The Up Series

The Up Series

There are a few films, in my writing, that I return to time and again when making comparisons. They’re films which have moved me in some profound way, so that when I think of titles which stand out among the crowd, these are always at the top of my mind. Among those is the spectacular Seven Up series, which is to film what the Pyramids or Stonehenge are to engineering – an awe-inspiring marvel. Starting in 1964, filmmaker Paul Almond (then Michael Apted) began filming a group of children, asking them general questions about their lives. This continued once every seven years. It is still happening now. The latest in the series should be released sometime in 2012.

The individual entries in the series have their highs, some entries are more exciting than others; there are no lows, though. There is not a bad film in the bunch. The audience builds a relationship with the subjects, and every entry is a rich well of philosophical pondering for the viewer about fate vs. free will, class differences, technology and religion and the invasion of privacy and so much more. It’s a cinematic experience that is second to none.

I have recently been slowly making my way through the series again, just as dumbfounded and elated as I was upon the first viewing. I considered re-writing my reviews for the films, as some are shorter than I usually try to aim for these days. Knowing the “full” story of their lives helps to provide greater insight into the answers the subjects provide in earlier installments, too. But the kids don’t get a chance to re-write their answers. They’re reminded of the silly things they said when they were young every time those cameras come around, and if they said something they regret then they must live with it. I don’t regret anything I’ve said here, but to honor the spirit of the series, I’ve chosen to reprint my original reviews below. I could have posted them separately, but I think it’s important that the series be considered as a whole.

There is nothing else like this. I say it in the reviews, but if you have not watched the Seven Up series, you are truly missing out on a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. To reappropriate a quote from critic Dana Stevens: if you are a member of the human race, you should see these movies.


Seven Up!

The Up series has been, for me, one of those things that you rent from Netflix and then let sit on your entertainment center for a month. The idea of the series – documenting a group of children at age seven, and then once again every seven years from then on – is certainly interesting, and it’s pretty highly regarded by those of your friends who are more in the know than yourself.
And yet there Seven Up sits, gathering dust next to the television. You have to move it around every once in a while to get to another movie, and you think to yourself, “Man, I need to watch that soon.” What is it that keeps you from watching it? Is it an unreasonable bias that you have against documentaries? Is it the fact that it was made in 1964 and is in black-and-white? Whatever the case may be, you have been avoiding the film for far too long.
And by you, I mean me, of course.

Well, I’m here to tell you (me) that you (me) should never have postponed viewing the film.

The first installment of what currently stretches to 49 Up is short: barely 40 minutes long. The reason for the runtime is that the purpose of Seven Up, as opposed to the installments that follow it, is simply to introduce you to the cast of characters. The filmmakers have chosen fourteen British children to partake in this social experiment. Yes, more than a dozen children from all walks of life are represented here: there are rich kids, poor kids, white kids (well… more pinkish), a black kid, kids that live in the city, kids that live in the country, girls, boys, and so on.

Seven Up is pretty simple. The filmmakers sit the children down separately, asking them thought-provoking questions regarding their awareness of their beliefs and lives. What do the kids think of fighting? Do they want to get married? What do they think of people with different colored skin than themselves? What do they want to do when they grow up? What do they think of the opposite sex?

The questions asked of the children are intriguing, and the responses are often shocking. The film is set up to really contrast the differences between the children. One girl (who I don’t think will continue the series much further) says that she has never met a black person and would be perfectly happy if she never did, while another claims that there are no differences between people of different races. A child who has been raised in an orphanage can barely speak a coherent sentence, while another child of a much more priveleged background speaks as though he were an adult.

The main fun of the film comes in the fact that these are children. Their answers are often silly, their mannerisms are cute. The viewer can see the differences between the children already, but the comparisons do not reach much further than that until later in the series. Right now, the viewer is expected merely to get a feel for the subjects. To understand their tics and thoughts and prepare for later on.

Director Paul Almond livens up the footage somewhat by setting up the composition of certain scenes so that they play out like a real film instead of a bland ol’ documentary. One shot early on shows a child walking four miles to school; the way the shot was set up reminded me of the French film Forbidden Games. At one point, the camera bounces along in a first-person perspective at the height of one of the seven-year olds. It’s very unusual, but neat.

I’m surprised I managed to write so much about Seven Up. I liked it, to be sure, but the scope is still somewhat limited at this point in the series. The questions are intelligent, the answers are passionate. But it is only with hindsight, knowing more of the children’s progression into adulthood, that the breadth of their differences really becomes clear.

