Looking in on the lives of a diverse group of Britons every seven years since 1964, Michael Apted’s Up series has come to define an entire genre of documentary filmmaking known as longitudinal studies. With the films, it’s not the format that’s truly revolutionary; the structure is a fairly straightforward combination of interviews crosscut with observational footage taken on the fly, as well as snippets from earlier films spliced in to provide context. Rather it’s the length and breadth of the experiment itself that sets these films above their numerous imitators, not to mention the veritable tsunami of reality TV shows that have followed in its wake, an issue that more recent installments in the series have addressed directly. The meat of these films is the same stuff that demarcates all our lives: first love, heartbreak, childbirth, the inevitable loss of friends and loved ones, and all the quotidian triumphs that get people through the day. Only the setup elevates these universal concerns above the level of pandering soap opera by providing the participants a platform to ruminate over the course of their own lives, guided by Apted’s often pointed (but never exploitative) off-screen questions.
The first film in the series, Seven Up!, takes its inspiration from the Jesuitical adage: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” This maxim was meant to suggest the hidebound rigidity of the British class system: that the course of these children’s lives had already been mapped out for them by their social station. While, broadly speaking, that may be true, it’s not without exception, as one lower-class denizen, Tony, manages to work his way up to solidly middle-class status. Such reductionism also fails to account for the sheer variety of the human comedy on display throughout the series, let alone the unforeseen confluences and unpredictable quirks of existence. The latter is best exemplified when upper-crust social worker Bruce comes to the aid of Neil, the once ebullient and irrepressible child who had been reduced by circumstances to a homeless vagabond. Indeed, an excellent argument could be made for Neil as the moral and emotional epicenter of the entire series. Certainly his philosophical musings are wonderfully epigrammatic: “Life comes once, and it’s quite short.” Camus himself couldn’t have put a finer point on matters than that.
So it’s immensely gratifying to see Neil turn his life around in later films, going into local politics and working to effect grassroots change in the remote corner of the world he calls home. In other cases, however, the effects of aging and, most recently, economic collapse wrought calamity in participants’ lives. Jackie, in particular, suffered a series of devastating personal losses, faced the dubious prospects of single parenthood, and eventually contracted a debilitating disease. Still, the quiet dignity and good humor with which she plays the hand that life has dealt her has much to recommend it.
Later installments make room for participants to attempt to correct misconceptions large and small that they feel the series has perpetuated. It’s an attempt on Apted’s part to inaugurate a sort of self-correcting feedback loop. In 56 Up, for instance, wealthy barrister John—first seen at age seven predicting (accurately, it turns out) the future course of his education and career—takes pains to explain that his family fell on hard times after the untimely death of his father and that he only got into Oxford through a scholarship. Just this sort of revelation can retroactively color your impressions of a participant over the entire series, an excellent case for consecutive viewing, as well as a classical example of a whole being far more than the sum of its parts. Taken as a whole, the Up series is one of the most warmly humanistic documents about the way we live our lives now, only updated regularly. Watching the latest installment of the series is the cinematic equivalent of catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in a few years.
The Up series spans nearly 50 years and a variety of formats (16mm, 35mm, and video), so you can expect a perceptible advance in audiovisual quality over the arc of the films. Bearing that in mind, First Run Features’ presentation of these films looks and sounds perfectly adequate. Color and contrast are largely unobjectionable, and there are minimal amounts of artifacts on display. The Dolby Digital stereo mix conveys the dialogue with little in the way of distortion.
Every disc in the set contains a photo gallery and director biography. 42 Up has Michael Apted’s commentary track, which goes into plenty of detail concerning the history and production of the series as well as the often surprising ways in which the films parallel or intersect with events in Apted’s own personal history. An interview with Michael Apted conducted by Roger Ebert appears on both 49 Up and 56 Up: a frank and often illuminating discussion wherein Ebert has glowing things to say about the series. In the wake of Ebert’s recent passing, the interview plays like an aptly moving tribute to the late critic’s wholehearted enthusiasm for the best of what cinema has to offer for our emotional and intellectual lives.
One of the great social experiments in the history of documentary filmmaking, the Up series has been reissued by First Run Features in order to include the latest installment, 56 Up.