The sad fact is, however, that as we age, as we mature and move forward, we become increasingly like our preformed persona. All the skills and secrets we've learned through adulthood, all the disillusionment and disaster may shape and sully us, but we never really escape that little boy/little girl lost. In 1964, a British documentary crew came up with a brilliant idea. They would film a group of children from contrary economic and social backgrounds as part of a speculative discussion on whether childhood has any influence on the citizens they would become by the year 2000 (this is long before the psycho-babble surety of today's modern mentality). The result was Seven Up, a precocious, primitive exploration of heredity vs. environment meant to hint at what lie ahead for the future of England. What really resulted though was the foundation of one of the most magnificent, meaningful documentary film series in the history of the genre. Followed by Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up (49 Up is scheduled for lensing this year 2004), The Up Series (as all the films are referred to) is a terrific, telling time capsule of human growth and personality development.
Now available for the first time in a single, boxset collection, The Up Series is epic filmmaking at its most interpersonal. It's a fascinating and fragile indictment of the universal notions of predetermination and birthright. Certainly, it suggests that we are born into who we will eventually become. But because we get the rare opportunity to follow 14 people through more than 35 years of existence (that's almost three generations in archeological terms) we witness the layers of living that tend to add their own indelible stamp on our physical and mental makeup. As a set of films, The Up Series is stupendous. You will not spend a better 9 and ½ hours.
Comprised of six of the best documentaries ever crafted for the small (and later, big) screen, The Up Series from First Run Features is a monumental achievement in cinema and DVD. It is hard to fathom, or describe, in plain and simple terms the impact, the passion and the power these films really have. From their time in a bottle barometers of popular styles and changing social philosophies to the remarkable insight one gains in how people develop and adapt, each and every installment in this landmark undertaking deserves praise and reward. Though it may seem hard to imagine how the chronicle of a dozen or so kids from childhood to adulthood could resonate with such colossal themes and universal platitudes, The Up Series is indeed such an exalted exhibition. But it is also much more. It is riveting human theater, the drama of lives fulfilled and dreams dashed, played out over the ambitious possibility of time and space. Fans of the films originally had to wait for their once every seven year fix, and the suspense between efforts must have been intense. Even with the ability to watch one amazing movie after another, the DVD can't seem to hit the laser fast enough. We drink in this potent potable, lazing in its escapist, expressive elements. After all, nothing can soothe a tormented soul better than seeing someone worse off - or a down and out individual just finding a way to survive. Call it sour grapes or misplaced amusement, but there is a lot of "there before the grace of" relief in seeing people struggle in the same ways you do.
Yet The Up Series also strikes a much deeper, more depressive chord. Because we live life in slow, meandering moments, not perfectly measured out sound bites, we tend not to see the abrupt, brash changes that push us helter skelter towards our own eventuality. If fate can't be altered and The Up Series really has some strong beliefs about this then at least we can prepare for the hard roads ahead. The Up films suggest that if parents merely study their offspring, if they spend the time the interviewers do in learning their children's hopes and dreams, fears and foibles, a great deal of the burden of growing up can be avoided. The Up Series champions family and traditional values. It argues for two parent households and happy, stable circumstances. Anyone wondering if adult expectations and peer pressure really affects a child need look no further than a dreamy, effervescent Liverpuddlian named Neil, arguably one of the "stars" of the series. Without giving too much away, there are numerous hints of discontent in the young boy's home. By 21, he is a squatter (the British version of licensed homelessness) and when we meet him again, the results are even more tragic. Each time he is questioned, the issue of parents comes up, and you can see a wounded, wasted change to his demeanor. They say you can tell a great deal about a person just by looking at their face. Nowhere is this truer than in The Up Series. It is all faces, varied and vulnerable, filled with humanity and hurt.
Seven Up, the first film, is like any introduction, brief and to the point. We get the iconic images of our 14 subjects, from the goofy gaiety of that little balled up bruiser Tony, to the overpolished reserve of the boarding school boys (John, Andrew, and Charles all act exactly like we imagine miniature versions of their school tie wearing fathers would). Neil and his friend Peter (who drops out of the psychodrama after 28 Up) are like a classic comedy duo, finishing each others thoughts and riffing relentlessly on their tiny, insular childhood world. The three girls - Jackie, Lynn, and Susan create a triptych of recognizable dimensions; one that will be repeated often throughout the remaining five films. Perhaps the most starling sequences feature a young, Wellington boot wearing Nicholas. Speaking in a thick Yorkshire brogue and belying his one room schoolhouse education, his child of the land leanings undergo perhaps the most amazing transformation in all of The Up Series. But all is not light and charming. There is sadness in Seven Up, especially when the focus turns to social orphans Symon and Paul. Living in a boy's home because basically their parents could not keep them economically, legally or culturally these tough little tykes comes across as both strapping and beaten down. Especially Paul, who is so soft spoken and scared that his timid deportment doesn't quite match up to his working class compactness. You expect a far harder child, a boy of the streets, not of sentiment. Indeed there is much emotion here. It's near impossible to see Bruce's baby face pleading for his father and not be moved. But just like all of The Up Series, obvious possibilities are usually easily and freely circumvented.
