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The Up Films: The Speed of Life

“If one were to watch all of them, god forbid at one sitting, but over a period of time, how different they’d all be…” Michael Apted on the Up Series, from the director commentary of 42 Up.

It begins in grainy black and white. A rambunctious boy runs in front of a brick wall, another walks through the foggy, rainy English countryside, three girls in a playground descend a slide side by side by side toward the camera. “In 1964,” a buttery, avuncular English voice-over begins, “Granada Television brought together a group of seven year olds, from all over the country and from all walks of life. They talked about their dreams, their ambitions and their fears for the future … we have followed their lives every seven years. They are now 56.”

Eight films with an average running time of 106 minutes, or one film with a total running time of 14 hours and 8 minutes. Forty-nine years in the making and still incomplete. What would it be like to experience all of the Up films, and in a cinematic sense all of those years, within 24 hours? The point was not to take an endurance test, but to experience what captured time, 49 years of it, was like and what insights might be gleaned from viewing it this way.

But first, some history. When Granada Television aired Seven Up! in 1964, it had a very specific agenda. This one-off, 30 minute television program was intended to show that despite England’s cultural loosening up (the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Mary Quant and Twiggy, A Hard Day’s Night and Goldfinger) the class system was still very much in place. Its premise, a permutation of a Jesuit aphorism, appears in every film: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The liberal-minded Granada TV took this to be a socio-economic truth. The children of working class East Enders would become working class East Enders, the posh children would inherit the posh world of their parents. Granada chose 14 children but didn’t do such a great job of representing England’s demographic: Ten boys and four girls; six from the lower class, three from the middle class, five from the upper class.

Working as a researcher on Seven Up! was Michael Apted, 21 years old and straight out of college. This was his first job. Apted would direct every subsequent Up film and, though he has also directed blockbuster narrative films (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, The World Is Not Enough, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of Down Treader), the Up series is, he has said, the most important work he’ll ever do. It is his life’s work.

The children in Seven Up! are charming, adorable, sad, precocious. They say incredibly cute things about the opposite sex and incredibly telling things about the social environment they’re growing up in, such as, “What does university mean?” from a boy in an orphanage, “I’m going to work in Woolworth’s” from and East End girl, and “I read the Financial Times” from a boy attending an exclusive school. The world we are seeing is black and white, and for viewers who are contemporaries of the “Uppers,” it is a nostalgia trip. These seemed like simpler times. Blasting a rocket into space was a marvel and many little boys wanted to be astronauts. Two of these English boys did.

Peter and Neil at 14

Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven (they hadn’t committed to “Up” at that point) are the shortest films (together they run 92 minutes) and are watchable back to back without a break. We don’t even need to get up from our seat to change the DVD–since they’re on the same disc we simply go to the menu and select play with our remote. The remote as we know it didn’t exist when either of these films first aired. That could be said of thousands of films, of course, but more than any other film the Up series has a way of repeatedly bringing to mind the leaps and bounds made in technology, and specifically cinematic technology, over the last 50 years.

7 Plus Seven hit on the idea of using the past film to remind the viewer of the subject’s background, schooling, and ambition, and using the new footage to catch to us up. For example, Tony, that rambunctious seven-year-old boy tells us, “I want to be a jockey when I grow up!” When he’s 14 we see if that dream is on the road to being fulfilled or if it has vanished. Seen every seven, these clips remind us of their past ambitions, triumphs, setbacks, and failures; they enables us to follow their lives. They are necessary if each film is to stand on its own, which each does. These clips also act as something like a highlight real. But they can also have a recurring dream quality, such as when we see 14-year-old Suzy sitting on the grass in a beautiful Scottish garden on a beautiful sunny day. She sits in the foreground and tells us about how she spends her free time. The dream becomes nightmarish when her dog, in the background, chases, captures, and kills a rabbit.

Apted estimates that 20% of each film after Seven Up! is comprised of footage from the previous films. So there is repetition, but the films, even watched this way, are not repetitious. There is a mind-boggling amount of information in these films, and the repeated clips are an invitation to look and listen more closely, to analyze and draw comparisons on all sorts of levels. In 7 Plus Seven Symon is interviewed in a kitchen. We’ll see him in that same kitchen in 21 Up, with that same wall behind him, though the wallpaper will be different. Symon, it will turn out, is one of the least upwardly mobile of the group.

