Friday, March 16, 2007


More than a documentary

By Edward Copeland
In an interview with Roger Ebert for the DVD release of Michael Apted's 49 Up, the seventh installment of his documentary series that began in 1963, the director acknowledges how the project has changed from what began as a leftist attack on the British class system into something much larger and moving as it checked in every seven years on the lives of people viewers first met at 7 years old, many of whom are now grandparents.

Several of the interviewees compare the project to current reality shows, but it has become much deeper than that, and really can hardly be classified as a mere documentary anymore. This isn't just a film anymore: It's life.

In the conversation between Apted and Ebert, they talk about how DVD has made the series such a different experience. Whereas people such as Ebert actually waited seven years between installments, it's possible for someone to go through all seven films and 42 years in a a couple of days.

For me, I saw 7 Up through 35 Up in a short span of time, but have had the requisite gap between the latest two installments. It's fascinating to see as these people you first met at 7 grow older, marry, divorce, have kids and grandkids, change jobs and attitudes.

Except on rare occasions, such as mentions of Tony Blair, there is little to even pinpoint the time being depicted, making the lives seem universal and timeless. For the most part, this is the first installment where most of the participants seem happy. In the interview, Ebert and Apted discuss the approach of mortality and what Apted would do should one of his subjects start to die between the seven years or if Apted himself should predecease his subjects, who would carry the project forward?

It's a question that's probably crossed the mind of any viewer of the Up films but seems particularly poignant since the question comes from Ebert in a June 2006 interview, not too long before the last time anyone outside his family and friends have actually seen the ailing and recovering film critic.

Still, it's nourishing to revisit these people and glimpse their lives. You would think that eventually an element of boredom would set in, but nothing is further from the truth. Each new installment seems to deepen the entire project's scope and meaning.

Very little happens in the way of fireworks except for one scene where one of the subjects accuses Apted of misjudging her and misrepresenting her through his editing. Otherwise, what's so extraordinary about these people is their ordinariness. Even when one of the subjects admit he's only still participating to promote a pet cause, it doesn't seem crass.

None of them achieved fame (or infamy). They just live their lives and allow us to peek in every seven years. The Up project truly is one of a kind.

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I like the Up films, but I find them a bit repetetive. I understand the necessity of backtracking so that the films can be individually appreciated by those who haven't seen the previous installments - that said, when you're watching all of the films marathon-style, a lot of it feels remedial. It should also be said - and this obviously isn't Apted's fault - that many of the participants lives haven't changed significantly in the last 30 years or so. Someone became a grandmother, someone bought a new couch...I'm not saying it isn't interesting, but it's not exactly gripping either. I think the years between 7 and 28, in particular, were very revealing in terms of their examination of how identity is shaped and, in some cases, thwarted by class status. Since then, I'm not sure the Up films have offered a whole lot of fresh insight in that regard.
I very much disagree, especially with the latest installment since most of the participants truly seem happy for the first time. To see the kid who wanted to be a jockey settle for being a cab driver now having achieved a level of success that affords him a vacation residence in Spain, to see that the guy who seemed as if he was losing his mind still is holding it together enough to survive, there's a lot there, especially in this outing which I thought was the best one since probably 28 Up.
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