Lost in the Movies: 63 Up

63 Up

The ninth entry of the Up documentary series finds itself - if not necessarily its subjects - hovering in a place of uncertainty. For fifty-five years, director Michael Apted at least attempted to interview fourteen British individuals (although a few declined to participate in certain entries) beginning when they were schoolchildren with the intended one-off 7 Up! - which Apted worked on under the direction of Paul Almond for a BBC program. Heading into 63 Up, I expected a more melancholy meditation on aging, loss, and disappointment although I'm not sure why. After all, these people are not quite elderly yet - many of them are still working even if they discuss imminent retirement, several have children still living at home, and more than a few mention parents who died only very recently or who are still alive in their eighties and nineties. There will, inevitably, be an end of the road for the entire ensemble but if they are closer now to that end than their beginning there is still a ways to go. Perhaps my anticipation stemmed from vague knowledge of the exceptions to that general case: two participants have passed away by now (one is mentioned in the film itself, the other shown in ill health). Above all, however, I think it was Apted's own passing which informed my initial impression. More than anything else going forward, the absence of the series' guiding hand casts doubt upon future films.

However, 63 Up does not exactly feel like a conclusion. As this entry catches us up with a dozen of the original fourteen, they appear older and wiser, yes, but very much on the tail end of middle age - the late autumn of their years rather than the full-on winter. The stories are told with a sense of ongoing drama and open questions although, in perhaps the biggest difference from earlier entries (maybe even 56 Up), there is no real sense of building toward a climax. While life will still bring surprises to the Up cast as they age, their ambitions have now largely been realized or disappointed, and they have a fairly confident notion of what the future will look like up to and including their own mortality. Watching their elders and loved ones pass away gives them a troubled sense of being next in line even if their own deaths remain distant on the horizon. The vibe of the film consists more of appreciating what one has than of longing for more, living in the moment rather than building for the future. "Give me the child at seven, and I will show you the man," the early sixties narrator intones over black-and-white footage of the children cavorting on a playground, announcing the premise of the entire project. Not having seen 7 - 56 for a while, I can't recall if in the past Apted was as keen to ask his subjects this question, but he's certainly interested in their own answers by 63. Most affirm this dictum, credited to the Jesuits, although at least one agrees with the director's doubts about his own case.

Perhaps with this spectrum in mind (Apted will end the film with those doubts), 63 Up opens with one of the most consistent members: Tony, a lively East Ender dreamed of being a jockey, expanded from operating as a cabbie to owning several properties, and now lives in a senior community with his wife where he energetically jogs through the woods every day. Tony's larger-than-life persona makes him a favorite with many viewers and several if not all of the films use his boisterousness to welcome us into their worlds. Tony's marriage, troubled in the past, appears content although at least one of his kids has run into unspoken issues - mental health and/or addiction heavily implied - leaving Tony and Debbie to raise their young granddaughter. Next up is Andrew, one of the posh trio who laid out their entire future - quite accurately in his own case - back in the first film. Now nearing the end of his legal career, meticulously maintaining his country home, and watching his children graduate to their own prestigious pursuits, Andrew presents a portrait of contentment...which draws a contrast with the Up series' most egregious nonparticipant. In clips from 7, 7 Plus Seven, and 21, we observe Andrew in a line-up with John and Charles; the former's participation has been fickle (he skipped two but shows up here) while the latter fought vociferously with the director in his youth and later sued to have all footage of his earlier appearances removed from later films. Charles failed in this endeavor - photographed with the other boys, he'd be too hard to excise - but his name is never mentioned in 63 Up. In a film with one deceased subject and another nonparticipant, Charles' pointed absence is the strongest indication of how life may refuse to conform to the Up structure, no matter how loose that structure remains.

