait to see the newest installment.

Unknown said...

I remember watching the first of the 7up series when I was in my late teens. I'm now 39 and each time I watch the series, it has a profound effect on me too. Although, for me, it's impactful because it's like glimpsing these people through the eyes of God. That might sound silly, but we get the chance to see them in a way we cannot view ourselves, our family, our friends. We are able to see the pattern - the attitude, outlook and personality and how it is these things that have gone on to define their life thus far.

At 56, most of them appear to be at peace with their choices and to have developed wisdom which enables them to look backward on their life with an honesty and openess which didn't come when they were younger.

I love this series and loved your review.

TracyT said...

Did you know there is an American version? "Age 7 in America", "Age 14 in America", and "Age 21 in America". I remember seeing the first in that series years ago. Haven't seen the others...

Shelly said...

I know you had previously posted on the Up series, because I started watching them after you mentioned them! I think it was on LLL though. I had no idea the new one was playing in America. Going to see it this weekend now! Thanks for the heads up.

Kelly, UK said...

I haven't seen this series, although I am aware of it. A similar one that has been really helpful for me is Child of Our Time, which started in the year 2000, and every year or two we get an update on these children we met as babies, and see them growing up. Now they are becoming teenagers, and the next installemnt is next week. I really like the programme because they are all from very different families, there are a set of triplets, a boy with a single mother who is very disabled, a girl who was very premature, etc. I like to see how they are developing and growing because it gives me a sneak preview of how my children will develop and grow - my eldest is about a year behind the Child(ren) of Our Time.

There are interesting insights into how the children view the world, and little tests to show us their personalities. I don't know if you can see the series in America (it's BBC and is presented by Prof Robert Winston) - there is no DVD. But I can recommend the book of the first 5 years:

The book is described as follows:
In 2005, the children from the BBC's groundbreaking "Child of Our Time" television series reached an important milestone as they turned five years old. Tessa Livingstone, who has worked on the series since its inception, has brought together a wealth of information and reassuring guidance to help everyone achieve the best for their child. Issues such as personality, siblings, love, learning, anger, friendship, gender, self-awareness, success, ambition, and empathy are discussed and interspersed with games, fun tests, and questionnaires to help parents see their children as individuals with unique needs and gifts. It will help them cope with the many issues over which they have little control, and guide them through those where they can influence and affect their young child's life for the better.

Mel said...

Thanks for your post. I watched 7 Up and 14 Up previously, and I didn't realize the rest were available on Netflix until your post. I've finished 42 Up and I'm somewhat obsessed. I'm surprised at how Suzy turns things around after 21 Up. I'm something of a Bruce fan. I keep telling my 3 year old daughter about her "cute little bummy shorts" and I ask my kids for "a kiss and a cuddle." I have to say though, it's a little depressing to watch these people age in seven year increments over night!