Docs of the Week: The Up Series Review - Dan Schindel

Docs of the Week: The Up Series

Posted in Days of Docs by - August 24, 2012

“Give me a child when he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

All dir. Michael Apted, 1984, 1991, 1998, 2005, Various Runtimes, All viewed via Netflix Instant

I previously said that the various installments of the Up series are all the same, but that wasn’t correct. They aren’t the same movie; they’re all one movie. It’s one movie that gets lengthened every seven years. Michael Apted has revisited the same fourteen people at regular intervals since 1963, seeing how their lives continually shift about. Each new Up film enriches the overall impression that he’s creating. It’s a wholly unique long form work of nonfiction art.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to follow the series from the beginning. Watching it, you form a true emotional bond with these characters, and to have it play out in real time must be something special. Watching each film is like catching up with old friends whom you haven’t seen in years. It’s a kick to meet each subject again for the first time in a while, and find out where they’ve gone in life. To me, though, it all played out over the course of just a week, instead of years.

What’s slightly different, though, is that when you meet up with old friends in “real” life, you generally don’t have any expectations for them. But watching each Up film, I found myself hoping certain things for each person. For instance, Neil. Poor, poor Neil. Starting out as a happy-go-lucky kid, each new movie seems to find a new way to beat the guy down. He goes from squatting to homelessness to acting in local theater to getting elected to government (!), and at each stage he seems troubled in some new way, finding himself unable to easily relate to others. He isn’t quite a sad sack, but he’s in a sort of continual, functional state of melancholy.

Of course, there are triumphant events as well. Seeing the sweet-natured Bruce pining for love for several films, to finally find a wife relatively late in life, is a great fist-pump moment. Bruce is probably my favorite of the bunch. He’s just such a sympathetic guy, selfless and charitable. Of course, I’m prejudiced in favor of teachers.

There aren’t quite so many high highs and low lows as there are just natural progressions of people’s life stories. Marriage, children, jobs, sickness, and more. Everything is in these movies. It’s about life, and life isn’t extravagant or generally dramatic. It just kind of is, and what it is, is beautiful (is). There are so many moments of quiet profundity in the different characters’ general musings about what has happened to them.

You know what would be interesting? If someone took these seven films and edited them into fourteen, each focusing on one of the subjects. Seeing each of their whole lives play out in the space of just a few hours would be utterly fascinating. It’s the ultimate biography. As the series goes on, you can detect a definite shift in Apted’s intentions. What began as a social experiment focusing on class issues in Britain became a much more personal (and, in many ways, more universal) endeavor.

Those issues are still there, of course. With the exception of Tony, who goes from living in the East End to having a summer home in Spain, all of the subjects are in the same social strata in 49 Up that they were in Seven Up!. But class status doesn’t change the basic nature of the human experience. The similar problems that middle and lower class people alike have, especially with divorce, make them more kin that dissimilar.

The Up series stands alone. There is nothing like it in the world of documentary, in film, in art, in anything really. It is a perfect space capsule movie. This is what we should send to the aliens, to tell them what we’re like. Every Up film is funny, sad, moving, and resonant in its own way. They are absolute must-sees, all of them, preferably together. They really are of a piece, and only show their full brilliance when viewed as part of a series. That’s a bit of an investment to ask of any viewer, but it’s completely worth the time.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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