When Auguste and Louis Lumière invented cinema in 1895, a journalist (arguably the first film critic) wrote that death would no longer be final. And with death delayed, aging, too, can be hidden from view, if only for the duration of a movie.
Sixty-nine years later, British filmmakers Michael Apted and Paul Almond had a different idea. Instead of focusing on a single moment in a subject’s life, thus preserving that person’s youth for eternity, they attempted to chronicle the aging process itself and thereby capture a person’s ups and downs, successes and failures, across the decades. The Up documentary series was born.
The first film, Seven Up!, at just 40 minutes, is technically a short. Commissioned by England’s Granada Television and first aired on ITV in 1964, it introduced us to a group of 7-year-olds from different backgrounds and classes. Inspired by the adage “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the man,” the film intended to demonstrate the impact of the British class system while predicting the future of the country. But the series, which continued seven years later with 7 Plus Seven, soon outgrew its original goal, and by the time 21 Up aired in 1977, it was apparent that the films’ creators were doing more than shooting documentaries. They were redefining filmmaking.
Almond directed the first film, but the series has since been Apted’s baby, almost literally, as it feels like the venerable British director has raised the subjects before our eyes, in seven-year increments. Apted has grown up with the series too. Just 23 years old in 1964, he served as researcher and interviewer for that first film, helping select the 14 children. Those kids are now 63 years old and have become Apted’s cinematic family, cementing the director’s place in history, inspiring similar projects (Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and a Japanese Up series, for example) and prompting Roger Ebert to label the series one of the 10 greatest movie projects of all time.
“To look at these films, as I have every seven years,” Ebert wrote, “is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.”
I hope you’ve been watching these films as long as Ebert did. Regrettably, I have not, as a friend introduced them to me back in 2012. I was immediately hooked and scrambled to watch them all on DVD before the release of 56 Up later that year. While that film remains the most impactful of the series for me, there can never be an unimportant chapter in the lives of real human beings. For that reason, the new 63 Up demands watching just as much as any of the previous eight. And though the films are made for television, they are best seen on big screens like the one at Maitland’s Enzian Theater.
If you’re a series stranger, you’re at a disadvantage, but you won’t be lost. Like the previous films, this one summarizes past events. But, understandably, those summaries have become more difficult (and longer). So there’s no substitute for watching all the films, in order, not only to experience the weight of time but also get to know the three subjects who did not participate in this latest movie.
Apted has been criticized in the past for pigeonholing his participants and even trying to predict the outcomes of their lives. And subjects have been openly skeptical of the project’s value. Indeed, like its subjects, the Up series is fallible. But, as a humanistic experiment, how can it be anything but?
Now 78 years old, Apted, like his subjects, is slowing down. If this is his last film, no one need complain, as he’s already left a mighty legacy. But, like Apted has hinted, I hope he can somehow endure until his last subject is left standing.