Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 22, 2013 11:02 am 
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Caught living, past midpoint

A documentary series that looks at the lives of over a dozen individuals from different backgrounds every seven years, all through their lives: what a fantastic idea! Michael Apted was a twenty-two-year-old trainee at what was to be Granada Television when the first "Up" film, meant as a one-off at the time, was made in 1964. He was responsible only for finding some of the fourteen seven-year-olds filmed and interviewed. The Canadian Paul Almond directed that clever, provocative program; it was 40 minutes long. Its starting point was the Jesuit saying, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." It seemed also aimed at showing that upper class Brits could map out their whole futures with some certainty at an early age while the disadvantaged would have to dream and strive and hope. (The middle class was less well represented and so were girls, of whom there were only four.) The point about class was to some extent illustrated as the series went on but the focus on individual lives came to seem more important than the social determinism.

Apted went on to cut his teeth on the long-running TV drama "Coronation Street" and later made it to Hollywood, where he has been a do-anything director otherwise, with some other good documentaries under his belt. But we know and he knows that the "Up" series, which he is responsible for picking up and continuing every seven years from 1970 (14 Up) on, will be his enduring monument. It has a life of its own.

The new one, vintage 2012, 56 Up, 49 years on, isn't my favorite: there is almost a burden of information now, and the quick flashback edits and jangly talk are jarring and confusing. It was made to show in three TV segments; watching it all at once is a bit wearing. Or is it just that I'm getting older, as are the participants, and the director? There's still nothing like the first one, which 56 Up often jumps back to. Out of the mouths of babes came such funny and disarming declarations. Lives that later went awry were still full of hope. And who can forget the three annoying but hilariously confident young toffs (Andrew, Charles, and John) who declare their future paths, Charterhouse, Cambridge, the bar?

Michael Apted has now directed seven "Up" documentaries since Seven Up. What do they tell? Well, everything, and nothing. The films are windows into individual lives, and into ourselves. As Manohla Dargis of the NY Times wrote of the current film, they're mirrors. In 56 Up one of the brightest participants, Nick (William Nicholas Hitchon), agrees with the latter notion. Nick is critical of how reducing each person's last seven years to under ten minutes of film, arbitrarily edited, distorts their thoughts and their lives. He's not the only one who's been unhappy (or unlucky) in how he or she's been shown or seen. But this time he suggests that, like them or not, the individual portraits that emerge over time in these films are of someone, of human beings, people viewers can identify with. And observing them on film, in action, with wives and children (or without them), with grandchildren now, at home or abroad, doing the things they do, at regular intervals, spread out over nearly half a century, is an astonishing, sometimes baffling or enlightening, cumulatively very moving experience. It makes you think about life, of lives, of your own life; of how theirs, or yours, have turned out; of the role of luck, birth, choices, and personal fortitude in determining who one is and what one has done. The "Up" series structure is so strong that how successful individual segments have turned out to be doesn't altogether matter.

As an American I'm expected to note how this movie shows the difference between us and the English. Okay, yes, you Brits are more tight-lipped, though doubtless less so than formerly. And certainly we Yanks can't begin to grasp the subtle distinctions of class and accent embedded here. Writing of 56 Up in The New Yorker David Denby, though praising English modesty, has still complained that the contrasts within lives and between people aren't more dramatic. Apted himself regrets having chosen only four girls and says he's made movies featuring women all his life (has he?) to compensate. He begins this film perhaps also for that reason with Jackie, Lynn and Sue, the three girls from a working class East End London school. There's only one non-white chap, Symon. But let us remember that this was the early Sixties. Speaking of Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, Jackie and Lynn have had some job loss and health problems, but despite the ravages on the social network during the Thatcher era they may have made it through better than their American counterparts, due to the weaker safety net over here.