At seven, Tony, an impish East Ender says “Is it important to fight? Yes!” When we saw this the first time we were taken with his words and accent. The second time with his frenetic delivery. The third time how the frame barely contains him. In 28 Up, we might notice that his sweater, possibly a hand me down, is slightly unraveling at the left shoulder. Later on in this film we will see Neil, the Liverpool boy who danced and skipped at seven and wanted to be an astronaut or a tour guide, slip deeper and deeper into mental illness. He is homeless at 28, finding shelter in a trailer in a remote part of England, a place that looks like the end of the world, and fighting to keep his sanity. His coat has a large tear at the upper right shoulder. Tony’s unraveling sweater at seven makes us smile and think of harmless schoolyard scuffles; it’s a bit endearing. That awareness heightens the sadness we feel when we notice adult Neil’s tattered coat. Neil’s clothes tell us about the hardness of his life, they are a symbol of the inner fights he engages with daily. We make this poetic connection because we have been given the time and opportunity (the repetition) to study the images flickering before our eyes and then reflect on them.

Each film has its own overriding theme. 21 Up is all about the excitement and uncertainty of entering adulthood. 28 Up is about the radical transformation many of us undergo, from carefree and often clueless college students to one half of a couple, perhaps even parenthood. 35 Up finds many of the subjects struggling. Marriages are shaky, bodies are falling apart, and a few are grieving the loss of a parent. 35 Up is a sad, intense film but one that is also rich and fulfilling. Those grieving are on the verge of tears, and often bring us to tears, especially if we have lived through that kind of loss. When it’s over, we think this is a good point to take a break from watching. Drifting off to sleep, we wondered if these people will show up in our dreams. They don’t.

Nick at 42

42 and Beyond

As the first cup of morning coffee goes down, we reflect on time. Apted has made everyone wait 7 years between Up films, and here we’ve gone and subverted that. In our seven-plus  hours of viewing the night before (not including the brief breaks taken between films for stretching and sustenance), we watched 28 years flit before our eyes. All of those hours, all of those years, gone forever. But a few snapshots have been captured here.

42 Up, the last Up film shot on celluloid, begins with the irrepressible Tony and his wife, Debbie, seated at the kitchen table discussing Tony’s infidelity. Witnessing this is rough stuff. Debbie smugly tells us that she caught him cheating and Tony tries to be upfront and to evade at the same time. This is perhaps Up’s most sensational scene, and it occurs to us that even in this instance, what separates the Up films from reality television is the lack of the over-top moment. The outburst of anger or excitement doesn’t happen here. Instead, the subjects reflect on the last seven years. Outbursts result in histrionics and ratings; there’s dignity and grace in reflection.

The vérité footage celebrates the everyday. Neil purchasing socks; Suzy gardening; Andrew on a family vacation; Bruce the teacher working in the classroom; Jackie the barmaid pouring drinks in the pub; Sue working in an office. There are family trips to parks and zoos, a couple riding bikes, a father teaching a son to drive, a mother serving breakfast to children before they go off to school. “The drama of getting through the day. The drama of ordinary life,” Apted says in 42 Up’s DVD extras. The moments captured here are the ones we forget, but the ones we long for when such moments are disrupted by tragedy.

An uneasiness falls upon us during 42 Up. Maybe it has to do with Symon, who talks about his mother’s passing. “There were so many things I never actually said to my mum, that I would have liked to say to her.” Or maybe it has to do with Bruce, now married, who says, “That lightness, that youth, it’s just gone.” Yesterday he was a seven-year-old towhead with a cowlick and gigantic ears being bullied into doing calisthenics by a classmate. What happened to that little fascist? Is he in the military? A member of Parliament? Is he still alive even?

And suddenly we can articulate that uneasiness. There will come a time when either one of the subjects will die, or Apted, 14 years their senior, will die. What then? Will the series stop? Over the course of eight films, no fewer than 11 Uppers participated in each film. When any of them doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter which one is absent, we mourn a little. A virtual community has been created around these people and we are part of it, participate it in it. We don’t want to see that dismantled because one passes. We want it to continue.

But this gloom appears to be a hangover from the previous film because 42 Up is about carrying on despite the knowledge that statistically half of their lives are behind them. There is joy at the local pub on karaoke night with a new love interest; there is concern about a son with a learning disability; pride about a published book; and there is more failing health, arthritis, but its sufferer finds relief by joyously romping in a pool with her young sons.

“Life chugs along in varying degrees,” John, one of the upper class participants, says. He said this when he was 35 and it has become one of the highlights. But it delivers a powerful punch here, reminding us that a lot time can pass between when we see and hear something and when it impacts us. Yesterday, or seven years ago, we saw that same scene and we nodded; now it resonates profoundly.

