I'll tell you, the best thing about the early days of the summer is feeling my mind open back up, after all those weeks of being trained on a series of tasks that absolutely had to get finished. By no means am I suggesting that they were loveless tasks; I am, by and large, a very happy, even ecstatic teacher, someone fully in her element while working with books and ideas and students and colleagues. But I ran into a former student on my way to dinner last night, and he e-mailed later to say, "You seemed unusually happy, so I imagine it had already been a good day," and I realized that the root of my having seemed happy was undoubtedly being well-rested and fully available to enjoy the evening.
This morning, having my mind free for now meant that when I ran into a banner ad in the middle of an article (and what the article was, I've now fully forgotten), hawking First Run Features's five DVD set ofThe Up Series, I was fully able to start some laundry, wash some dishes, and then sit down to rewatch 42 Up, the most recent installment in that series to have been released in the U.S. I remember reading about 42 Up when it appeared in 1999, though I didn't get a chance to see it until 2001 or 2002. (I can't remember now which summer it was when I became obsessed with trying to gather together all the Up films.)
And then I was able to decide to use some time this afternoon to introduce you to theUp series, in case you haven't run across it yourself. The films have been released in the U.S. since 28 Up, the fourth installment; 49 Up has already been out in Britain (it aired on television in September 2005) and is due to start appearing in the U.S. this summer (at the Seattle Film Festival, for instance), to show up in limited release October 6, and to come out on DVD November 14.In 1964, Michael Apted was on a training course with Granada Television, based in Manchester, England. Granada's show World in Action decided to do a feature on fourteen seven year olds, in an attempt to see what England looked like through children's eyes, as well as what its future might be. The show's motto, borrowed from Frances Xavier, was "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man." After the first film's broadcast, Apted decided to do an installment every seven years, following these kids as they grew into adolescence and adulthood. Each installment has included substantial flashbacks to its predecessors, meaning that even if you've not seen any of the previous films, you can still appreciate and marvel at the richness of these people's accounts of themselves as they've aged through experiences both momentous and banal. The children were from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds: a few of the boys came from wealthy families and were attending posh schools; three of the four girls were from working-class families in East London, while the other attended a fashionable girls' school; a couple of the boys were from outside London (one from Liverpool, one from rural Yorkshire); one boy was the son of a West Indian father and a white mother. The questions have always been fairly simple: "Do you have any boyfriends?" "What do you think about girls?" "Is it important to fight?" "What do you think about rich people?" "What are you going to do when you grow up?" "What games do you play?"
In the initial program, the children go to a zoo together, and a somewhat droll voiceover explains the purpose of 7 Up:
This is no ordinary outing at the zoo; it's a very special occasion. We've brought these children together for the very first time. [droll chuckle] They're like any other children...except that they come from startlingly different backgrounds. [footage of one of the posh boys lecturing one of the others, who has just thrown something at a polar bear: "Stop that at once!"] We brought these children together because we wanted a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.It's an appropriately dramatic beginning; I'm imagining that 49 Up will kick off with the same line, only with "49" substituted for "42." Over the 42 years they've been profiled in Apted's films, these men and women have pursued a variety of educational and vocational tracks, some of which they confidently predicted even when they were seven; they've nearly all married, and some have been unfaithful to their spouses, and some have divorced; most have had many children. Their parents have died; they themselves have become ill; many have changed careers at least a couple of times. Their self-conceptions have shifted both subtly and dramatically over the years; they reflect in particular on Britain's class structures, on the possibility and mechanisms of self-improvement and social mobility, the social dynamics the program set out to explore in the first place. And several have dropped in and out of the program, citing various disagreements with it and with Apted (one man, for instance, agreed to participate in one installment but only if he could be interviewed by someone other than Apted). In a sense, for the fourteen of them, the program has itself become one of those conditions of life imposed in youth and only somewhat escapable in adulthood--one of the kinds of factors the program set out to explore and illuminate, in fact. Nick, now a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2005 (as filming for 49 Up was underway) how the program had affected him, commenting in particular on British accusations that he'd sold out by choosing to move to the U.S.:
[And then another voiceover comes in, as the World in Action theme music starts up again.]
