Thursday, June 18, 2009
I've just finished watching Michael Apted's series of documentaries entitled The Up Series.
This ongoing series began in 1963 when a group of British 7-year-olds were interviewed on their opinions about love, money, education, and --probably most enlightening---their ambitions. The series featured children from diverse backgrounds, some coming from wealthy families and boarding schools, others from orphanages, or farming communities.
Apted has directed American documentaries and critically acclaimed films, most notably Coal Miners Daughter, Sissy Spacek's portrayal of Loretta Lynn growing up tough in Appalacia or Nell which starred Jodie Foster as a modern feminine version of Tarzan or Jungle Book's Mogli. Why I hadn't heard of this till just recently is beyond me, it's an Ebert top 10 and has apparently been mimicked in several other countries, including the US and was the subject of a Simpsons episode. I imagine the success of the newest pixar film will inadvertently lend it some light.
The idea sort of draws upon an old jesuit saying "give me a child until he is seven and will give you the man", which is sort of ambiguous but, what I think it was intended to mean is that looking at the factors of social class, personality, ambition of a seven year old certain predictions can be made about how they will grow up. Every seven years Apted seeks to find as many of the 14 original participants as possible and checks in on their current lives, ambitions, failures, struggles, achievements. What he achieves are several character studies in the broadest sense, 14 distinctly different biographies that are made even more interesting by the fact that his subjects lead more or less normal everyday lives.
Some of the kids change most drastically from 7 to 14 others from 14 to 21, others and perhaps the most interesting remain in a sort arrested development till well into their 30s. This was the case for one participant Neil who at 7 was intelligent, joyful, and some what naive when asked what he thought about colored people he responded that it was hard to imagine a "purple person with red eyes and yellow feet". He wanted--as many children with strong imaginations -- to be an astronaut. His plan b was to become a coach driver. After seven years there was already definite signs of disillusionment about him and his cheerful demeanor gave way to a more measured, realistic tone. By 21 he was homeless and angry. In his bitterness one could sense a sort of forlornness or existential dread, when coupled with his nervous instability it made him seem hopeless. Over the next 2 series living in extremely modest abodes, hitch-hiking all over Great Britain, and collecting social security his anger begins to give way to tolerance and he becomes more capable of stomaching society eventually moving back to London to pursue politics.
You get a sense with Neil that hes always struggling to bring the truth out, a trait by which in my opinion, he becomes the star of the show. Indeed, the whole cast seem to be collectively bad at self delusion and justifications and most of them allow the cameras back in every seven years. A few though don't which casts a sort of darkness upon their character, perhaps undeserved as they weren't fully capable of agreeing at 7 to do the show in the first place.
Though the show originally intended to make comparisons between classes, colors, and creeds, after the first 2 or 3 the tone becomes more personal than political and takes on a character that that the originators might not have imagined(Apted having been only a researcher, not director of the first installment). The basic questions don't change, class, money, love, work, dreams, but the subject in large part care very little about the politics and desire to talk more about personal goals achievements, children, marriage and so forth.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this, and one that probably my other favorite character Nick comes to at 42 is that the class barriers are so subtle and pervasive that as a fish in water, one cannot see them at work. This could be exemplified by the fact that the privileged seem to be thankful and dutiful, a bit close lipped, and in a couple cases absent altogether. The less fortunate in their turn seem to look at the world as though they were given ample option to do as they pleased and wouldn't want the burden of the privileged.
Nick ,perhaps the most successful and self-made of them all, knew from a very early age he wanted to move from his provincial setting and get on in the world as an important and useful mind. Each installment shows him further actualizing this dream. He moves to the United States in his twenties to pursue a career in teaching nuclear physics whether or not his distance from England harms or helps his opinion is tough to say.
Tony, one of the most interesting, is a hyperactive kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is adamant even at 7 that his dream is to be a jockey. He realizes this dream if only briefly and as it ends he wastes no time moving on to his next choice--cab driver. In one of the series best moments he is asked about dropping out of school...he explains that he only knows a few things "girls, dogs, horses,bets, cars, mom, dad, and love," he fires these out in rapid succession "that's all I care about, that's all I want to care about" simply and genuinely.
The rest of the characters are interesting in their own right, some more than others, but in the end all are indispensable. Watching the series no doubt induced serious self-reflection on my part as I imagine it would have a similar effect on all. In an age where reality television is king and where character driven dramas, no matter how unrealistic and mundane, seem to be as addicting as meth to urban 20-somethings, it baffles me how long this has remained under the collective radar. I still have yet to see the 49 installment and the 56 is set to come out in a couple years. While it may or may not be that genesis of reality television it was/is likely the zenith.