Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 04, 2006 5:41 pm 
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However it's skewed, it still can't fail

Though he’s made some other films that are remembered (The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Bring on the Night, Gorillas in the Mist, Incident at Oglala, to name a few), Michaal Apted himself acknowledges that his “Up” series in which he examines the same group of British lives every seven years to see where, one by one, each of the men and women has got to since the first filmed interviews at age seven, is the most important thing he has done. Developed originally for television ("Granada's landmark documentary series") but widely seen on video and in theatrical release, Apted's Up series is a powerful and moving body of work, in its own small way a monumental study of contemporary society from the immediate post-war period till today, all in the most specific terms imaginable: individual lives and the way they've been lived. What is more interesting, really, than a life? And that means work, love, family, children, hardship, joys, all the things that matter. Is any subject more important than this?

There are certain limitations to the method. Apted has to show what his subjects want to show, and no more. With a project of this longevity it’s essential to maintain good relations. But in a way it’s a project that can’t fail. Each seven-year segment unmistakably reveals what the people have come to.

One thing that’s emerged is that the person’s life in each segment tends to have a certin distinct tone. Several of the people at 21 were clearly unhappy, or defiant, or talked wild. And Apted has seen that he can get it wrong. He is always the (unseen) interviewer, and he has been known to be intrusive or force the issue. Take one of his main people (because so open and voluble), Tony the East Ender who wanted to be a jockey and wound up driving a cab and now has moved to Spain and has grandchildren. Apted decided about Tony in 21 Up that he was going to turn to crime. Perhaps 21 is an age when certain people like to try on attitudes. In fact Tony has proven to be quite reliable and positive and safe, a model of family values, a successful entrepreneur, his marriage a partnership (both have driven London cabs) and, through think and thin (including faced infidelity) one of the group’s most stable. So Tony has moved up and up and now has transferred to Spain where he is likely to open a café.

The series has a range of types, which in part is calculated through choosing boys from public school and from council estates and foster homes. (The way the two men from foster homes have reunited is touching.) The three upperclass boys pontificating on a bench at seven is a sequence returned to frequently because their self confidence is as astonishing as it is absurd. One of these has refused to be filmed since 21 Up—and since he’s a documentary filmmaker, this Apted finds unforgivable. The others have turned out very much the way they predicted at seven, went to the schools they said they’d go to, became a barrister, and so on. There are interesting types. The public school boy who taught in Bangladesh, then in ghetto schools, who’s now switched to an elite and ancient school because he felt he was being worn down, and he wants to teach maths to boys with talent; he seemed unlikely to marry; but now is happily so with children. The man who was homeless in London at 28, who declared he was losing his sanity, who’s gone into politics -- but not because he's gone mad; he's changed a lot. The boy from the foster home who went to Australia to be with his father. The woman who lives in Scotland near her husband, but is divorced, and who accuses Apted of skewing his picture of her toward the negative.

When Apted assembles each new segment on one of the group, he edits in clips from earlier Up films on that person. How he chooses these clips is up to him, and certainly can skew the image of the person one way or another.

Yes, this isn’t rocket science. But it’s fascinating. And it just gets better and richer as we go along. Apted's Up series is essential viewing and was an obvious film to include as part of the "insanely selective" New York Film Festival for 2006.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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