By John Adamian
6:35 PM EST, January 23, 2013
At Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, realartways.org
Time does a number on us. Skin wrinkles. Faces fill out. Chins multiply. Hairlines recede. Teeth yellow (or fall out). Bellies expand. Shapes shift, settle or vanish. That's just the outside. And it's something to see. There are these DIY time-lapse films on the web, stop-action sequences where someone takes a picture of their face or their kid's face every day, or every week, for years and years, and the viewer gets to watch huge chunks of time elapse over just a few minutes. We see children grow, their faces taking shape, or we watch the aging process unfold, adults become old people. It's astounding, and a little unsettling. That's something like the feeling you get when watching the moving and mind-blowing Up series of documentary films, the latest installment of which, 56 Up, is just out and showing at Real Art Ways in Hartford.
Director Michael Apted, now 72, was a researcher on Seven Up (1964), which introduced a group of 14 English schoolchildren, all of them 7 years old; but with the second film, 7 Plus Seven, he took over the direction, and he has directed the rest of the series, dropping back in on his subjects' lives every seven years.
The most recent edition, the eighth installment, finds the subjects at age 56, several of them with grandchildren, some approaching retirement, some alone, others chasing young children that they had late in life. It's an impressive sociological project, one that's surprisingly captivating and emotional, though in ways that its creators probably didn't anticipate. The documentaries are also the proto-reality TV show, the grandfather of touchstone television like PBS's "An American Family," MTV's "The Real World" and everything that came after.
The series began as a critique or investigation of the ways that the English class system played out in child development. Much attention was paid to which kids were from a working class background, which ones were privileged, etc. Over the years those distinctions have perhaps become less significant in British society, and as the documentary series has evolved, it's focused more on simply capturing the ways that life unfolds, the ways that aspirations are realized or not, the ways that a cast of mind can color a lifetime. Each edition of the series contains snippets of each of the older installments, so a new viewer can jump in at any point and appreciate the pleasures of the films. (The first seven parts are on Netflix and make for great binge viewing.)
In the U.K., where each installment gets extended TV coverage, the subjects of the series are almost celebrities. And over the years they've bristled at the ways they've been portrayed in the films, at the alleged misperceptions that viewers have gotten from the selective editing or the particular line of questions from the director. As a result, the most recent editions of the documentaries have turned into a kind of meta-documentary media critique. Neil — the once adorable boy from Liverpool, who went on to have emotional problems, leading a wandering and troubled life that took him from London squats in the '70s, to the north of Scotland, and back to England — addresses his frustration with the limitations of the format. Viewers think they understand him and his problems. "They think they know absolutely everything about me," says Neil, who's dabbled in local politics, and now has gravitated toward the church, becoming a lay minister at a small parish.
Like many in the later stages of the Up series, Neil — who discusses his failures at making a solid and reliable living and at maintaining a romantic relationship — is also, despite his obvious resentment at the way he's been presented, hoping to use the programs to promote something. Neil is an aspiring novelist, and he wishes that of all the people who have a prurient interest in his life and his mental-health problems, that someone would take an interest in reading and honestly assessing his work.
Neil isn't alone in trying to promote something. He may hope for a book deal. Others have different projects to publicize. Peter, one of Neil's friends, who appeared in the first installments of the series and then vanished after 28 Up, is back. He's married, with a family, a seemingly contented civil servant. Turns out he stopped participating years ago because of the hostile backlash, "the level of malice and ill will" directed at him, against the anti-Thatcher views he voiced as a young man. He's back now because he wants to promote his alt-countryish band, the Good Intentions.
Another one of the subjects, John, also had an agenda to advance. John was portrayed as one of the posh youngsters destined to attend "public school" (a system of more exclusive and costly schools in the U.K, sort of the opposite of American public schools). He seemed to have starchy ideas about class and work. He went into law and stopped participating in the series because he saw, perhaps, that he came off like a bit of a snob. But he popped back into the series in his 40s because he wished to spread the word about the Balkan charities that he was involved with.
But these subjects have become savvy media critics. They see the way one snippet of testy dialogue or one image of a petulant youngster can shape a viewer's sense of things. They also see that media exposure can have strange, unforeseen ripples in the world. (John tells the story about an American filmmaker who donated to his Balkan charities after seeing the documentaries.)
Despite the sense on 56 Up that the subjects have flipped the interrogative lens back on the filmmaker, there is still a lot of emotional torque left in the series. A subtheme of the most recent installments of the documentary series is that a loving and stable spouse can have a transformative effect on one's life — a self-evident truth to some, but one that the film reinforces.
Two of the more poignant subjects — Simon and Paul, who were both raised in a children's home — went on to find strong, nurturing wives, women who seem to have kept these somewhat diffident men from fading into themselves. And Suzy, who came from a seemingly stiff and sad upper-class family background, appeared to salvage her happiness by marrying and having a family, despite her early professed intentions not to do those things.
Conversely, Nick, a bright physics professor, is filled with regret about a failed marriage (despite having remarried since), comparing it to a death. And Jackie, who was a charming 7-year-old, went on to a life of hardships, with failed relationships, physical ailments, a frustrated professional life and a bitter resentment about how she has been depicted over the years.
Another subtheme is that from point to point in our lives, we often don't really know ourselves. Seven years might pass and our convictions might take a 180-degree turn. Depending on your faith in the camera, and your faith in these subjects — people who've spent parts of their whole lives on screen — and their ability to really diagnose what's going on in their own lives (sometimes the proximity makes it difficult to see what's happening), it could be comforting that most of them say that, looking back on their lives from 56, they don't really have any regrets. They're happy with their lot. They consider themselves lucky. It's a marvel of technology that we can share a portion of the experience with them.
CT.com bonus audio: John Adamian speak to Tom Zeleznock of CT.com about the Up documentary series
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