Do you know the "Up" series of movies, made by Michael Apted? We saw 49 Up last week.
In 1964, British film director Michael Apted was a researcher on "Seven Up!", a documentary directed by Paul Almond for a Granada Television series called World in Action. The movie interviewed two groups of English seven-year-olds, one from private schools for wealthy families and one from public schools. (In the UK, the expressions private school and public school mean the opposite of what they do in North America. I'm using the North American meanings.) The children were asked about their thoughts and dreams for the future.
Apted helped choose the subjects, then went on to continue the project. The original intentions were twofold: to film the subjects every seven years, and to dissect and expose the British class system. Only half those plans came to reality. The movies aren't really a commentary on the class system. They simply follow the progress of some ordinary people as the courses of their lives unfold.
Allan and I discovered the series at the New York Film Festival in late 1980s; 7 Up and 28 Up were shown back-to-back. (28 Up premiered at the 1985 New York Film Festival, but we couldn't have seen that, so it must have been re-shown in a subsequent year.)
Since then, whenever we read that another Up film is out, we rent it. Each movie gives a little refresher on the person, showing some memorable bits from previous films, before an interview updates you on where she or he is now.
Each film has a different tone and emphasis. I remember 28 Up as being buoyant and optimistic, but 35 Up as being sad, marked by diminished expectations and painful realities. But by 42 Up, people were doing well again. I was very touched to see that in 49 Up, the subjects are the happiest they've ever been. (I turn 48 this June.) They are content. And their contentment doesn't spring from external circumstances or material goods; it comes from inside. Most have found inner peace. They are, to quote one of the women, comfortable in their own skin.
When the series started, the subjects were all children. Now most have grandchildren. There have been many divorces and better second marriages, but some people remain in thriving first marriages with their original partners. None of the participants who stayed in the series turned out to be gay, which I found surprising, and none chose to remain child-free. A few have material wealth, most are at least comfortable. Many people in 49 Up attest to what a difficult experience participating in the series has been, to a degree Allan and I found surprising.
Now the series has been released as a boxed set. Watching the movies from start to finish, say, over the course of a week, would be very different than waiting seven years between films. Not necessarily better or worse, but completely different. Also, I think the advent of so-called reality television must dampen the impact of these films. Living under a lens isn't so unusual now, although the person behind the lens is seldom as skillful as Michael Apted.
The 49 Up DVD has a nice extra: film critic Roger Ebert interviewing Apted. The interview will be illuminating for both the new and veteran Up viewer. For Ebert, the Up series has become one of the great films of our time. He asks questions that every admiring viewer must share. What will it be like when the first of the subjects becomes ill, faces death? Will the series outlive Michael Apted? What happened to the political angle - what did we learn about the class system? He also shares thoughts on some of series's subjects, some stories that are particularly affecting.
Since the Up series began, other people have made similar documentaries, including an homage (or rip-off, depending on your perspective), following 21st Century children, made by Julian Farino, and a US version called "Age 7 in America". It's hard to imagine those having the staying power and the emotional impact of the Up series. But who knows. Apted tells Ebert that the Up movies "honour the ordinary life," and there's no shortage of ordinary lives worth honouring.