Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - The "Up" Series (#26)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Favorites - The "Up" Series (#26)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The "Up" Series (UK/dir. Michael Apted, Paul Almond): Seven Up! (1964), 7 Plus Seven (1970), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998), 49 Up (2005), 56 Up (2012) appeared at #26 on my original list.

What it is • In the year 1964 the UK was experiencing a particular moment of energetic expansion and optimism. As the Beatles led a worldwide musical revolution, British cinema was launching its own simultaneous invasion: not only did the top Academy Award go to a British film (Tom Jones) for the second year in a row (if we count the previous year's Lawrence of Arabia as British) but six of the top ten U.S. box office hits had British stars and/or settings. In both music and cinema, many of these new pop culture icons were from working-class backgrounds and that autumn the Labour Party would return to power for the first time in over a decade, with a slim majority in the general election - perhaps signaling a rising class consciousness which would inform at least the initial films in the Up series. Nineteen years after World War II, on the cusp of the sixties cultural revolution, this was the perfect time to launch a hugely ambitious film project which remains active today. Of course, this wasn't originally the intention. When World in Action aired the forty-minute special "Seven Up!" in May, it was just one of a season full of investigative documentary episodes. Paul Almond co-conceived and directed it, choosing (with the help of several young assistants) fourteen children from diverse class backgrounds (ten boys, four girls; mostly white with one exception) to explore how their economic situations affected their lives from the young age of seven. Re-aired at Christmas and then, one might have reasonably assumed, destined to be slowly forgotten, the program was inspired by the Jesuit dictum "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." One of Almond's assistants, Michael Apted, was fascinated by the implications of this idea and essentially decided to put it to the test. He followed up with the children six years later (presumably seven years after the actual production of the TV special), when they were fourteen. Thus began a pattern which will resume again in three years, when 63 Up re-visits these familiar faces on the cusp of old age, interviewing them to discover their thoughts on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and more importantly the personal experiences big and small - illnesses, travels, deaths, births, divorces, marriages - that affected them since Apted's last visit. Each film includes copious clips from those that came before, so that we can see the histories of ordinary lives unfold before our eyes both in the moment and, if we follow the series for years, in real time. This is one of the most unique endeavors in the history of cinema (even something as unusual and celebrated as Boyhood stands in its shadow), and it will likely continue until all the subjects have passed away - Apted, who is about fifteen years older than the participants, has said he hopes his own son will continue the project when he himself has died.

Why I like it •
Like many young American film buffs, I first heard about this project when Roger Ebert covered it in his "Great Movies" series, around the time that Apted released the first middle-aged entry of Up series. That was the late nineties, and I was a teenager living in New Hampshire, unable to see 42 Up but immensely fascinated by the project (to glimpse my own obsession with capturing the aging process, which was emerging at this exact time, you can read the notes on my review of Boyhood - including some sketches I made of invented characters growing older decade by decade). In 2005 I lived in New York. I can't remember if it was coincidence or knowledge that the next Up film would debut that year, but for whatever reason I decided to finally watch the series. My roommates, who were not big film buffs, became equally fascinated as we made our way through the DVDs rented from Kim's Video (they especially enjoyed the boisterous Tony). Whether or not I knew that 49 Up was on the horizon, I don't think I was initially aware it would be premiering at the New York Film Festival, but once I found out I made plans to attend NYFF for the first time. I bought a ticket for the debut, attended a Q&A with Apted the next day, and even made an effort to shake Tony's hand when I ran into him outside Lincoln Center. The handshake was returned, but he looked at me like I had two heads as I awkwardly explained "I just wanted to be able to tell my roommates I shook Tony's hand!" In 2013, I was living in Pasadena and finally saw 56 Up when another roommate borrowed it from the local library - which incidentally makes this the only entry on my 2011 Favorites list to date from later than 2011! Though I felt this entry was a little weaker than the previous ones (the strongest so far, aside from the eternally lively 7, might be the restless, melancholy 28) it was still wonderful to catch up with these individuals, who felt like old friends. And of course, after watching the films in quick succession in 2005, this was the first time that the seven- (or eight-, as it were) year interval existed for me as well as for the subjects and filmmaker...as will be the case from now on. Each time I rewatch the series, I can identify with a different chapter since I match up roughly to one of the installments each seven years (I was born not long before 35 Up was shot - so when 63 comes out, 35 will be the one I connect to the most on rewatch). Not to sound like a broken record, but one of the biggest themes of this Favorites series is "transformation" - particularly the transformation of people, places, and/or societies over time. No set of films better captures this phenomenon than the Up series.

More from me • Aside from some screen-caps for my viewing diary and an award for "best short film of 1964" (I debated whether or not to count them as individual films or the whole series as one before settling on the former) I have never covered these films on this blog before. I'll try to review the next entry when it comes around, and maybe devote a full piece to each entry in the buildup to that release, giving them all the space and attention they deserves.

How you can see it • I couldn't find the films streaming anywhere, but they are all available for DVD rental on Netflix (7/14 - 21 - 28 - 35 - 42 - 49 - 56).

What do you think? • Do you have a "favorite" chapter in the series? Is there a person you identify with and/or are the most curious to follow? When did you begin following the series, and how does your own age compare to the subjects onscreen?

• • •

Tomorrow: Mamma Roma (#25)

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