The "Up" documentary series comprises what is surely the most impressive longitudinal study ever committed to film. It is an obvious labor of love for director Michael Apted, who has remained faithful to the project - and to its participants - for close to fifty years now.
It all began in 1964, when producers at Britain's Granada Television gathered together a group of seven-year-olds from all walks of life and interviewed them for a TV documentary entitled "7Up," focused on the hopes and aspirations of these youngsters as they embarked on a long but uncertain journey into the future. Every seven years since, like clockwork, Apted has gone back to these individuals to take a peek into their lives, examining the paths they've taken and juxtaposing those youthful aspirations expressed in the original film with the realities of their lives as they've played themselves out. (The stunning contrast between the grainy black-and-white imagery of the first film and the hi- def clarity of the current interviews underlines the extraordinary length of time the series has already covered).
In "56Up," the eighth installment in the series, its subjects are leaving the confidence and security and general good health of middle age and just beginning to confront the realities of impending old age and contemplating an array of end-of-life issues (if not for themselves yet, at least for their parents). And it is for this reason that "56Up" is one of the most poignant and insightful entries in the series (and one imagines it will only get more poignant and insightful with each successive edition). All the major issues of marriage/divorce, career and parenthood seem to have long ago been settled for most of them, as they now concentrate on their roles as grandparents and life guides for their own adult children as they embark on their own lives and families. There's less naïve hope expressed in this film and more of an acceptance of how life has turned out for the participants, though there is a marked lack of cynicism and pessimism in the way they speak about their lives. Of course, they're still young enough at this point to be physically active and fully engaged in their careers and their communities, but there's no denying that the prospect of that fast- approaching downward slope of life is weighing, at least to some degree, on these people's minds. Yet, even those who haven't yet achieved their "ideal" lives still haven't given up hope that they will one day find what it is they're looking for. For obvious reasons, it is this installment that most comprehensively captures the range of a lifetime, at least until "63Up," "70Up," etc., arrive on the scene in the lead-up to the foreordained conclusion of the series.
It's clear from watching this jumble of clips from eight distinct periods of time that each stage of life contains a set of joys and concerns unique unto itself, a universal truth that this series, by its very nature, seems singularly equipped to illustrate. It's a bit like thumbing through - an admittedly disorganized - family photo album, but with insightful commentary from the individuals involved inserted along the way.
One, perhaps unforeseen, thread that runs through this film involves the self-reflection on the part of some of the participants about their appearance in the series - the sometimes unwelcome notoriety it has brought to them and their lives, with at least one of them pulling out of the project for a time only to reconnect with it at this stage, after having come to terms with himself and grown confident in his own skin. A few even question the very value of the series itself, feeling that these brief glimpses into their lives every seven years fail to create anything close to a true portrait of their lives and of themselves as people - a concern that Apted deserves much credit for including in his final product. After all, these people, at seven years of age, did not exactly ask to become a part of this much-viewed series, and why SHOULD they want to be defined and represented by it? On the other hand, as one of the participants points out, the series really isn't about these particular individuals as much as it is about how, collectively, they serve as a sort of mirror in which the rest of us can see our own lives reflected.
Yet, something indefinable and intangible keeps many of them coming back every seven years to open up and share at least a small part of their lives with us. And for that the world shall be eternally grateful. Now onto the next installment.
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