the Up series. These films began in the early 1960s, when a documentary crew in Britain made a short film called Seven Up, which looked at 14 children, all aged seven. The children were taken from a wide variety of educational climates, from expensive boarding schools to lower-class rural schools.
The film posited two major theses. First, it espoused the Jesuit teaching "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." In short, it proposed that you could tell everything about the future nature of a person from the morals, values, and aspirations s/he exhibits at age seven. Second, it implicitly argued that the class structure of British society was so strict as to render social mobility virtually impossible. A rich kid would grow up to lead an easy life, while a poor kid would struggle to ever rise from the lower class as an adult.
That first film was fairly simplistic, but then something more ambitious happened. Every seven years, director Michael Apted returned to interview the subjects -- at age 14, 21, 28, and so forth. Not only was the initial hypothesis put to the test, but a truly unique form of documentary was invented. The lives of roughly a dozen people were being chronicled through triumphs and hardships, through all of life's major events: births and deaths, marriages and divorces, relocations all around the world, career changes and values changes. In short, the series became truly fascinating.
2012 marked the year all the original subjects turned 56, so late in the year, Michael Apted went back to produce an eighth film in the series, 56 Up. It aired on BBC television a few months ago, and now has come to America for a run in art house theaters. You have to dig deep to find it, but if you've followed the series at all to this point, it's a search you'll feel compelled to undertake.
56 Up is a very interesting film in the series on several levels. In some ways, it represents the first time that nearly all the participants' lives have fully "gelled." A few people have become grandparents who weren't before, which is of course a significant life change. But nearly all of them are living in the same houses they were in 49 Up, with the same people they were with in 49 Up. As these people are now very clearly into the latter half of their lives, the big career changes, emigrations, and other massive transformations seem to have mostly ended. But that hardly means the film is boring. Instead, two major new elements come into play in this installment.
First is the element of "the Second Generation of Up," if you will. I mentioned that many of the series participants are now grandparents. For them, it means adjusting to a new stage of life. But for the audience, it's a chance to see the documentaries original theories put back to the test once more. In past installments of the films (mainly 28 Up and 35 Up), we got to see the children of the Up Children all right around that important age of seven, where the whole thing started. We got to see the type of education they were having, and the type of people they were as kids. And now they are the adults in their 20s, and we're getting to see just what they're turning into. Did they have any more educational opportunities than their parents? Did that translate into any upward mobility? Or do we see a lot of "like father, like son?"
The second major difference of 56 Up is that it feels dramatically more political than any earlier film in the series. Between past films, the lives of the subjects were all impacted by different events. But since 2005 and 49 Up, we've experienced the global financial crisis. That turns out to have been a shared event in the lives of many of the subjects; several have politics keenly on their minds this time around. You hear about it from all classes -- from poor Jackie whose disability benefits have been revoked, to middle-class Tony whose efforts to open a new business completely imploded, to well-off John who fears that the increased building efforts to jump start the economy will permanently destroy the natural beauty of the English countryside. So important is the subject of politics that one subject, Peter, has returned after a 28-year hiatus to appear in this film. His harsh comments on the austerity measures of Margaret Thatcher in 28 Up had an unfortunate fallout in his regular life, but he returns this time to warn against returning to such practices now (and to plug his blossoming band; he's not the first Up participant to use the films to promote other endeavors).
For me personally, there was a third significant difference with this newest documentary. It was the first time I ever had to wait to watch the next film in the series. I only heard about the Up films in 2010, and was able to watch all seven that then existed in the span of a month or so. I've waited a little over two years to check in with these people and see what's developed, and that wait I think made me a bit more introspective about this film than the previous ones. All over again, and in greater detail, I couldn't help but think about my own life at the times documented in these films. Where was I at 7? 14? 21? 28? 35? Where might I be when 42 comes around? Not many films have the power to make a person examine themselves like that.
In fact, I found 56 Up to be the best yet of the series. I give it an A-. And since it was a 2012 movie, that means it finds a slot on my ever-fluctuating Top 10 of 2012 list, taking over the #6 slot. If you've never watched The Up Series, it's definitely a time investment, but I think it's well worth it.