This review was written 03/18/2009.

Seven Plus 7! (14 Up)

I liked 7 Plus Seven, a.k.a. 14 Up more than its predecessor.

The reason that I found the second installment of the series more engrossing was that it had the ability to bring a new dimension to the proceedings. While both films exhibit a particular knack for hitting the kids with thoughtful and interesting questions, what 7 Up could not provide was hindsight. The second film gives viewers a chance to compare its subjects with their seven-year old selves. How have their opinions changed? Their goals in life? Their station in life? In addition to hearing the ideas bouncing around in the heads of several fourteen-year olds living in the early years of the 1970s, we the audience are also given the opportunity to see growth and maturity in action.

And it’s not just the mere fact of the children’s different opinions. At this age, the kids are really beginning to feel that they are becoming adults. They are able to think in more abstract terms than they were at age seven, and so they can better contemplate questions regarding the importance of the documentary in which they are appearing. The conservative and rich kids tend to see it as a nuisance – they think that they’re being made to look like a stereotype or a caricature. And they’re right about that, to a certain extent.

Director Michael Apted (who took the reins from Paul Almond) is adept at capturing moments that, on the surface, may seem inconsequential, but penetrate much deeper into the children’s psyches than one might expect. When one of the girls being interviewed lets her dog chase down and kill a rabbit in the background, it’s not just a peculiar event that coincedentally happened while the camera was rolling. Instead, it speaks volumes about the way that the girl sees the world: she allows and even expects her pet to follow through on the murder, rather than trying to free the animal.

Of course some of the answers still sound silly, coming from fourteen-year olds. Their self-importance provides some of the humor while it also provides a critique on the human condition at large. Will I look back at myself at age 23 and think that I sounded ridiculous? Probably. And so it is with these children. They are able to make profound statements (“Is a person with one million dollars less happy than a person with two million dollars?”), while still remaining bashful and childish.

Apted is not as concerned with coming up with quirky shot compositions as Almond was, but that’s because the material doesn’t necessitate it. Apted has so much to work with here: his biggest concern must have been with editing the film down to an hour’s length.

So what I’m trying to say is, 7 Plus Seven is an extremely engaging and fascinating portrait of not only children, not only Britain, not only the 1970s – but of humanity in general. I am very eager to see the next installment in the Up series.

This review was written 03/19/2009.

21 Up

I’ve probably spent less than a half hour with any of the kids who are being interviewed in Michael Apted’s Up series, and yet I already feel as though I know them intimately.

Of course, that’s part of the idea – the quote at the beginning and end of each of the films: “Give me a child and I will give you the man.” You are expected to watch the snippets of these kids’ lives and draw conclusions from it. You are supposed to watch how they change or don’t change over the years and think about how their environment affected them, how their age has affected them, how their knowledge of being the subject of a cultural experiment has affected them. 21 Up is an hour and forty minutes long, but if you watch it with friends you’ll be lucky to finish it in two hours.

Because it’s such a thought-provoking experience. You do draw conclusions, you do have epiphanies. You have to pause the show and discuss theories that you have about this or that, or the meaning of a sentence that one of the kids said (will I stop calling them kids when they are older than I am?), or simply to extend your thoughts on the questions asked. As in the previous two films, the questions asked are piercing and divisive. The rich kids, who because of their wealth were afforded a better education, are aware of the way that the documentary series has shown them in a negative light. What they don’t seem to get, though, is that the films have shown an unflinching eye toward each of its subjects. The three middle-class girls feel that they have to defend their life choices, but it’s an unconscious defense. They don’t get that the questions are leading them to passionate answers, to justify themselves. Likewise, the rich kids are just as unaware that there’s more to the story than just making them mad.

Maybe some do. Maybe they’ll understand better at age 28, or after they’ve seen themselves in this installment. Of course, I know that there are those who will opt out of the series in future installments.

The children are growing up. 14 Up improved on the original film by providing a little bit of background, so that the viewer could compare the person at one age to the same person at a different age. The stakes are raised once again in this third film, as we the audience can compare the subjects through three separate stages of their lives. And now, the children are even more thoughtful human beings. They have more capacity to think critically about themselves than they did even at age fourteen. Which occasionally leads to some pretty profound statements, e.g. the idea that maybe who a person seems to be at age seven is not who they really are, yet who they really are has been hidden beneath all the while – like one of those Russian nesting dolls, only getting bigger as time passes instead of smaller. It’s not hard to see that in some of the kids. The jockey, although cut loose from his childhood career goals, does not seem much further from who he was at age seven. Others have changed dramatically: one child who was pretty emo at age fourteen has turned into a surprisingly masculine man at age twenty-one.