A more endearing indication of such nonconformity is Sue's eternal engagement to the fiancé announced over twenty years ago in 42 Up. They don't appear in any rush to tie the knot and, at least as presented to us in the interview, there is a whimsical pleasantness to this nondecision as if at sixty-three Sue is both keeping the possibility of future surprises open and underscoring her own enjoyment of the present. Of the three working-class girls who provided a yin to the preppy schoolboys' yang, Sue seems to have secured the most stable and purely satisfying life (certainly in terms of physical health); she is nearing retirement after decades in academic administration and teaching and wonders how she will fill her days after that. Nick, unfortunately, has little room to wonder. The cheerful boy from the Yorkshire farm moved to America, married, divorced, and re-married, and pursued an ambitious research and professorial career in nuclear physics; now he coughs and sips water as he tells Apted that he likely will not be present for 70 Up (a sad mutual bond between director and subject in this case). Afflicted with cancer, Nick's days are filled with treatments and burdensome routines even as he continues to work; in fact, offscreen, he would not retire until 2022 - maintaining his job even through the pandemic - and he lived until a few months ago when he passed away at sixty-five. Onscreen, he contemplates the death of his own father who wasted away to a shadow of his former self, before Nick recalls the happiest moment of his life - the birth of his own son - which seemed like a bliss that would last forever (even though, of course, it could not).

Bruce, whose longing to see his own absent father created one of the most poignant moments in the earliest entry, has come a long way since his sad-faced childhood and restless, globetrotting youth (in which he taught impoverished students in both the United Kingdom and Bangladesh). Now paunchy and silver-haired, comfortably ensconced in a teaching career like so many Up subjects, he travels to New York City with his wife and adolescent boys while reflecting on his own preoccupation with his immediate surroundings rather than the problems of the world. Against the bustling cityscape he floats like an island of stability. Jackie, Sue's old pal who always seemed like the ringleader of her trio, has faced many challenges documented in the previous films. A single mother on disability, she found a loving partner in middle age and eventually separated from him although he remained an active presence in her and her children's lives. At sixty-three, she faces the aftershocks of his sudden death in a car accident several years earlier. Jackie has always been the most confrontational with the director (in 63 Up she accuses him of sexist condescension toward the women in the series) but while several other subjects express doubts or even hostility to the series as a whole, she remains extremely thankful and enthusiastic for this opportunity to share her life with the world. Peter is one of those more resistant to participation (he skipped three films in a row before returning for 56 Up). He frankly acknowledges that the only reason he's sitting for an interview is to promote his folksy band. Shown performing in what looks like a little attic room, Peter is one of many Upsters whose sixties are depicted as the height of hard-earned contentment, humble but secure in the knowledge of who they are and what they enjoy doing.

Lynn, on the other hand, never got to experience her sixties at all. For the first time, the Up series must deal with the death of one of its participants and 63 Up allows itself to freeze in the face of this prospect. The warm intimacy of the central subject interviews is traded for a blunt, glum exchange with Lynn's daughters and husband who relay their frustrations, with Lynn's own refusal to go to the hospital when an ongoing condition was aggravated, and especially with the medical system that did not anticipate her rapid decline - leaving her to die alone when her unsuspecting family went home for the night. Focusing on the material circumstances of her passing, the film tastefully acknowledges a distance between this stark, impenetrable finality and, what's more in its wheelhouse, the ups and downs of a life still being lived. Lynn's footage from 56 Up - in which she appeared happier and relatively healthier than some of her other appearances - is used to give her a voice in this series one last time. As a farewell gesture, 63 Up shows the dedication of a library wing to Lynn, whose passion for that institution helped define her life. To cheer us up, the last section of the documentary (which was broadcast in three parts for its TV premiere) reconnects two of its subjects. Paul and Symon grew up in boarding schools apart from their fractured families, but now they both have families of their own. While Bruce has visited Symon in the UK for several films, this is the first time they've been reunited in Australia (where Paul has lived for decades). Paul discusses his own deep-seated emotional reticence while Symon reflects on the breakup of an earlier marriage and reconciliation with his grown children. In both cases, childhood scars obviously impacted them well into adulthood but if the seven-year-olds anticipate the sixty-three-year-olds it's less a straight line than a matter of obstacles they define themselves by reacting against.

