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Thread: 63 UP (Michael Apted 2019)

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    63 UP (Michael Apted 2019)

    MICHAEL APTED: 63 UP (2019)

    Life studies, cumulative

    The British documentary "Up" series is an epic survey of human lives many of us have watched and more will watch. There's no doubt that it's flawed. Its primary maker, Michael Apted, a prolific filmmaker who made a Bond movie and Coal Miner’s Daughter and has 78 credits, has had arbitrary methods and blind spots. His questions are nosy or inappropriate. His editing-in of moments from earlier films in the series can mislead, or confuse, the viewer. Participants often wind up defending their own lives (not always a bad thing) and when they've differed with Apted on his methods or, worst of all, dropped out, he could be highly combative, it seems, and he and one of the original participants have not spoken since "21".

    But the idea, and the faithfulness to it, are unique, and, as he has made another one every seven years for nine times, a period of 56 years, the "up" project has become special and acquired a gathering richness and complexity of human meaning - far beyond films' too-pat original plan of showing the predetermination of class status - such that Roger Ebert named the series one of his ten greatest "films" of all time. Beyond that, it winds up being incredibly moving, every time.

    First there were 20, but the number of participants was dropped down right away to 14. Apted, the filmmaker, who began as a Granada Television researcher in his early twenties and has revisited them (or most of them), is now 77, and admits he might "drop dead at any minute" (not that he looks like doing that), but he would like to continue to 70 Up, 77 Up, into their early eighties and his mid-nineties.

    The ninth and current film reviews its subjects at age 63, and so, near retirement. It all began when they were seven, "mere" children but astonishingly articulate and nicely lined up to illustrate, the filmmakers thought, anyway, the Jesuit maxim "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man", which Apted loves to repeat and pose as a question to the participants. In her current piece in The New Yorker about the "Up" films Sarah Larson calls the saying "portentous, mysterious, mildly weird." Surely it refers to the Jesuits' ability to indoctrinate and form a small child for life. Apted must have meant it to indicate that English class origins were "Dickensian", immutable and set early. Clearly that wasn't even true then and is much less true now (even if class remains a strong divider in England). Now he, and we, can see the Jesuit tag as just pointing to how fully formed one is, or can be, early on, "the child is father to the man". But what actually happens to the person, can we predict that? Or is it just that after it happens, it seems logical?

    Three "posh" boys actually give at seven the boarding and prep schools they will go to and even which specific Oxbridge college, and two out of three were almost exactly right. Tony, the East End boy, most popular and famous of the series, famously chants at seven "I want to be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up". He means it; he dreams it. But when the time comes, in 21 Up, Tony only survives three races, his jockeying career shifts to taking bets illegally but happily he pursues The Knowledge and he winds up a London Black Cab taxi driver. In general, the working class participants' lives have proved less predictable.

    The "Up" series has become a subject of keen study and an object of emotional fandom. (See the Wikipedia article "Up (series).") You can lose yourself in the complexities of its changing lives and the labyrinths of its editing-in of earlier moments in lives with current ones. Some of the films are instantly available on YouTube. I can't say you have to watch them. I strongly suggest "7", "14", and "21" - after which the haughty and handsome future documentary producer-director Charles Furneaux dropped out for good, as others have also, but only now and then. Then skip around in the rest. But since all eight up through "56" are now in Netflix Streaming you can binge-watch them. If you can do that for entertainments like "Succession" or "The Deuce," why can't you give many hours to this monumental study of life and human nature?

    As for this latest one, once you are hooked, as I was from "7", you just have to stay caught up. And like Apted, if less so, you grow to care more and more about these men and women and look on them almost as family. As the seven-year leaps multiply, you may be less likely to be surprised, curious, or thrilled. But your knowledge has grown and deepened, the details have more nuance. In a 2012 New Yorker essay ("What '56 Up Reveals") Rebecca Mead cites her husband's remark that the series "began like Zola, but, half a century in, it touches Proust." Now closer to the end of life than to the middle (with one member, sadly now dead - Lynn Johnson, the woman who as a girl said she'd clerk at Woolworth's but became an influential librarian - and one, Nick Hitchen, raised on a small farm in the Yorkshire Dales, who became a professor of science in the States, now seriously ill with throat cancer) thoughts turn to summing up.

    But there may be more - lots more. The end of life can be long and complicated, especially nowadays.

    63 Up, 180 mins, debuted in the UK Jun 7, 2019; in Telluride and New York festivals; US theatrical release Nov. 27, 2019 (Film Forum); Dec. 6 at Landmark Nuart in LA; nationwide expansion Dec. 13. Metascore 86%.

    See my reviews of 49 Up (2005) and 56 Up (2012).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-01-2019 at 07:05 PM.


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