Monday, June 07, 2010

"Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

Yesterday I watched 49 Up (2005), currently the final installment in Michael Apted's Up documentary series. I've wanted to see the films for a long time, but it wasn't until they became available to watch instantly on Netflix that I felt I could devote the time to them that they require. I watched the first three films -- Seven Up, 7 Plus Seven, and 21 Up -- in one day (just over three hours total) so that I could better get to know all of the participants, planting them firmly in my memory, and I spaced the remaining four films out over the course of five weeks. The films follow the lives of various people of various backgrounds, visiting them once every seven years (starting in 1964 at age seven), and it was originally conceived to compare and contrast children of different classes in order to examine social mobility. Taken by themselves, the films are merely interesting, but taken together as a whole body of work (especially in sequence), they take on great significance -- even importance.

The series was meant to be seen every seven years, so there is older, repeated footage contained at the beginning of each segment to remind the viewer what has happened previously, but it's also used throughout the various interviews to draw comparisons between how the people are now and how they were throughout previous stages of their life. There is certainly something to be said for the repetition. At their best, the juxtapositions are utilized to convey or ask questions about aspects of human nature. But I still couldn't help thinking that Michael Apted should have shot more film (or used it if he did) so that he could cut to previously unseen footage of people when they were younger, echoing or shedding new light on things they were saying in later installments. Of course, it's also possible that this approach could have broken the tone of the film, the unique drum beat the repetition creates for each person, and the film could have ended up muddled and messy as a result.

I found watching the films to be an incredible experience due mostly to their concept and subject matter -- they seem to succeed in spite of their director. From time to time one gets the impression that Michael Apted has relied too much on specific motifs or personality traits that he himself found in the participants, and you can't help but wonder how much of what you're seeing is the people themselves and how much of it is Apted's version of them. Reading briefly about the series this morning bore this out even further: I came to learn that, in one instance, Apted had the impression that one of the participants in the film was going to end up in jail, so he shot footage of this person in "dangerous areas" to use in subsequent films. Indeed, in 21 Up I was worried about this person's future, thinking it was 50/50 whether or not they were going to end up in big trouble. Now, did I think this because Apted was showing me the version of this person that he had in mind -- the future criminal? Or was I simply picking up on whatever Apted saw in this person that made him think this in the first place? Later on in the series, Apted had the impression that one of the married couples was headed for divorce, and he showed this in the film with his choices, perhaps even going as far as deliberately portraying the wife of this particular participant unfairly in order to give the viewer the same impression. And apparently it worked. Not only did I think they were doomed when I watched it, but, as I found out in the next installment, apparently most of the viewing public thought so as well. These are unfortunate choices on Apted's part, and, for better or worse, we can never know the full extent to which the film's subjects have been wittingly (or unwittingly) misrepresented. But this is the same question one faces with any documentary, of course. It is important to realize that, no matter how much the Up films make us think and feel like we've gotten to know these people, we still know them very little. One of them (Paul) frequently mentions his hot temper, but we never see it once in the film. People are very good at showing only what they want to show, keeping parts of their life to themselves, even presenting a wholly different picture of who they are simply by guarding themselves or changing in the slightest ways for the camera. We do not truly know, and can never truly know, these people the way we feel we know them -- something that's equally true for most everyone we know in our real, everyday lives. And just like in real life, what's said in the film is often less important than how it's said: the tone, the body language, the reactions of others to what's being said, etc.

The films also give younger viewers some sense of what it's like to grow up over a long stretch of time as it documents how the world changes (fashions, technology etc.) and how people (and their lives) change. In this regard, the series can be seen as a documentary on time itself, with each face playing the role of its subjects most expressive canvas. For me, seeing 28 Up at nearly the same age as its subjects was fascinating simply for the reason that I could reflect on my own life situation, my thoughts, and my feelings towards the world, and compare them to the people in the film. For this reason -- and also because I imagine that the earlier films take on new meaning once you know things about the future lives of the subjects (and better know their personalities) -- I think that re-watching the entire series again in 20 - 25 years would be equally rewarding.

In some sense all of these participants feel like our children in that we watch them grow up over the years and wish only the best for them. This is automatic, I think (and hope), regardless of whether or not we personally like them (though I ended up liking everyone by the end). By getting a glimpse into their lives over the years we are able to see many of the reasons why they are where they are, and why they are who they are. As a result, we feel as though we understand them. We're all trying to live, and we all struggle, so no matter what the people in the film do or where they end up, we see them as being like us (or see them more as we see ourselves). All of this led me to wonder: why is it so hard to extend this identification beyond the frame? To love other people automatically simply because they are human is a very hard state for most of us to attain, but I think it's probably the ideal mode of being, especially if we are interested in long term survival as a species. And although it might sound ridiculous or wildly exaggerated to say, I think that the Up Series has the ability to bring us further along in this way, helping us become less judgmental and more loving towards others.

It's a rewarding and enriching series of films, the kind that everyone should take the time to watch at some point in their lives. It asks many, many interesting questions about human nature and life. About our goals and dreams. About stasis. About happiness and success. About self-delusion. About why we do the things we do. About what we live for and how we find meaning. About what makes us feel accomplished (or perhaps how we make ourselves feel accomplished). About what modern life is all about, and whether or not the standard goals of life seem fulfilling. And as viewers we reflect on our own lives, our personality, our behavior, how we perceive ourselves and how we are likely perceived. The series forces such questions on us as it progresses and accumulates, and asks them in ways that are different from how we might otherwise have asked ourselves without the insights afforded to us by the films. A remarkable document and achievement.

1 comment:

Hectocotylus said...

Outside of possibly prompting people to watch the Up documentaries, I'm not sure how much value this post actually has, so hopefully it's also worth reading if you've already seen the films. Keeping posts spoiler-free is something I normally try to do, and in this case there were other reasons for it. Talking about the films in great detail would not only have limited who could read it, but it would have also been far too long, and on top of that, the series has probably already been written about to exhaustion by many other people. But even those reasons are ones that could be applied to many other films. The main reason this post is somewhat vague in terms of the films' content is because of something that is unique to the films themselves.

From my point of view, it seems somewhat wrong (or rude) to write about the participants in great detail. I don't think there is much value in publicly highlighting our impressions of the lives and personalities of people we've never met, and by doing so, we would be reducing this great series of films to a mere tabloid report or a soap opera. Furthermore, I think it's best to remember that people in the series are still out there somewhere living their lives. (Yes, they have a choice in whether or not they continue to be in the series, but some of them are doing it (if we take them at their word) out of a sense of being part of something greater than themselves, not to mention that none of them ever knew how it was going to impact their lives once they started. Also, at age seven, they didn't volunteer themselves, they were volunteered by parents or teachers.) Roger Ebert, who considers the series to be one of the 10 greatest films of all time, called one of the characters in 21 Up "a twit" which to me is an incredibly obnoxious thing to write, true or not. I suppose he thinks he is justified in writing this because he goes on to say how much the "twit" has changed (for the better) in a later episode, but it's still unnecessary. These are real people who exist, and most of them have been kind enough to participate in this invasive, emotional process, so we should probably just thank them for allowing themselves to be part of the experiment and leave it at that, which is more or less what I was trying to do in the above post.

PS: If anyone sees this view as being hypocritical in light of a previous post I made on Tiger Woods where I used his marital infidelities to mock the very same tabloid mentality (found in modern news cycles) that I'm deriding above, I welcome the debate.