Friday, October 06, 2006

49 Up - Movie Review

49 Up 2006

“Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.”
- St. Frances Xavier

In 1964, the British television series, “World in Action” broadcast a program entitled “Seven Up!” – a look into the lives of fourteen schoolchildren, all of them the ripe old age of seven. It danced around the rigid British class system and questioned the source of the age old "nurture versus nature" debate. While the original program was co-created and directed by Paul Almond, it would be one of his researchers and assistants, Michael Apted who would take the original idea and turn it into one of the most powerful documentaries in film history. How you ask? Simple pimple. By returning to interview these children every seven years to watch, interview and record their progress.

Now, forty two years later we meet up again with thirteen of the original fourteen (one having dropped out of the series way back with “21 Up” in 1978). And we are still not only intrigued by their lives, but have begun to look at them as old friends we catch up with from time to time. For the beauty and passion of this remarkable and unprecedented series lies in the intrinsic need for us to be nosy and learn all about our neighbors’ personal lives.

The previous installment was absolutely wonderful, as the participants had mellowed into a comfortable middle aged existence that seemed to smooth out the various wrinkles of their troubled youths. We actually hesitated before seeing the latest installment, thinking that the following seven years might not have been that exciting following the roller coaster ride of their salad days where the fascination of watching these youngsters form into their adult personas was the main draw. But Michael Apted is no fool.

49 Up” is riveting on an altogether different track. We are not particularly surprised at the subtle changes in locales in or professional and economic shifts, this time we are treated to a more reflective bunch who recognize the impact the series has had on their lives. For good and bad. The bulk of the interviews seem to focus on what nowadays has become an international pastime. For these gang of kids are the true progenitors of the entire “Reality TV” syndrome. Long before the Loud family made their stamp on the famed PBS reality series “An American Family” – these small British children began to live their lives in much the same fashion that the fictional “The Truman Show” would lampoon decades later. While today, we can switch to practically any and every channel on our cable televisions to eavesdrop on the intimate lives of strangers, this monumental series has demonstrated the scope of lives lived before the camera.

Many of the participants seem settled into their lot, often commenting with humor and a panged wit about their own celebrity status. Others are not so kind, and steadfastly break down what is and isn’t allowed on camera. The irony is not lost on the filmmaker. For as one of the kids has long dropped out of the series, it would simply be a matter of saying “No, thank you” the next time Apted and his crew came calling. But the fact is, the rest of the lot have agreed almost in perpetuity to continue this moviegoing social experiment. What continues to draw them to the limelight? Is it simply a case of loving the attention?

Perhaps. Some, most notably Tony Walker as the onetime aspiring actor and certainly the most chatty and forthcoming of the bunch never seems to tire of discussing his life and the most private details of his families’ existence. Which, we learn has made for more than a few bumpy hurdles along the way. But we would like to think that there is something else involved in their continued support of the project. By now, the films work as a sort of therapy. Not only for the viewers, but the participants as well. Many remark on the lessons learned by watching themselves over the years, and how they reacted or ignored the warning signs to many of their self destructive moments.

Another of the participants, Neil Hughes has become the focus of many reviews. For this once deeply troubled young man seemed destined to end up homeless (which he was for a time) or incarcerated in a mental asylum (which seemed very likely at another point). It is indeed the most dramatic arch to any of the storylines. And make no mistake – there are storylines being enacted here. For who among us hasn’t looked back at our lives and noticed turning points that reflected the direction we would follow? Well, maybe not all of us. But certainly, the majority of thinking people would benefit greatly from a glance at their past before plunging into their future.

For us, it is like a reunion we cannot resist attending every seven years. And this latest one is a true delight. As they approach the landmark of their collective fiftieth birthdays, there middles may be rounder, there necks a bit more lined, but their sense of individual self, while being less dramatic than their younger counterparts, is equally absorbing. We seem to understand these people, like we would an old friend or family member. They are definitely a mixed lot, thanks in great part to the genesis of the series. What is always a treat to watch is the visual counterpoint of interviews throughout the years. The famed quote by St. Frances Xavier seems to ring truer with each passing year. For all the physical and emotional changes that time has brought, the basic character of these fourteen individuals and their various family members seems to have been apparent from the very beginning.

It is a humbling and thrilling experience to realize that no matter what the environmental changes to their lives, the very makeup of their personas was apparent long ago on that playground. A wonderful series, that is thankfully available on DVD for your enjoyment. Do yourselves a favor, and spend some time with the crew from the “Seven Up!” series – we venture to guess you can’t just stop at one. Bless you all!

Directed by Michael Apted

Bruce Balden
Jacqueline Bassett
Symon Basterfield
Andrew Brackfield
John Brisby
Suzanne Dewey
Charles Furneaux
Nicholas Hitchon
Neil Hughes
Lynn Johnson
Paul Kligerman
Susan Sullivan
Tony Walker
Narrated by Michael Apted

Cinematography by George Jesse Turner
Film Editing by Kim Horton



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