Friday, May 13, 2011

Growing Up with the "Up Series"

There's an old Jesuit maxim that says, "Give me a child until seven, and I will show you the man." It's pithy, glib, and may or may not be rooted in reality. How many of us are the same person we were at seven years old? Is it even possible to make this sort of comparison? 

For the past five decades, a documentary series has been exploring this idea. The "Up Series" follows a group of British children as they age and enter the adult world, checking in on them every seven years. The original film, Seven Up, was broadcast in 1964, and its successors have been as regular as the passage of time. 49 Up premiered in 2005, and 56 Up will be filmed later this year. 

When most Americans hear the term "documentary," they probably associate it with a hyper-political manifesto ala Michael Moore, or a series of images of sealife narrated by Morgan Freedman. But the Up Series is neither political nor pedagogical; it simply broadcasts the lives of these fourteen individuals free of spectacle or melodrama. Michael Apted, who has directed the series since the participants were 14 years old, simply asks these people a series of questions: Do you like your job? What is your family life like? Do you worry about money? Are you happy? 

If this doesn't sound immediately gripping, that's part of the appeal; I started watching the series maybe three years ago, and I just watched 35 Up last week. They're not films that immediately draw you in, but with each installment, I've found myself more and more hooked. In the age of reality television, we're used to seeing characters live out some sort of pre-determined narrative, fulfilling the role they've been cast as "the bitch" or "the good guy." But the Up Series doesn't do this; their lives unfold, sometimes predictably, sometimes in strange and unexpected ways. The fact that Apted doesn't reach to make conclusions based on his work is what makes the films the most compelling.

It wasn't always quite like this. The original Seven Up, produced by the left-leaning Granada Television organization, was far more political in nature. The original documentary was filmed as a one-off, without the idea that they would check in on these children every seven years, and was intended to show class disparities in 1960s Britain. As a result, very few middle-class children were picked for the program, with the producers instead opting for the super-rich (precocious seven year olds already planning their path down the Oxbridge circuit) or the super-poor (two children raised in an orphanage). In Seven Up, the questions posed to the children also seem designed to stir controversy; "Do you think poor people should be allowed in private school?" is a typical inquiry asked to the privately-educated seven-year olds. 

But if the Up Series was merely a showcase for political opinions on the class system, it would have quickly fizzled out. Apted wisely realized that whatever political conclusions one could draw from these films were not nearly as interesting as the strangely humbling experience of watching these people slowly age on screen. By 21 Up, the interview questions have shifted from the political to the personal. Apted refrains from being exploitative (he allows each of his subjects to have the final say in how their clips are edited), but he doesn't hold back from asking hard questions. 

As the series shifts in tone, as the subjects age (and as Apted skillfully edits together footage of their younger selves with their current interviews), the psychological question inevitably arises. It would be easy, perhaps too easy, to pinpoint every character flaw, every personality trait, every career choice, on a throw-away line that these participants' seven-year-old selves had done. And sometimes the Jesuit saying holds true. Tony is a lower-class boy who had aspirations to be a jockey, and grew up to be a cab driver. In Seven Up, Tony is a restless child, full of energy, with a mischievous smile. In 35 Up, Tony has aged twenty-eight years, but still has the same roguish grin, the same sense of humor, the same flair for telling a story, and the same love for horses. Looking at Tony's life, it's easy to make the case that everything about thirty-five year-old Tony was already present in the seven year-old boy.

But this is a trap, and while Apted sometimes edits the movies to juxtapose past statements on present scenarios, he's hardly making the argument for psychological determinism. For every Tony, there's a refutation of this idea. Neil is well-spoken and ambitious at 14, but homeless, unemployed, and mentally unstable at twenty-eight. Nick is shy and awkward at 14 (he won't even look at the camera), but by 21 he's a charming, even flirtatious, college student. At 21, Suzy is a nervous, chain-smoking semi-Bohemian, talking about how she will never marry; by 35, she's happily married and made the transition from the cynical counterculture to domestic housewife. 

Apted is a canny enough director to realize that these are the same people, from age 7 to age 49, but their childhood behavior doesn't necessarily predict their future lives. There is some connection between the past and the present, some shred of a "soul," or personal identity that remains constant, but these people's lives also shift in ways that were not predictable at all. Some people change as they grow up, and some people stay the same. Such is life. 

And that is the most remarkable thing about the Up Series. If you want to read the films as a political rant against social stratification, you can. If you want to read it as a psychological investigation as to the roots of our personalities, that's there too. But neither of these readings really get to the heart of what these films are doing. The Up Series has allowed these fourteen individuals to reflect on their own lives every seven years. All of their lives are different, but there's enough of a generational thread to see awkward 14 year-olds transform into cocky 21-year olds, to vaguely dissatisfied 28-year olds and cautiously content 35-year olds. 

It's their lives, and once you get beyond the gimmick of juxtaposing their seven-year old face with their 35-year old one, the films are surprisingly poignant. When watching these people, I can't help but reflect on my own life. Why am I who I am? Who was I back then? What relation is there between the two? Where is my life going to go from here? The Up Series becomes relevant and personal; the people on screen are radically different from me, but the questions they cope with while aging are the questions that everybody addresses, regardless of what generation or what country or what social class. 

Some of the participants of the series have dropped out for good, and others declined to participate in one installment only to come back for the next. It's interesting to see the characters cynical and angry at this forced self-reflection in their twenties, but by thirty-five they seem far more happy about the opportunity to publicly reflect on their lives. It takes a certain kind of courage, and all of these characters show poise and dignity in allowing their lives to be invaded every seven years. Sometimes I watch the Up Series and think that I would love the opportunity to have a video document that acts as a window to me at different ages. At other times, I'm relieved that I don't have to. 

The Up Series won't provide the visceral thrill of reality television, or answer the great questions of life. It's certainly not a film you watch to find out what happens next. But it is a remarkably existential series of films, a window on these peoples' lives and a mirror for our own. I'll be awaiting 56 Up, the opportunity to see these characters once again.