It’s a fascinating, incredible film. I am still eager to see the next installment of the series. The Up series leads one to be more contemplative and thoughtful, which is an extraordinarily enjoyable sensation. There is nothing more exciting than feeling a concept click in your mind, and 21 Up is nothing but. It’s just great.

P.S. I know that there are those who get annoyed by the flashbacks that are employed throughout the series. It’s true that this film would have been a lot shorter without them, and since I’ve seen the first films without much downtime, I am seeing a lot of the same images. However, there are always things that you miss out on the first time you watch the film. Carefully chosen clips from the previous films are wonderful for adding new dimensions to the current footage. For instance, would you connect the fact that one of the kids is currently a bricklayer to his having pretended to build a house at age seven without these useful flashbacks? I, for one, find them more helpful than annoying.

This review was written 03/30/2009.

28 Up

Four films into the Up series, it’s beginning to get to the point where it’s difficult to say new things about the film in these reviews.

As before, the film is extraordinary in the way that it remains so thought-provoking. The viewer is encouraged to come to his or her own conclusions about the life paths that the children from the previous movies have taken into adulthood. Director Michael Apted continues asking piercing questions that make the subjects think for a moment, or simply rile them up. Although it has never been addressed before, it is in 28 Up that Apted asks the kids (can I call them “kids” still? when will I stop?) whether they agree with the statement that begins and ends each of the films: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” Were they the same person at age seven that they are now?

Are you? Watch this movie with some close friends, because this is a group experience. What makes the Up series so endlessly fascinating is in how much it causes you to debate and consider and pose questions in your mind. It’s helpful to have a sounding board to throw those questions out to.
And then of course, there is the simple fact that you have become entwined in the fates of this group. You feel as though you know them, even though you really don’t, and their ups and downs can be as exhilarating or painful for you as if they were people that you had actually spoken with.

P.S. It’s weird to know that the children of the subjects in this film are just a couple of years older than I am.

Oh! One other thing that I’d really like to mention about 28 Up that sets it apart from the previous films in the series. Where before, the film would cut back and forth between footage from the current date and the previous films, this installment kind of has a different twist that makes good use of the power of flashback. Instead of cutting off all video/audio from the current interviews while re-showing the viewer stuff he or she has already seen in the past installments, now you will sometimes hear audio from a current interview being played over images from the past.
And again, at the end of the movie, rather than just playing out the same, tired old ending sequence from 7 Up, this time Apted overlays the images from the children at seven with the children at age 28. It’s remarkably effective and an interesting departure from the previous films.

All in all, I can only reiterate what I’ve said in my reviews for the previous three films. 28 Up is fantastic and thoughtful and absolutely worth seeing as soon as you can.

This review was written 04/05/2009.

35 Up

35 Up is no worse than any of the other entries in the series. When I begin watching these movies, I always look at the runtime and gasp. “Two hours and fifteen minutes!” I might exclaim. But when I’m in the films, I would gladly spend half an hour, even an hour with each of the subjects. They’re all so interesting, especially because I have known them to some degree over the course of their entire lives. I speak about them as though I know them personally. “Can you believe Suzy?” I might say to my friends casually, as though Suzy is somebody that we know intimately. The only real problem with this entry in the Up series is that there has not been as much progression in the lives of our subjects as there were between the previous films. There is a big change from just starting college to age 28, as you would expect. But surprisingly little has changed during the seven years between age 28 and 35. My friend and I did not find it necessary to stop the film to have long discussions about the characters’ growth as we had previously.

But it’s still greatly engrossing. Tony is as stubborn and set in his ways as ever, showing himself here to be remarkably unlikeable. Our nuclear physicist Nick shows up again – sans wife, since she thought that the previous film showed her in a bad light. (She’s right.) John is back, after sitting out 28 Up, but he points out what we already knew: he’s only there because his wife made him. He didn’t want to continue the series since he thought that the filmmakers were trying to make him look like a jerk. He’s right, to a certain extent, but he does a pretty good job of it on his own.