42 Up ends with Neil in London. He is friends with Bruce and close enough a friend to deliver a speech at Bruce’s wedding. If the morning and the past seven years started off with an unnameable anxiety, it ends reaffirming the very best that life has to offer: friendship, love, compassion, people brought together through art, through film. It occurs to us that, though watching 35 years of 13.5 lives (one subject dropped out at 21) pass in such a compressed time is factitious, in many ways the Up films do travel at the speed of life. One quiet afternoon we are having a cup of green tea and reading the newspaper when the phone rings and unthinkable news is delivered. Another gray morning we sit at a café and meet the person we’re destined to spend our lives with. In between there are innumerable meals to be cooked, countless walks to take dogs on, relentless shrubs to be pruned.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the passing of time while watching the series–it’s impossible not to–and how we handle and manhandle time in film. If the edit from bone twirling in the air to starship rotating in space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the jump cut to end all jump cuts, the Up series contains many runners up. Seven-year-old Nicholas walking below a menacing towering cliff cut in mid stride to 56-year-old Nick walking by that same cliff. They are in color now. Nick is bigger, rounder, the cliff looks smaller, mellower. Everything seemed so much bigger when were children. London’s East End get a similar edit to a different effect. A street shown to us in 1964 is unrecognizable in 1998; we really we can’t go home again. Not technically a jump cut but a three shot sequence packs a similar wallop. Medium close up of Tony driving his cab at age 28, cut to the road he’s driving down, cut back to Tony and he’s 35. A recent studied revealed American’s spend 100 hours a year commuting in their cars; we don’t need to know that stat to relate to the shot. We are spending a huge chunk of our lives in traffic behind the wheel. Some days, when we’re caught in traffic in L.A., it can seem like it took seven years to get from home to work.

But watched this way we notice something else about the editing. In 21 Up, Bruce, then a student, sits beside his math teacher and runs through a proof for a full 50 seconds. It is a beautiful moment and warrants all that time. It gives us a lot of information about Bruce and his life then. I have no idea what is being discussed, but it’s impressive and geeky. This scene reappears in the all of the subsequent films, but it is given less time—in 56 Up it lasts 10 seconds. The specific details are no longer there. The mathematician is no longer referenced and the teacher no longer has the final word. These details are gone, the way the theorems we learned in high school geometry are gone. What remains is the feeling of learning at that age, the glow of pride because we know we impressed our teacher. The essence of the moment remains, but that distillation could only be experienced if we had watched the longer shot. When watched this way, the Up series achieves this like no other film.

Tony at 49

These films have a timeless quality. That might seem like a paradox–how can a film that’s been 49 years in the making and that’s about the passing of time have a timeless quality? The secret is in the films’ consistent aesthetic. The subjects’ clothing and hairdos may tell us what year it is, but cinematic style will not. We will not see animation, re-enactments, or jittery handheld camera work. That being said, the films are not cinematic dinosaurs, either. Apted went digital with 49 Up (2005). DI, unimaginable in 1964, is simply and elegantly employed: a familiar long shot of Bruce’s boarding school from Seven Up!, cut to another long shot of the building in b&w, which then slowly saturates with color. And just like that we leap over decades.

A more dramatic kind of time leap occurs with the unexpected reappearance of a subject we haven’t seen in almost thirty years. Attuned to the seven year rhythm and with the changes those seven years produce—wrinkles, more girth, less hair, grayer hair–seeing this subject, someone who inexplicably disappeared from the Up universe after so long an absence is initially stunning. (He explains the reasons for his disappearance in 56 Up.) But we quickly make sense of the physical change that real time has exacted on him, the same way we can recognize our parents as children in photos. Oh yes, there he is, it’s the eyes, he is the same. And the way he tilts his head, very much the same, and in his smirk and dry wit, unchanged.

So the Up films can be something like a time machine, but they are also a time capsule, a fluid one, added to every seven years so we can witness transformations, and not just of people, but of places as well. There is no better example of this than the closing sequence. We saw Tony at 21 taking bets at the frenetic dog track, and then at 42 visiting it, shuttered, the footage from 21 years earlier as close to seeing someone else’s memory as we’ll ever get. In 56 Up, Tony sits in an arena chair where the dog track once was, and the zoom out reveals that the once seedy space has undergone a grand transformation.

But if the Up films were just these things, time machine and time capsule, they would be interesting historical and sociological documents and not much else. But they offer more than that; the reason we anticipate their arrival and watch them over and over is they are not just the story of 14 English people who were born in 1957, it is our story as well. It is a mirror that allows us to look at ourselves now and as we were at various ages. If we are significantly younger than these 14 people, we can relate to their childhoods, adolescence, young adulthoods, and we can see what awaits us, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

No matter how we experience the Up films, watching them in a fell swoop or over years and years, it is similar to looking at family photos, home movies, or scrolling through our Facebook timeline; we are taking our own trip through time, with these people as our stand-ins and guides. Nick, the nuclear physicist, sums it up. Commenting on the series’ limitations, he says, “And then they present this tiny little snippet of your life and it’s like, that’s all there is to me…?” He then weighs in about its value, “It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Suzy, it’s a picture of everyone.” Yes, that was us, with those mustaches and outsized collars. We thought there was so much there, but really, when we look back on it, there isn’t. And it was so long ago, but didn’t it just seem like yesterday?

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