Like Peter, the lawyer John has been absent from some past entries (although his own participation was more spotty, coming and going as he pleased). Also like Peter, John only reluctantly participates now for the sake of promotion - in this case, for Bulgarian charities. One of the series' more subtle surprises is the realization that this upper-class gentleman, who seems so quintessentially British and was presented as such in the early films, is three-quarters Eastern European. John's presence in 63 Up does not reveal many new details, although he reiterates the financial difficulties and family issues of his youth which were kept offscreen (contributing to a portrait of untroubled privilege) and reflects that British society is now much more interested in meritocracy than inheritance. With more bemusement than regret, he recognizes that the lofty ambitions of his adolescence were never realized - a political career did not materialize (which he expresses with great relief) even after he hit all the expected educational and early career benchmarks. Suzy, whose path to adult happiness wound its way through an elite childhood, wounded adolescence and jaded youth, has often cheerfully declared her mortification with the series yet kept showing up for new entries. This time she does not; whether or not she comes back (and I suspect that, even if the series does, she may not), Apted's subsequent death marks this as a conclusion to their tense but fruitful collaboration. Suzy's absence - an Bartleby-esque assertion that "I would prefer not to" - feels like the appropriate ending for her own tale: the freedom to disengage and vanish into the outside world away from the hall of mirror-cameras. This is a liberation as well as a kind of death.

Overall, 63 Up has the fewest participants of any Up film since 42, with Suzy the only first-time loss in the years since 35 (aside from the involuntary Lynn). (21 Up was the last to include everyone; since then, 56 Up holds the record with all but Charles joining in.) On the other hand, we doubt Neil will ever decline to talk about his experience - even if his previous appearances left viewers in a state of anxious suspense. Neil is the person whose cheerful childhood portrait, famously, least prepared viewers for who he would become as an adult; moreover, his haunted youth - living in precarity and emotional gloom - gave way to unexpected political and religious leadership in middle age. Often critics, viewers, and the films themselves understandably celebrate the latter transformation but 63 Up reminds us that Neil's struggles continue and will never end until he does. Remaining politically and spiritually active, he is nonetheless unsatisfied in his creative and family life. The only childless Up participant, Neil is still married at the time of the interview but estranged from his wife; he recalls an earlier relationship which unfolded over a long distance and fell apart as a result. "The idea of true love, which I do think exists, occurs so seldom," Neil tells us. "You know, if it occurs once in somebody's life they're extremely lucky. For it then to happen, and then the potential can't be fulfilled is heartbreaking." Under images of Neil singing a hymn in church and riding his bicycle into the distance down a country road, the old music swells and we return to the playground footage of the past, intercut with the characters in the present, before the narrator informs us (now with great irony), "This has been a glimpse of Britain's future."

Watching this in 2023, it is now sixty years after the seven-year-olds played, eighteen years after I began viewing the films myself, seven years (almost to the day, coincidentally!) since I covered the rest of the series, and four years after 63 Up itself came out. My initial impression of this final montage was that the series was reaching its crescendo; nonetheless, I'm left with the hope there will be more. When I heard Apted speak at a festival years ago he mentioned the possibility of a son continuing his work. However, there hasn't been much official word yet of who would carry on the project and what form it would take. Do the participants themselves even want to sit down for anyone other than the young man who selected them as children or the old man who gave them the opportunity to tell the stories of their aging? In a New York Times article published after Apted's death at seventy-nine in 2021, several subjects expressed a desire to continue and (along with Apted himself at 2019 Q & A) designated his longtime producer Claire Lewis as the likely successor. She too is in her seventies and it seems likely that if there is another film it will be a farewell coda, allowing the project to go out on a graceful if slightly evasive note, rather than following its subjects into the twilight of old age, failing health, and death (imagine all the complications that would ensue, from family members obstructing access to the subjects themselves becoming less responsive or available for a thorough interview). In the Times piece, at least one participant agrees with that timetable. "'70 and 7 do have a good symmetry,' [Jackie] Bassett said. 'It would have to be the last one for everybody.'"