Of all the films here, Seven Plus Seven is the most painful to watch not for what it reveals so much as what is says about the universal truth of growing up. As an age, 14 is just HORRIBLE for everyone in the film. Tony is a distracted, depressed apprentice jockey. You can almost read the defeat in his eyes. Neil is already coming unglued, starting to buckle under the untold pressures that would lead to future issues. Symon is sullen, having moved back with his mum and feeling the strain of a life in near poverty. And Suzy can barely look at the camera she's avoiding it like she does every other aspect of her slowly decaying life (her parents were in the middle of a divorce at the time). As for the rest, the incredibly awkward sense of vulnerability and vilification is written all over their shoe-gazing faces. John, Andrew and Charles, who have some embarrassing physical concerns (they haven't quite grown into their lips, face and neck, respectively) at least address the camera with some manner of reasonable respect. And Jackie, Lynn, and Susan are attentive and alert to the person (director Michael Apted) addressing them. But for every full-faced Bruce, who still seems perfectly happy with his erudite life (something that seems to stifle him for the next 26 years) there is a nervous, near incoherent Nicholas, babbling on aimlessly in an obvious dodge to avoid the questions. In the pantheon of parental 'musts', Moms and Dads need to sit down with Seven Plus Seven to see situations that arrive with the onset of puberty as well as to witness the pitfalls they can prepare to avoid.
As a result of all the restlessness, 21 Up feels like a reprieve, a commuting of the social death sentence many of these kids felt in their teens. Indeed, it's at this point where the group begins to break off, with some subjects falling back into the woodwork, while others indirectly step to the fore. Many will argue that, over the course of The Up Series, it's really all a battle between Tony and Neil for preeminence and drama and 21 Up is an obvious example of this concept. Though others will make a strong statement here (two of our three Londinium lasses are married women by now and Suzy, the single socialite, is a change smoking basket case) it is the East Ender and the Liverpool lad that describe the dense dichotomy of what is going on in these documentaries. Tony had one dream in his life to be a jockey. He got the chance at 14, but never made it to the big leagues. He dropped out after only three races. But this bright, energetic go-getter already has the next stage in his personal path mapped out. He wants to be a cabbie, and while making a little book on the side, he studies "The Knowledge", the grueling course for London taxi drivers. Tony lives in the realm of infinite possibilities, poised to take on life when it tosses him trouble. Neil, on the other hand, is everything that Tony is not. He is defeated and dejected. His living situation could be best described as dire. And he's lost in a world of his own injured thoughts. 21 Up wants to tell us that the age of majority is also the age of determination. How you approach this tentative step into adulthood will cloud and color your entire future. If you're John, Andrew and Charles, the brass ring is just a few more O and A levels away. But for someone like Neil, preparations haven't even been started.
The series and its thesis starts to really break down in 28 Up, however. A few of our subjects have dropped out (John and Charles do not take part) and Paul's move to Australia (before Seven Plus Seven) seems to have had nothing but benefits for this insecure man. Divorce is barely mentioned and children are starting to arrive. Suzy is a star here now, going from Goth kid in training to reasonable well-adjusted wife and mother (and this after a disturbing conversation in 21 Up where she hinted that she'd never settle down). By the time we reach 35, several things are becoming painfully clear. Neil is not getting any better, and has really only managed to find another anit-social alcove to crawl into. Tony has pushed the East Ender dream as far as he can and you can sense the wandering eye and impulsive streak that will obscure his existence by 42 (where we get to hear the sullen results). Our trio of 'tarts' has grown even more distant and distinct, with only Lynn finding a way to maintain her 15+ year marriage. Even Symon eventually drops out, apparently embarrassed over his failed first marriage (in which he left behind five kids something he said he'd never do). 28 Up and 35 Up are, perhaps, the most internally agonizing to experience, because of the time we've devoted to these people, their personalities and their problems. We want them to succeed and be stable. We long for their happiness and the heart leaps a little when we see Suzy smiling or Andrew opting out of the class struggle. But by 42 Up, every sequence is an endless endurance test. Apted (who helmed the last five films) uses clips and comments to set up the subjects, and as we watch them age and augment, we hope that the final vision is bright and hopeful. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Throughout the later installments of the series, an interesting debate develops. John, the advantaged child who became a successful barrister and refused to participate in 28 Up and 42 Up believes that these films fail to offer any actual context (he only makes an appearance in 35 Up to promote some important charity work he is engaged in). Frankly, he has a point. Neil's problems, Tony's deep affection for his family - heck, the fact that some of these people have actual brothers and sisters all of these issues are barely discussed here. John's argument is that these are just sketches of life, carefully filtered images of good and bad, victory or collapse without any of the background to provide reasons or rationales. If The Up Series has a flaw, this would be it. This is not investigative journalism. These documentaries have no desire to dig beneath the surface. What these individuals bring to the microphone, both positive and negative, is completely within their control (a couple of husbands hint that the reason their wives no longer appear on camera is because of this lack of power). In reality, we really don't get to know these people beyond how the camera 'creates' them. Their actual lives are as mysterious to us as when we first hear them speak at seven.
