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Movie Time: 63 Up

I am watching this movie as my first look at director Michael Apted’s “Up” series. I had been aware of it ever since Siskel & Ebert, in 1978, heaped praise on the “21 Up” segment of the series. So I had hoped to catch up on the now nine installments, but time and other issues got in the way. So now I have been offered a screener of “63 Up,” and can come into the movie with fresh eyes.

Background

To fill in: the first part of this series was “7 Up,” a documentary produced as part of a regular documentary series, “World in Action,” on Britain’s independent Granada Television. The original, only 40 minutes long, interviewed 14 seven-year old children, intended to represent a cross section of the classes in British society. This short was directed by Paul Almond, and narrated by Douglas Keay, with Michael Apted researching and choosing the children to be interviewed. Apted became director as he revisited the children in 1970’s “7 Plus Seven,” then followed with other documentaries in the “Up” series. While continuing to make documentaries, Apted also became a feature director in both Hollywood and the UK, having helmed the rock’n’roll picture “Stardust,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” and even a James Bond entry, “The World is Not Enough.”

Back to my watching “63 Up” as my first exposure to the series. I feel that I’ve not missed a thing: as each subject is introduced as they appeared at age 7, and further details of their lives are filled in by clips from later films. When we catch up to each of them at age 63, it’s like we already know them. And there is some cheer to be drawn from the stories, especially of children who grew up to break out of the roles that the British class system assigned to them.

The children

One example was Nick, a farmer’s son in the northern reaches, who was determined to become a scientist. He did, eventually moving to the U.S. to conduct nuclear research. His one mistake, perhaps, was in specializing in fusion energy, which ran into a dead end. Yet he is still teaching, even while fighting throat cancer.

We also caught up to Paul and Symon, two kids living in a group (foster) home in London. Symon, a mixed-race kid who was the series’ only person of color. He grew up, got a job, married, had kids, divorced, married again, and with his second wife, decided to become foster parents themselves. By the time of “56 Up,” Symon and wife Vionette had fostered over 100 children. Paul went to Australia with his father shortly after “7 Up,” and worked in the building trades. He managed to come back to England to catch up with Symon in the later installments. For “63 Up,” Apted arranged for Symon and Vionette to visit Paul in Australia.

This brings up what some critics have called a flaw in the movie series: the occasional manipulating of the subjects’ lives for the sake of the movie. Producers manipulating their subjects for the sake of ratings has become more accepted in the “Reality TV” era. But when this sort of movie making was considered Cinéma vérité, it was expected that the camera should be invisible.

Perhaps this was possible with the first film in the series. As it became apparent that the subjects would be revisited by Apted every seven years, it can’t be helped that he and the crew become a part of their lives. Usually they chat with Apted, asking questions just off-screen, like a family friend. It could be that they hoped to live their best lives, and to have a profound answer to his expected questions.

In interviews about the films, Apted expressed regret that he had only selected four girls in the original 14. One of those women, Suzy, complained vocally in “49 Up” that Apted kept asking the women about marriage and children, even at age 21. For the men, he had moved on to asking the men about their career plans and politics. Suzy reconciled to the idea that she had a sort of duty to the project, but ended up sitting out the “63 Up” installment.

Another mark of the fame the participants had endured was the case of Peter, a middle-class Liverpool native. After Peter criticized Margaret Thatcher in “28 Up,” the Murdoch tabloid press attacked him, and he quit the series. Peter returned for “56 Up,” as he now admitted, to promote his band.

One other participant, Charles, had quit the series, after “21 Up” and became a documentary filmmaker. One of the women subjects, Lynn, was revealed to have died in 2013, the first of the subjects to pass on.

I could go on about the subjects, but I should back up and look at the movie as a whole. It was a new thing back in the 60s to have someone’s life documented at regular intervals. Today, people obsessively chronicle every detail of the lives on phone cameras, but the “Up” series was a new thing. And it had placed all the details of its participants’ lives together in each movie. The children we met in black and white are now approaching retirement in widescreen and high-resolution video. The children were asked about girlfriends and what they want to be when they grew up; now many of them are married, some divorced and remarried, with grandchildren, looking at retirement or facing impending mortality. Despite its pedestrian subject area, this example from the “Up” series takes ordinary lives and makes them compelling.

“63 Up” is now in theatrical release, distributed via BritBox.

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