56 Up

February 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

In 1963, a British filmmaker decided to do a one-off documentary around the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  He brought together 20 British 7 year olds from various walks of life and interviewed them for a BBC TV special called “7 Up.”  One of his film crew was a 22 year old Michael Apted.  Seven years later, Apted decided to follow up on those kids at 14 years old.  Thirteen of the original twenty agreed and a tradition began.  Every seven years since, Apted has interviewed these same people as they got older.  They are now 56.  Remarkably, despite their reservations, all but one of the original 13 has continued to participate in the documentaries.  Interestingly, that one has himself become a documentary filmmaker; I’m not exactly sure what that says.  Also, quite amazingly, they are all still alive, despite various set backs.  We get current interviews with them spliced with highlights of their previous interviews.  At 2 hours 24 minutes, it was clear Apted had a hard time leaving details out.  We learn about each of them and how they have changed according to the same basic criteria: social/political views, employment, dating/marriage/children, socio-economic status, overall functioning and happiness.  This all takes some time and may be impossibly boring for many people.  However, this is my third (or maybe fourth) time watching the series (I have seen 49 Up, 42 Up and possibly 35 UP) and I love them.  While I cannot quite agree with Roger Ebert, who considers the Up Series to be among his 10 best films of all times, I have a great affinity for human beings, in all our weakness, and these films celebrate our basic humanity.  The Up Series is the story of us: noble, fragile, resilient, flawed.  It tells a truth about us that few films can.  But, it is a truth in aggregate.  As many of the participants point out, they are all only partially represented on screen and they often cannot stand the way they are perceived as a result.  This time, more than in the past, I was aware of Apted’s own influence in shaping these perceptions, in part through his editing and in part through the questions he asks (this is never more clear than when he baits one of the participants by asking him if he is racist).  Apted, who is otherwise known for a fairly tepid collection of action films like one of the Narnia series and one of Brosnan’s Bond films, will likely be most remember for this series, so it seems a shame that he doesn’t do more to present these folks in a more rounded way.  Ultimately, this is why I can’t agree with Ebert or with Rotten Tomatoes’s 100% rating.  To me, this documentary is beautiful and, at times, soars with human potential.  When the people speak for themselves they are funny and touching and so very real but when  the film fails it does so because of Apted’s attempts to keep these people in the boxes he has created for them.


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  1. On a side note, I feel like 56 Up is a perfect example of why Rotten Tomatoes’s up or down voting system is inferior to Metacritic’s percentage-based voting. In an up or down vote, everyone says they liked the film but that tells you little about how much they liked it. When given that opportunity to express a degree of liking, as they are at Metacritic, the overall rating drops to 87%, which much more accurately reflects how I feel about the film.

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