No, what The Up Series wants to focus on are the more universal, all-encompassing precepts like God, or Karma, free will and predetermination. In some ways, our 14 foundlings are merely pawns in a cinematic game of cosmic conjecture, with those opting out saving themselves from further, futile manipulation. Yet there is something that always seems to counter the contention made by John, an issue he's probably never been overly comfortable with. Individuality can do wonders to center and focus even the most metaphysical discussion. And if it is filled with anything else, The Up Series is loaded with uniqueness maybe even bordering on eccentricity. John's calling didn't allow for freedom of expression. Perhaps he is just jealous that he's moved through life like a dutiful denizen of a dying class system, while others have at least attempted to expand their social consciousness.
Frankly, there is no way one can watch The Up Series and not get emotionally involved with the individual people presented. In addition, you will instantly start to reflect on your own life where you were and what you were up to at ages 7, 14, 21, 28, 35 and 42. It is just impossible not to play compare and contrast, figuring how you match up against the successes and failures of this now nearly famous fraternity. And there will be a great deal of armchair quarterbacking as 'characters' we've come to know, love and support start making really dumb decisions (while you can support her sympathies, Jackie's late-in-life baby boom seems completely misguided). Like the best kind of reality entertainment (if there is really such an entity), The Up Series is amazingly addictive. When a sequence is preparing to conclude, when we sense that Tony or Peter or Lynn's life is about to be compartmentalized for another seven years, a sense of sadness starts to build in, getting worse and worse as the running time slowly dissipates. By the end, we feel both exhilarated and anxious. We want to know what happens next. We have to have the next prosaic 'plot' twist or sudden shock of human insight or something will be missing in our own existence. In many ways, it's impossible to see an end to The Up Series. As time keeps marching on and the subjects grow even older, the ability to witness the cradle to grave gravitas of mortality would be an achievement of infinite proportions. The Up Series is like the greatest soap opera ever conceived, except this time, all the outrageous machinations are real, and the pain cannot be placated by a well-timed commercial or script rewrite.
When all is said and done, it is the visuals we will remember, the pictures and portrayals that resonate deep within The Up Series style. Beyond all the words and witticisms, deep thoughts and dire straits, we see the same shots over and over: Tony falling as he runs to school; Neil skipping along the streets of his quite, suburban neighborhood; Suzy doing an awkward ballet move as part of a dance class. Symbolically, these images are so ripe with foreboding that we don't want to recognize it at first. When he trips, Tony takes a moment, laying flat on his face, before deciding to get up and press on, same optimistic, mischievous smile plastered across his face. Neil is oblivious to the world around him, lost in a singular daydream nation of his own devising. Then, at a specific moment, he rounds a telephone pole and skips away from us, beginning that long trip into the land of the lost. Suzy's struggle is of a far more psychological one. Something is challenging her nonchalant calmness and it's paralyzing her. From Symon and Paul, who don't think they deserve much better in life, even as middle-aged men (they bear the scares of the boy's home more than 35 years later) to the solid, secure Andrew, whose moved from one pampered life into another world of distaff dispensation, the clear point here is that those formative years, from cognizance to around the age when the filmmakers began here, do indeed formulate and fashion what we will become as adults. We can see it in their friendly, flummoxed faces. We can ready it in their needy, curious eyes. We can hear it in their arc or arcane voice. And we can keep it in snapshots. The Up Series is a masterpiece, and as with all great art, it's all in the imagery.