But most of the movie shows the children settling into their lives now that they’re middle aged. Not much has changed for them, really. There are a couple of divorces and a few new children. But whatever ideals that they held at 28 seem to be pretty firmly in place now. Perhaps that will change again as we move into the ’40s and beyond. It may be because there is less change in their lives that director Michael Apted’s questions seem to become more aggressive here. He wonders whether Tony feels as though he hasn’t accomplished his goals. He literally asks Neil whether he feels like a failure – which was probably not a good idea, because at this point Neil is genuinely losing his mind.

Yeah, I know this is kind of going back and forth, but Neil’s story (much as in 28 Up) is the most heartbreaking. I don’t want to give anything away for those who have yet to see the films. I know I’d hate it if I went to read a review of the next film and learned some valuable piece of information about where the kids end up. All I will say is that, of the original 14 children, Neil and Suzy are maybe the only ones whose lives cannot be summed up with that old “give me a child at age seven and I will give you the man” line.

Apted has known the kids for pretty much their entire lives now, and it’s difficult for him not to show his biases. He goes easy on Nick because he likes him. He goes easy on John (even though he’s pretty blatantly hypocritical and annoyingly smug) because he wants him to continue appearing in the series. He’s harsher with Tony and with Neil. Is it the same way that a parent unconsciously reprimands his own children for their failings? In 35 Up more than ever, I think that Apted is as much a character in this as the children are.

Still disappointed to see that the rich-kid-on-the-right, Neil’s friend, and the guy who will forever be known as “the black kid” were all missing from this installment. No, I don’t remember all their names.

But yes. Even though there has been little real change for most of our subjects in terms of their place in life, we are so engrossed in their lives now that we cannot leave with any sense of disappointment. As long as these films continue being made, I can’t imagine that they will ever disappoint. We’re seeing their lives progress. If they don’t change, well, that’s something notable. Why didn’t they change? What’s different this time around? I maintain that the Up series is a superb and remarkable collection of films.
Watch them.

This review was written 04/13/2009.

42 Up

I’d like to give 42 Up five stars, because I really think it may be the best installment of the series that I have seen so far.

In addition to Apted’s usual probing questions, the director this time is trying to make a much the interviews much more cinematic. There are so many interesting shots that reminded me of Paul Almond’s peculiar way of approaching his subjects in the original 7 Up. Almond had the camera bounce along behind some running children; Apted positions his camera in the back seat of a car while one of the subjects is driving, careful to show his face in the rearview mirror. It’s very exciting.

In addition to the spectacle of the film, there is the fact that most of the children (I have decided never to stop referring to them as children) have lives that have changed dramatically, or at least that include some major unexpected event. Where the last installment in the series felt like the kids were settling into their lives at middle age and accepting that they were where they were, now everything has changed again. Each successive interview comes as a shock.

Which leads me to the third thing about this movie 42 Up which differentiates it from its predecessors. It’s actually kind of a blend of the two previous points. There are plot twists in this movie. That’s not because the kids’ lives were fabricated in any way: these are real people living their real lives. Apted does a remarkable job of withholding enough information to make it a real shock when the truth comes out. Think of that scene from 28 Up where the camera pans out to reveal that Suzy, who had previously been virulous anti-marriage, is now, in fact, happily wedded. There are multiple times when this sort of thing happens in 42 Up.

And of course, the questions and answers are still endlessly thought-provoking and entertaining. Anybody who has been watching the series has obviously been tempted to psychoanalyze the subjects all along, and I really feel that for whatever hints of what sort of persons the kids were before, their true colors are only really appearing now. For the first time, I feel like I really get Suzy. I can understand how she became the person she is today. I am not sure whether the “give me a child at age seven and I will give you the man” maxim holds true, though, because regardless of whether Suzy turned out to be wholesome or horrendous, it would have been equally easy to place the blame on her upbringing. Similarly, Symon (the black kid) could have turned out with a deep craving for affection or an indifference toward humanity – either outcome could be traced back to the child of seven.

