Friday, October 06, 2006

49 UP

49 UP (2005, UK, Michael Apted)
I'm absolutely sure that my faith has helped me through these difficult times

The task of the novelist once was, though it isn't often anymore, the presentation of the entirety of a life. Think Victor Hugo, think Great Expectations: we follow a child into adulthood, perhaps through to death, looking on from a privileged vantage point outside their circumstances. Tracing the vast arc of a human life, we glimpse what a human soul might look like viewed as a totality, outside of time.

It's a God's-eye view, a perspective our own lives don'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 offers what he perceives, filtered through his own perception and imagination, rendered as fiction.

What an extraordinary privilege it is, then, to experience any of the films in director Michael Apted's "Up" series, the most recent of which – 49 Up – opens in selected theatres this week before making its way to arthouse theatres around North America and the UK over the coming months. For the first time in history, we see actual human lives charted over the span of decades, with documentary footage of the same individuals first encountered in a London playground at seven years of age, then revisited every seven years.

In 1964, the BBC's "World In Action" program produced an episode entitled "Seven Up!" which brought children from radically diverse economic backgrounds together for a day at the zoo, observing them at play and pulling each of them aside for a chat about life's Big Questions: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "Do you believe in God?" "Do you have a girlfriend?"

It was marvelous, thought-provoking television. With the Jesuit dictum "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man" as a starting point, the original program suggested that a great deal of these children's future had already been determined, based on their economic class, family backgrounds and educational prospects. But what began as sociology with an axe to grind transformed to something much more personal and mysterious, even spiritual, as the exercise continued with follow-up conversations at fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight and beyond.

It wasn't until 1985 that the series made its leap to the big screen with 28 Up, the film which remains to this day the masterpiece of the series – partly because it is the last of the installments largely free of the effects of relative celebrity (due to the growing popularity of the series), and partly due to a focus and concision that becomes more diffused as later installments must cover more ground, and spend disproportionate amounts of time catching up the most recent seven years, touching more lightly on the preceding six episodes.

Tony, a rough-and-tumble East End kid enthuses "I want to be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up!" Immediately we cut to a proud 14-year-old grooming horses at a racing stable, then cut to footage of a horse race that fades to a black-and-white glossy photo held out for us to inspect as we hear a deeper, 21-year old voice: "This is a photo finish, when I rode at Newbury. I'm the one with the white cap… I had a photo finish." Then the voice of the interviewer: "Do you regret not making it?" A slight pause, then: "I would have given my right arm to become a jockey. I wasn't good enough." Jump cut to the fourteen-year-old Tony, standing by the racetrack: "What will you do if you don't make it as a jockey?" "Learn taxi." Another jump cut, to a line of black London cabs: "At 21, he was on the knowledge (the intensive training course for London cabbies), and by 28, he owned his own cab," followed by the image of Tony grinning behind the wheel and spinning tales of the passengers he's driven about. In sixty-four seconds we have scanned two decades of dreams, disappointment, compromise, accomplishment and – above all – courage. It is extraordinary film-making, breath-taking in its economy and craft, with a cumulative emotional effect that is both devastating and exhilarating.

We meet a dozen children, and follow them through plans fulfilled or failed or transformed, hopes lost and sometimes recovered. Some struggle, some succumb, some triumph. Some breeze down roads paved by wealth or ability, others travel very dark terrain indeed. Bruce studies maths at Oxford, but departs from typical upper class expectations to teach at an underprivileged East London school – fulfilling, in a way, his childhood desire "to teach people to be more or less good." Nick's dream of working with rocket ships draws him to physics, which leads to a sparkling academic career in America – and romance, all the more delightful given his charming childhood reticence: "Do you have a girlfriend?" "I don't answer those kinds of questions."

Jackie, Lynn and Sue maintain a friendship across the years, but one becomes increasingly antagonistic toward the project and the director himself as the years progress – this becomes a significant theme in subsequent episodes, as the project takes an increasing toll on certain participants who might not otherwise consider their lives quite so scrupulously, and certainly not so publicly. Socrates remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living: some of the film's subjects wonder aloud whether too much examination might also be a problem.

While the entire series of films is eminently worth watching – with all but the latest installment now available in a splendid boxed set from First Line Features – overall the sequels lack the punch of 28 Up. Perhaps that's purely a subjective response – 28 Up was my first exposure to the series, and maybe anybody's entry point into the cycle will be their favourite – or perhaps it has to do with the particular vividness and rapidity of change during our first three 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.
There is one respect, though, in which 49 Up is utterly essential viewing, particularly for those of us scanning these crowds for some sign of God's face (to paraphrase Bruce Cockburn). The "Up" films rarely delve into matters that are specifically religious, yet they are 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. The "Up" documentary series provides us an almost miraculous, quintessentially cinematic opportunity, in the words of Dickens, 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."

Yet in this most recent installment in the cycle, God's grace is all the more explicitly and abundantly evident in one particular life – and, remarkably, director Apted gives this divine "plot twist" pride of place in his documentary. (Interesting to note that Apted's next directorial release will be "Amazing Grace," the story of hymn-writer John Newton and the great Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce.) A rather reluctant participant suggests that the series has no more significance than a reality TV show, with the added appeal of watching participants "grow old, lose their hair, and get fat – fascinating, I'm sure, but does it have any value?" Then, without comment, Apted moves us into the final sequence of 49 Up, and God's amazing grace is revealed in the most broken, and heart-breaking, of the lives being lived out before us. It is in this most spiritually remarkable passage that the film recaptures the aesthetic richness and emotional power of 28 Up, juxtaposing a simple, evocative anecdote from the soft-spoken 49-year-old survivor with exultant footage of his optimistic 7-year-old self – a tacit, affirmative response to the skeptic's question, "Does it have any value?"

Apted's ongoing documentary project is one of the most singular and transcendent expressions emerge during the first century of this newest art form, and it is our privilege to be able to watch it as it unfolds – every seven years, to be given so intimate and respectful a window on the journeys of these dozen souls. And to be led in turn, inevitably, to examine our own lives, and to look at the lives of those around us with a longer view, a perspective that's something close to Divine.

28 UP

First published in edited form at Christianity Today Movies

P.S. My recommendation? Hie thee thither to Videomatica, rent 28 UP (which I believe to be the masterpiece of the series), then check out the original BBC-TV show SEVEN UP (both are available as part of the complete boxed set which came out a year ago), and you'll be all set for a pilgrimage to Cinematheque to see what's transpired in these lives in the ensuing years. (If you can't do the advanced prep, don't worry: 49 UP stands on its own, as do all the installments, reiterating what's come before. But when it comes to sheer filmmaking artistry, I put my money on 28 UP.)

P.P.S. Guess who else is 49 this year?...

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