Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Up Series (7 Up, 14Up, etc.) *****

In 1964, British television viewers were treated to a charming little documentary called “Seven Up!” The film featured interviews with several 7-year-old English children from a variety of backgrounds. Jackie is from a working class London family. She and her friends fantasize about what they would do with a lot of money, “say two pound.” Suzy comes from money, attending boarding school and spending her summers at her parents’ country estate. Tony is an East-Ender, barely understandable with his cockney accent. Nick lives on a farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse, while upper-crust Charles attends a posh boarding school. Symon, who is half-white/half-black, is in a children’s home because his mom can’t afford to keep him at home.

Despite its light-hearted tone, the film was clearly intended to serve as a reminder of how much class still matters in England. As 7-year-olds, these kids already bear the marks of their upbringing. The posh, boarding-school boys brag about their plans for prep school and Oxford, while Symon asks, “What’s University?”

As a stand-alone documentary, “Seven Up!” is enjoyable, but not something I would necessarily seek out. The extraordinary thing that makes this such essential viewing is that seven years later, Michael Apted, a member of the “Seven Up!” production team, revisited those children to see what they were like at age 14. The result is “7 Plus Seven,” a more serious look at life through the eyes of young adolescents. Seven years later, Apted returned to his then-21-year-old subjects for “21 Up,” and the series continues, with an update every seven years. Some of the original 14 children have dropped out over the years, opting not to appear in any more installments. On at least one occasion Apted has lost track of a subject, only to have them reappear in the next film. The resulting series is like a stop-motion film of several entire lives, allowing us to peek in at intervals for an intimate look at the changes that seven years have wrought on these individuals. The changes can be quite jarring at times, as these characters age visibly, have children, go through divorces, lose parents, and deal with illnesses. The eleven subjects who chose to continue appearing in the films discuss their lives with remarkable candor, even admitting to marital infidelity.

These films bring to mind a scientific concept called “observer effect,” which refers to the fact that measuring something may change it in some way. Sticking a thermometer in hot water allows you to measure the temperature, but it also cools the water slightly, because the thermometer absorbs a little heat. A wildlife photographer may change the behavior of the animals if they see or smell him, so his film may not reflect the true, natural behavior of the wildlife. Thus it is with the “Up” Series. After a few of the films, probably as early as “21 Up,” it becomes apparent that being in the films has had a measurable effect on these people. Some regret things they said in earlier programs. Others have made friends and enjoyed a certain celebrity as a result of the films. If nothing else, some of them just seem to take a more searching look at themselves and their lives than is common. It is no wonder that some of them chose to drop out. When Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn’t mean it had to be examined by the whole world!

So far I have watched this series up to and including the “42 Up” installment. “49 Up” came out this year, and it is burning a hole in my Netflix qeue. I have mixed feelings about watching it, however. I just discovered these movies this year, and my wife and I spread them out over the last few months. We waited as long as we could stand it between films, but we always enjoyed the luxury of moving the next one to the top of our Netflix queue whenever we wanted. We may have to wait a few months for “49 Up,” but it isn’t long to wait to see these beloved characters seven years older. After that, though, we will no longer just be observers; we will be part of the experiment. When “56 Up” comes out, it won’t just be those characters who are farther along in life; I will be 7 years older as well. How will the Guy on the Couch view this series at the age of 41 compared to 34? I don’t know, but I can sure as hell wait to find out!

5 stars and counting.

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