Psychological and marital problems might be the sort of things a tight-lipped race would downplay. But are they downplayed here? That can also be a class matter. The bubbly, chatty East Ender Tony, that failed jockey and successful London cabbie with, now, a second house in Spain, may come from a class or simply have a personality that values notoriety over privacy. He loves to tell the tale of how somebody came up for an autograph when he was driving Buzz Aldrin, the Astronaut, and the celebrity-hound wanted his John Hancock, not Buzz's; and he has come clean about his philandering ways more than once now.

Others may mask any psychological problems, but not Neil, from Liverpool. His homelessness and agitation in earlier segments gave away his coping troubles. His life seems as much a struggle and a triumph as anybody's in the series. To have gone from living in a London squat, a university dropout, wandering under the rain in the Shetlands, to serving as a local councilman, Liberal Democrat candidate for parliament and lay minister, still an oddball and a loner but also close with his small village community and in his own way happy: this seems a remarkable and unpredictable trajectory. Not disturbed but traumatized, Peter, Neil's original aged seven classmate at the same middle class suburban Liverpool school (they both wanted to be Astronauts), dropped out for three of the films after 28 Up (1984) after being blasted by the right-wing tabloid press for his strong criticisms of the Thatcher government. Twice married, first a bored teacher, then a lawyer turned bureaucrat, he has returned to the series at 56, after skipping 35, 42 and 49, to promote his well known country-rock band, The Good Intentions.

These are interesting lives. What lives aren't, looked at closely, over time? 56 Up falls all over itself a bit to charm its own aging audience with cute baby pictures and grandchildren, just like a high school reunion. But this is much more than that: it's a film, with its many almost Proustian edits of archival footage; and doting on grandchildren is how growing old with a family is.

As for the class system, whether the original intent was to prove its rigidity or its tendency to unravel, it's hard to question the enduring range of Apted's original catches. Despite the lack of racial or ethnic variety or gender equality, these people still show a considerable variety of statuses, especially when we observe the reluctant return of some of the toffs. There is Bruce, with much in common with the wealthy Suzy; they're interviewed together this time. Bruce like Suzy went to a posh boarding school, and he did maths at Oxford. An idealist with years teaching at East End and Bangladesh schools, he has in some sense reverted to type by winding up teaching in a very old public school, St. Alban's, which dates back to the tenth century. Practicing his idealism alone till his late forties, he's now happily married with two boys. A scene of him bonding with them in a tiny tent is hilarious, and winning.

One of the three little toffs, Charles, though a documentarian himself, has haughtily absented himself since 21 Up (1977) and even required that there be no mention of himself. That leaves Andrew and John. Andrew is a barrister at a very high level. He claims the films' assertion of rigid class limitations was a cliché, and then Apted, in a blunt edit, shows him hunting with hounds. As for John, he insists it was wrong to depict him at the fancy preparatory school as part of the "privileged upper class" because his father died when he was nine; his mother had to work to put him through school; and he attended Oxford on a scholarship. But how can we exclude from the ranks of the privileged John, a Queen's Council barrister; who plays classical piano; is married to Claire, daughter of Sir Donald Logan, former ambassador to Bulgaria; great-great-grandson of the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Todor Burmov; ardent supporter of Bulgarian charities, who hopes to reclaim family land there that was nationalized? Poor little John's background and RP accent have served him very well.

Roger Ebert has said the "Up" series is on his list of the ten greatest films of all time. He calls the series "an inspired, almost noble use of the film medium," adding that "Apted penetrates to the central mystery of life." Even if this achievement comes partly by the accident of form, Ebert could be right. This is the kind of human monument you could put into a space probe. And it makes you think, and think again, each successive time.

56 Up, 144 mins., was screened for this review on 21st January 2013 in San Francisco, as part of the Mostly British Festival, at the historic Vogue Theater, in continuous use as a cinema since 1907. 56 Up's three-part presentation on British television started last 14 May. As a feature film it opened in the US at IFC Center in NYC 3 January 2013. It will open soon in Bay Area Landmark Theaters. (I reviewed 49 Up as part of the 2006 New York Film Festival.)

Roger Ebert interviews Michael Apted in 2006 when 49 Up was released.

YouTube video of 28 Up, complete.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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