My own disjointed symmetry with the series is informed by the fact that I was only a few months old when Apted and the participants were filming 28 Up in 1984. My seven-year installments have echoed theirs, making me around seven myself when (unknown to me) 35 Up debuted, fourteen when I read about 42 Up, twenty-one when I attended the 49 Up premiere, and twenty-eight for 56 Up. As I wrote in 2016 for my Favorites series (7 - 56 Up ranked #26 collectively), "by the time 63 comes out, 35 will be the one I connect to the most on rewatch." It took me so long to catch up with 63 Up, however, that I fell out of sync and am now closer to 42 Up than 35 Up. Between Apted's death and Covid-19 in the years between the film's release and my viewing, this feels more like a glimpse of the past than a view of the present. Meanwhile, I was half-right in my 2016 expectations of what they would discuss ("Brexit and Corbyn"). Brexit does indeed come up in several interviews - the film was shot several years after the vote to leave the European Union although the actual departure hadn't happened yet. But the controversial Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is never mentioned by name (Peter says he's left the Labour Party after a lifetime of voting for them while Tony, regretting his vote for "Leave", switches from the Tories to the Greens and Neil continues to stand for elections as a Liberal Democrat). This film, part of a series which began as an explicit exploration of the British class system, may be even less engaged with politics than some of the other recent entries; overall the series has certainly trended toward a personal focus.

One of the Up series' most fascinating features is its time capsule quality; every film includes footage from the earlier ones, finding its form via accretion of artifacts. We notice not just the ways that the people themselves have changed, losing hair, gaining weight, but how the medium itself - television and film - has transformed. There remains something so iconic and pure about that first movie, the only one in black-and-white, shot with an eye to the kitchen sink realism popular in the British New Wave of the period. Later film stocks have a raw, pulpy color to them and then around the turn of the millennium, Apted opts for at least some DV footage which appears more drab. The last two films have been shot on high-end digital with a wider aspect ratio, allowing us to experience the passage of time via frames as well as faces. Meanwhile, clothing, haircuts, and everyday objects speak to the thrilling sense of history revealing itself to us only after the fact; everything we see as normal when we experience it as the present takes on an eccentric, nostalgic glow when re-visited out of context. I was particularly struck by the 42 Up footage from the turn of the millennium. Now twenty-five years in the past, that era still feels quite recent to me. Huge changes in technology - and massive world events like 9/11, the global financial crisis, the aforementioned pandemic, and the political tensions of the past decade - certainly fill the gap between then and now, but in many ways pop culture and fashion have not changed quite as dramatically as they did between prior decades. And of course, being in high school at that time, I can remember it quite well whereas footage from the seventies calls back to a more mythical era, one I know only by osmosis rather than direct perception.

Anyway, watching those clips from 1998's 42 Up - in which these individuals are no longer young but in some cases still fairly youthful, at the outset of raising families with small children while breaking out in their careers of choice - the long passage of middle age suddenly seemed much shorter. So much of life is spent building things up; once that foundational work is finished (if it ever is), almost immediately the long, even harder task of saying goodbye begins. There is a plateau atop the mountain peak, but when you stand back you realize it's so much smaller than the ascent and descent. A similar impression was made on me by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the last film I reviewed and a good companion to this one - which is no accident. Whether or not 63 Up turns out to be the end of the series, this does represent an ending for me. While it's hard to say what the future will bring, my intention is to end fifteen years of public writing on film with this review (later today, I hope to end a shorter span of public film podcasts with an episode on Stalker). I will still write film pieces for Patreon; publicly, meanwhile, my work on the various Twin Peaks projects will continue and I may dip my toes back into film commentary strictly in the field of video essays. But right now I wanted to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and this seemed like a good one to draw. There are several reasons I wanted to wrap this up in general (including the need to finally focus all my online attention on those Peaks projects), but there's one very big reason that I specifically wanted to end this approach today. 

Tomorrow I turn forty years old. Clearly the journey toward my own middle age has been gradual, as it is for everyone. (Although the end of the one-two punch of the Bernie campaign's end and the pandemic shutdown creates a pretty clear dividing line for my own experience of being young and, well, not.) Nonetheless, life allows us to make our own milestones along the way and this is one I wanted to mark was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. My public film writing will stand as an archive of my youth, work I created between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-nine. This work began in the summer of 2008 when I published a dual review of Be Kind Rewind and a collection of early silent cinema, writing that both "celebrate the imaginative power of film alongside its documentary capacity." Certainly one could say the same of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 63 Up, discussed separately but joined in spirit. I ended that piece on a note of self-doubt - "long-winded and not quite punchy enough" - before asserting that I'd let it stand. "It makes its point," I concluded. "As a great man once said - don't look back." I do not plan to take that advice too closely when looking back can provide so much pleasure, but I do look forward to moving on. Thanks for joining me in the past, present, and future.

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