28 UP (1985, UK, Michael Apted)
Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.
The task of the novelist once was, though it isn't often anymore, the presentation of the totality of a life. Think of Victor Hugo, think Great Expectations: we follow a child into adulthood, almost we see the person whole, from a vantage outside their circumstances. Outside time. It's a God's-eye view, a perspective real life doesn't afford us: snapshots may remind us that the boy was father to the man, but memory distorts, reinterprets, invents, conflates, over-simplifies. And even the novelist only renders what he perceives, filtered through his own perception and imagination.
Michael Apted's biographical documentary began as a sociological inquiry into English class differences, but grew into something more personal, and much more human. As he intercuts interview footage of individuals at seven, fourteen, twenty-one and twenty-eight years of age, the viewer experiences something like awe. A question is posed to a child, and we see it answered by a teenager and played out in the life of an adult. Mannerisms and expressions, attitudes, values carry through from age to age, or are suddenly lost (masked?), only to reappear seven or fourteen years later. Dreams fail or transform, hopes are lost and sometimes recovered, people settle, people triumph. Some roads are paved by wealth, some travel very dark terrain indeed.
The film rarely delves into matters that are specifically religious, yet for me at least it is suffused with something deeply spiritual. As questions about love, work, family and meaning reverberate through these lives, we are privy to the outworking or overcoming of destinies, the growth of souls.
Apted has followed through with further installments every seven years – we're about to see 49 UP, at the time of this writing – and while the films are all more than worth the watching, overall they lack the power of 28 UP. Perhaps that's purely a subjective response to my first exposure to the series, or something about the vividness of change in our first few decades of life. Or perhaps it relates to a subtle shift in the lives of the participants, whose relative anonymity disappeared in the wake of that first big screen release (the previous docs being lower-profile television fare): the effect of a certain sort of celebrity becomes a theme, and while it's handled with intelligence, it doesn't resonate so deeply for me as the stuff of lives more ordinary.
With one or two exceptions. Keep your eye on Neil, and Bruce. And John for that matter. And then there's...
Okay, forget what I said about the later Ups. I still think you should start with 28, but to call it quits there would be a shame. There's considerable more life to be lived, and what a privilege to be given such an intimate, yet respectful, window on the journeys of these souls. The "Up" documentary series provides us an almost miraculous, quintessentially cinematic opportunity, in the words of Scrooge's nephew, to think of other people "as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." And I say, God bless it!
Available at Videomatica