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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: 56 Up




Years ago, I read a fascinating write-up by one of my all-time favorite critics, James Berardinelli, discussing the "Up Series" and its importance to documentary film-making and cinema as a whole. I was completely unfamiliar, but as I learned more, I became enraptured with the idea of viewing these films for myself. The concept: In 1964, Granada Television in England created "Seven Up" which was a documentary program focused on interviewing fourteen British seven year olds of varying backgrounds, some coming from very wealthy/upper class households, others more middle class, and while others still from more humble origins. They were asked questions about their hopes and dreams for the future, what they thought about the opposite sex, their schooling, their home lives, and anything else that might have seemed relevant for the time. The original Seven Up is a fascinating look at the British class system and the formulating minds of youth. But what occurred afterward is what made history. Michael Apted, a researcher on the original program, decided to follow up with each of the subjects seven years later with the appropriately titled 7 plus Seven (also known as 14 Up) interviewing those same participants at the titled age. From then on, every seven years, Apted has hounded these subjects through the decades continuing to this year's 56 Up. It's a staggering achievement, and possibly the most essential set of films one can witness. I was lucky enough to be able to view each of the preceding films a few years ago and I eagerly anticipated my chance to finally watch the latest installment in the cinema setting to discover where the "board directors and executives of the year 2000" currently stand. It did not disappoint.



To be able to accurately describe the effect of the Up Series on its viewer and the evolutionary journey you're taken on with each of its characters, perhaps giving a small microcosm is in order. One of the perfect examples is with Tony, a overactive youngster at the start of the series, he has a dream of being a jockey and has a contempt for girls. By the time he's 21, his dreams are dashed as he simply couldn't hack it in the races, so he's running bets for his father at the local greyhound track and basically treats women as objects. At 28, he's training to be a taxi driver in London and is married. At 35, both he and his wife are successful taxi drivers with children. At 42, he mentions his "regretful behavior" regarding his marriage, yet his wife continues to stand by his side. At 56, Tony is residing with his family in Spain, continuing to make a very good living as a cabbie, and staunchly conservative financially (in UK terms). Tony blames those who "take and take and take" from the system for being one of the major sources of the UK's economic downfall. It's interesting to see around what point in a person's life those kind of views take hold. For Tony, they seemed to really grow much more strongly around his 40's. On the other hand, the same young man who held women in such contempt at 7, and "loved them and left them" at 21, now comes to tears whenever he begins to talk about his wife at length, who is now the centerpiece of his life.

Another important example to bring up is Neil, who grew up in a middle-class Liverpool suburb. Neil at age 7 displayed unique thoughtfulness about race relations, as well as a sense of hopefulness for the future. At 14, he seemed the most left-brained of the entire group and geared towards a liberal arts career. By 21, he was living in a squat and scraping together whatever building/construction jobs he could and clearly struggling to cope. At 28, he was in his worst financial shape, living in a shack-like trailer in Scotland. He still dreamed of a career in politics, but even then he admitted "that's probably gone for me now". This is the point where you have a direct example of the failure to effectively treat mental health disorders, of which Neil clearly suffer, not only in England but also worldwide. By 35, he was living in the Shetland Islands in our equivalent of subsidized housing and acting in the local theater troupe. By 42 and 49, he life stability was coming to the forefront as he became involved in local politics, and was elected as a councilman. He is still a district councilman by 56 Up, but he's clearly reached the point where he's much happier with his life status, even if he maintains regret about never starting a family or having a lasting relationship.

What's amazing about this series is that every participant's story is this fascinating, and each one has a varying twist be it Nicholas who left rural England to become a scientist in the United States or Jackie who grew up working class, was married at age 19, and eventually raised three children as a single parent and began to fight issues with rheumatoid arthritis leading her to live off a disability pension. One of the bizarre pleasures of the series is the ability to eavesdrop on the participant's private lives, and doing so without the much filthier trappings of reality tv as it exists today, with emphasized dramatic breaks and edited scenes. As one watches the series, you gain a sense of familiarity with the participants, almost like they're your old friends. Granted, a few of them openly state in 56 Up they feel the films are edited in such a way that they're portrayed at times counter to how their personalities actually run. A few even express direct contempt for this "poison pill they have to swallow every seven years", yet the sociological experiment on display through Apted's work is truly fascinating.

While an audience member would find the experience more enriching have they viewed any of the preceding films in the series, Apted's use of previous material based on the line of questioning in 56 Up, lining up their previous answers to their current reactions allows the viewer to have no barrier to enjoyment at all. Apted breaks up each segment based upon who is the focal point, with each person receiving about 15 minutes or so of screentime. This keeps the material relatively fresh, and just as you feel you may tire just a bit from a given focal point, Apted switches to the next in quick fashion. Over the years, Apted has only occasionally lost a participant or two, only one permanently. 56 Up even welcomes back one of its long lost participants in Peter, who had left after 28 Up when he had openly criticized the Thatcher administration and received some public backlash for it. 56 Up returns the count of those interviewed back to thirteen participants, the most they've had since their full compliment of fourteen during 21 Up.

It's shocking to see the changes that take place in a person over seven years. At the theater in which we viewed 56 Up, when a few of the women who had participated showed up in their present day appearance for the first time, there was audible noises of surprise from the audience. There is a notable investment from the audience with these individuals, despite that fact that none of us have ever actually met them or know really anything about them beyond what is on the camera. It's probably more accurate to say, we as an audience see a reflection of ourselves in this group of thirteen. At 21, we knew that self-doubt and that worry about where our lives would take us next. At 35, all parents struggle with the idea of how to best provide for their growing children. And when you're at middle age, you begin to look towards things like retirement and your eventual, and hopefully far off, mortality. The Up Series is one of the most fascinating peeks into the human existence that I can imagine, and the way it causes us to pause and look at our own experiences is quite a jarring but also valuable undertaking.

56 Up is currently in its one week run at Midtown Art Cinema, for those in the Atlanta area who have an interest in such things, I urge that you take the time to see what has become essential world cinema to be cherished while such things are still available to us. For those who have yet to experience the magic of this series, Netflix has also made all previous entries available for streaming.

I give this film an A+
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