In 1964, World in Action made 7 Up. We've been back to film these children every seven years. They are now 42.
I've got 42 years of history of this not being an easy process.... Maybe it is like family. However annoyed I am with them, you can't get around the fact that, when I was 6 years old, these people descended on me and put me on television. That, I'm pretty sure, made me think that there is more to the world than this tiny valley I'm living in. ... When they say it's surprising you didn't stay in this valley, well, they might be part of the reason.Now Playing Magazine's May 24 announcement that First Run Features would release 49 Up concludes with what its writer surely thought was a witty quip, suggesting that after the film's release, "all of the cast members will do their best to get on Survivor or Amazing Race, just to tide them over until 56 Up, of course." In fact, exactly the opposite is likely to be true: these men and women are, I suspect, the earliest reality television stars, and one of the reasons the Up series has never grown old (except, occasionally, for its sometimes-reluctant participants) is that Apted has stuck so faithfully to his original parameters. He conducts three-hour interviews and does some other miscellaneous filming with these men and women every seven years, then edits his hours of footage into the next installment of this collective auto/biographical portrait--a work woven together out of these men's and women's self-representations (and thus autobiographical) but held together with a guiding, third-person consciousness (and thus biographical). The only time Apted has broken his rules, by his account, it was to film the wedding of one participant, the ever-conscientious and thoughtful teacher Bruce; at the wedding, the participant with perhaps the most turbulent life, Neil, read a prayer he'd composed. The Up series, in other words, isn't about living for the camera. It's about a camera trying to catch life in an unobtrusive (though disciplined) way. This distinction is crucial; I'd even argue that it's what divides aesthetically and sociohistorically valuable reality television from dreck.
To be sure, the Up series has changed its participants' lives, as Nick's comment to the Chronicle has already suggested. When he filmed 42 Up in 1999, Apted asked the eleven who participated to tell him about how starring in the series had affected them personally. Nick laughed somewhat ruefully and said, "Well, we were talking about my ambitions as a scientist. My ambition as a scientist is to be more famous for doing science than for being in this film. But unfortunately, Michael, it's not going to happen." Andrew, a barrister, said, "If you came and asked me if you could do this to my children, I certainly wouldn't be enthusiastic. I think it's something that I wouldn't wish on someone, particularly." Jackie, now a divorced mother living in Scotland with her three children (and her rheumatoid arthritis, which I fear will have grown worse since 1999), explained the program's value to her: "I don't think I'd ever have kept a record of my life in the way that we have with this program. So, yes, I enjoy doing it. But it's not something that takes a great precedence." Suzy, a stay at home mother who has become a grief counselor, pointed out the dark side of that ongoing collective record: "There's a lot of baggage that gets stirred up every seven years for me that I find very hard to deal with. And I can put it away for the seven years, and then it comes round again, and the whole lot comes tumbling out again, and I have to deal with it all over again."
Seeing how Suzy deals with it all over again, whether Symon is still married to his second wife, whether Tony's still driving his cab, whether Neil is still hanging on to his mental health and his career in local politics, whether Bruce and his wife Penny are still happy, whether John and Charles have come back to the program--these are the things I'm looking forward to doing come November."What's the point of the program?" Charles asked when he was fourteen and still allowing himself to be interviewed. Nick may have summed up the Up series's point most cogently during his interview with the Chronicle, in the course of explaining why he's stayed with the series all these years, despite his reservations and discomforts: "Seeing people portrayed in time-lapse photography, you see things that you can't see otherwise.... It's insight into people. It gets to the heart of the people in some ways, if not all the time -- or even most of the time." The Up films suggest that life itself (not to mention the process of watching life) is like that last sentence: messy, inconclusive, self-contradictory, sometimes riddled with cliché, but eventually, in some small way, illuminated and illuminating.