The Up Series (2004)

Directed by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough

From Wikipedia: "'Seven Up!' is the first in a series of seven documentary films that has followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. The children were selected primarily to represent the full range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child's 'class' predetermines their future. Every seven years, the director, Michael Apted, films new material from as many of the fourteen he can get to participate."

What wonderful praise can I offer this collection of time-traveling documentaries that has not be said? Not much. It is remarkable -- certainly one of the best documentary and sociological studies ever created.

In interviews Keven has since looked up, Apted said the original goal of the series was to profile the persistence of class structure in Britain. The producers threw in a handful of interviews with middle class children to fill the roster, discovering over time that the most intriguing changes took place in the middle. The ultra-rich stayed rich. The poor did not stagnate, but one did sire six children. And from across England, the middle went to the four winds: a single mother of three in Scotland, an immigrant to Australia, a teacher in Bangladesh, a bit TV actor, and the head of the physics department here at the University of Wisconsin (the librarian says he shops at Whole Foods just down the road).

However, the series should be subtitled "What Happened to Neil?" I told Keven my theory, that Neil is fascinating because society rarely has prolonged association with genuinely disturbed, mentally ill individuals unless those people are family members. To see someone like Neil on the street would be to see a vagrant. But to understand Neil through these films, I developed an intense sympathy for his condition. As a study of upper vs. lower classes, well, we've seen studies and evidence -- certainly not to this degree of detail, but the concept is not new. As a study of the progression of mental illness, it is fascinating. He did not start out nutty. Where does life take up? What does time reveal about our brains that is not necessarily evident at age seven?

The progression between "Seven Up" and "21 Up" produces the most physical change, obviously. Watching these children become young adults is bizarre and tempts the viewer to consider his or her own journey to adulthood. The "21 Up" and "28 Up" chapters produced the most exciting life changes, primarily because the 20s are a happenin' decade: get out of school, establish careers, get married, begin procreation. The most depressing gap took place between "28 Up" and "35 Up," in that most participants experienced some sort of heartache. Divorce, the loss of a parent, miscarriages, failed dreams -- the 30s are not a fun time, apparently. (Yay me! Looking forward to it.)

The series is based on an old Jesuit phrase: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." With Neil and many of the other participants, the phrase does not stand. Identifiable characteristics remain throughout -- a flirtatious nature, lack of self-confidence, persistence, reticence -- but human beings come out looking pretty good through these examples. Class and circumstance determine much of their perspectives, but not their fates.

The most recent installment of the series, "49 Up," is out on DVD today! Yay! I'm first in the hold line at my library, so I will have a brief follow-up later this month. I'm assuming more middle age trials. And, of course, "What Happened to Neil?"


Reckless Monkey said...

Unfortunately for 49 up they decided to get everyone involved in the same room to chat out their experiences, and due to a number of freak coincidences that I don't have time to go into, they all died. Sad way to end the series, but what can you do.

Tess said...

I've added it to my wish list, just in case someone has an extra $100 to spend on me.