This is the first installment where I have heard any of the subjects refer to any of the films by name. They’ve mentioned previously ‘the series’ or ‘the movie’ or whatnot, but it was kind of startling to hear one of the girls refer directly to 35 Up, or to hear Neil mention specifically 28 Up. It’s easy to think of these people as living in a vacuum, but it is interesting to remember that they are aware of the series as they age. Before this movie ends, Apted asks each of the participants how they feel about the series – something he has never done quite so blatantly before. The vast majority of them seem kind of resentful of the bitter memories that it stirs every seven years, but nevertheless continue on. There are a select few (John, for instance, who once again is absent) who sense the power that the series has to look deeper into them than they would like the world to see. I can totally understand the hesitation to put your life on display for anybody to see, especially if you are, say, a documentarian for the BBC (-cough CHARLES cough-)… it could definitely affect your career. But on the other hand, this series is a sort of magical thing. Like wine, the series only grows better with age. The further and further we get from the early ’60s, the more and more poignant this footage will become. It’s not just about people growing up, it’s about British society, it’s about advances in technology, it’s about the cultural mores of the time period, and so much more.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to see fourteen lives from the 1800s progressing? Not only to see 14 people from two centuries ago, from varying backgrounds, as they age.. but also to see how the world was changing during that time. Honestly, this series will only get better and better as time goes by.

I said at the beginning of this review that I would like to give the movie five stars, but I don’t think I can. I realize that part of my extreme enthusiasm for the film comes from the fact that this is the first time I am watching it, that I feel very closely connected to the subjects right now and my judgement is slightly skewed. I don’t know whether I will be quite as enthusiastic on a second viewing (although I’m sure I would still be very much enthralled).

Having never gone back to revisit any of the previous films, I cannot rightly say whether they hold the same thrill on a second viewing. Obviously I love the clips from the previous films that each new installment contains; you definitely see these clips in a new light once you know how their lives have turned out in the future. Paul’s reluctance to get married is quite easily contrasted with his stable family life now, for example. I don’t know, maybe it isn’t difficult to return to these movies, even if you have gotten much further into the series, and still get as much (or more) out of them than you did the first time.

All’s I know is that I kinda pretty much loved this movie and am super excited and sad that I only have one film left… well, until 56 Up is released.

This review was written 04/22/2009.

49 Up

Well, it has happened. I have finished the Up series so far, and now I join the rest of the civilized world in the aching wait until the next installment is released in 2012. Yikes.

It’s tempting to judge 49 Up as the final chapter, even though it most decidedly is not. Still, I knew it would be the last movie about the lives of Suzy, Tony, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, John, Andrew, Charles, Simon, Neil, Bruce, and Paul (am I missing anybody?) that I will be seeing for some time. And so it was tempting to look for some sort of resolution. That resolution, obviously, did not come. This is not the final chapter. And furthermore, even though it sounds like kind of a stupid statement to make, these are real people’s lives – there are no tidy conclusions to their stories. Their lives go on when you turn off your television. Their lives are going on right now. That’s so weird to think about. You could literally go to the University of Wisconsin and sit in on a class taught by Nick. Even during 42 Up, the film was from the late ’90s, you know? That was still kind of a distant time from now. It’s so strange to realize what you’ve known all along: yes, these people are still around today. Crazy.

Along with 35 Up, I found this entry in the series to be among the weakest. Which is not to say that it wasn’t fantastic, because it definitely was. Jackie’s interview was especially rewarding, given her strong feelings about the series. In fact, come to think of it, everybody has sort of strong feelings about the series that were just touched on briefly during the previous film. This time, they pretty much all say something about how it has affected their lives. John is back (for the same reasons), even though he still feels that the documentaries provide a quote-unquote “bit of poison” every seven years. Although Suzy was probably my favorite of the subjects before, there aren’t a whole lot of new conclusions that one can draw from her in this installment of the series and she hints that she may not return for future installments. That’s kind of irritating, but I’m sure she has her reasons.

Mostly, though, I think that this film was much like 35 Up in that there are not really any truly major changes that have occured. Sure, there are a couple of participants who have gotten divorced or re-married, which is surprising… but perhaps because we don’t really get to see the spouses very much, the news of these divorces is not particularly shocking. Otherwise, everybody seems to be about where they were before with regard to their station in life. The people who were firmly lower-middle class before are, big shock, still firmly lower-middle class. Nobody made a million dollars in the last seven years (or lost their millions).

I really don’t know what else to say. I wish there was more, seeing as how this is the last entry in the Up series for the next three years. But frankly, it’s hard to follow up something as incredible as 42 Up was. Apted still has magic flowing through each of these films, but there are some that are better than others and that’s just fine.

If I could rate the series as a single entity, it would without a doubt be worth five stars. Hands down.

This review was written 04/24/2009.

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