There is an old Jesuit phrase regarding personality and age: “Give me the child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Michael Apted’s “49 Up,” the latest installment of his masterpiece documentary series, was founded upon the simple assertion that although people might change as they age, their true character always remains the same.
The “Up” series began in 1963 as part of a British television news program similar to our “60 Minutes.” It had a simple premise: take a diverse group of seven-year-old children from different economic backgrounds and then ask them about their lives, hopes and dreams. Every seven years, the filmmakers would revisit each person and check in on their lives. What the series has produced is true reality television; there is no “Blind Date” vapidity or Simon Cowell virulence – though there are plenty of British accents – just the mesmerizing ordinariness of these people’s progression through time and life.
Even though this last film chronicles them at age 49, Apted contextualizes each person’s life by showing footage from previous films. When they are young, many are precocious and laughing about girl or boyfriends, they brood and smoke as teenagers, fall in love, get divorced, have children – throughout it all they experience anger, indifference, remorse and happiness.
Some, as suggested by Pink Floyd’s “Time,” live their lives “in quiet desperation” while others are brash and frankly oblivious. In an elegant way, and with the simplest premise, Apted and his editors manage to span nearly the entire gamut of human emotion without pretension or judgment. Politics, world affairs and other topics are mentioned, but only in the briefest of moments. The film’s focus is definitely on everyday life.
Before this viewing, I had never seen any of the preceding films in the series. Nevertheless, I became interested immediately in the raw humor and pathos these people feel. Granted, the movie spends an equivalent amount of time on each original child, and at nearly two and half hours I got a little exasperated by its end. But I cannot deny how profoundly interesting these totally ordinary people could be. Perhaps the most affecting part of the whole enterprise is the fact that most of these people regret being in the series in the first place.
One woman mentions the fact that “every seven years, many of the feelings [she] hide[s] away in those deeper compartments see the light of day again.” These films are frightening in a way that they can put a life in a nearly complete perspective, which caused me to pause and take a sobering look at where my own life is headed – a necessary endeavor that was also truly unsettling. But, at least these films remind us that, when it comes to being confronted by the totality of our experiences, we are never alone. Plus, watching real people deal with real problems beats the carefully crafted clichŽs of “American Idol” any day.