56-Up: Checking In With ‘Old Friends’

Roger Ebert once referred to Michael Apted‘s Up series as the ‘noblest project in cinema history.’ In writing his review of 56-Up–the latest installment in the story of the Fab Fourteen–Ebert disowned those words as ‘hyperbole’ but its easy to see why he might have thought so. It is as straightforward–and as complicated–a film project as could be: take fourteen children, interview them at the age of seven about their vision of life and what it holds for them, and then, every seven years, meet them again to ‘check in.’ The original premise might have been to explore whether the British class system affected a child’s world-view and whether it locked their lives into unalterable trajectories, but over the years the Up series has grown into something else: an episodic cinematic document of a tiny cross-section of humanity.

Fourteen ‘ordinary’ people; fourteen ‘ordinary’ lives. Hardly the stuff of riveting storytelling, or so you’d think. Thirteen of them are white, one is black, four women, all are English. This is not even a very representative sample of the world’s humanity. And yet. somehow, over the years, they’ve managed to captivate millions all over the world who tune in, faithfully, every seven years.

Every viewer of the series has his or her own personal reasons for remaining riveted to it, for eagerly awaiting the next installment. In my case, it has been because, like many others, I’ve become personally interested in the fortunes of its participants, not out of pure voyeuristic curiosity, but because I’ve been growing too, and often find immediate, sharp, and personal resonances with their lives. There is the sometimes incoherent, sometimes acute vision of the seven-year old, the callow, rash pronouncements of the teenager and young adult, the maturing, sometimes rueful perspectives of the thirty and forty-somethings, and now, the slow, low, sometimes content glow of the mid-fifties. (They’re ahead of me; I’m not fifty yet, though the gap between my age and theirs has shrunk!)

It would be a mistake to say every life examined on this show demonstrates some universal truth or anything like that. Rather, each one showcases, in part, some of life’s fortunes and misfortunes; some get more than fair share of the hard knocks. But it is in the adding up, in the rendering of a composite image that one is able to see a glimmer of the complexity and variety of human existence: present and missing parents, loves–lost and found, illness and good health, passion and anger, ruefulness and exultation.

Of  the various cinematic techniques invented by directors over the years, I find the epilogue particularly poignant: the passage of time and persons, the looking back, the reckonings and accountings of a life.  Often it is because those episodes are tinged with regret for missed opportunities, sometimes because through them, we are brought face to face with the most basic facts of our existence: life is just one moment after another, the past already gone, the future yet to be realized. The Up series has often felt like a collection of epilogues even as we know–or at least believe and hope–another installment is forthcoming.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m looking forward to 63-Up.

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