Friday, August 7, 2009

'Up': High on Life

This summer, Pixar released its latest winner, "Up," about an elderly man, recently widowed, who embarks on a journey that changes his life.

But there's another "Up" that takes the viewer on a spectacular life journey. In fact, it's the best documentary series I've ever watched -- and I've just finished doing so for the second time.

The "Up" series began as "Seven Up," in which a group of 7-year-old British schoolchildren in 1963 were interviewed as a glimpse into the year 2000, accompanied by the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

The hour-long special centered on questions asked of the kids, who were chosen based on their economic backgrounds. Some came from privileged homes, some raised in orphanages, some from the middle-class. They answered queries about love, school, money and the standard "what do you want to be when you grow up." As always, when interviewing children, you are surprised by what they say: the unintentional humor (Paul's comparison of marriage to being forced to eat greens, Andrew proudly announcing that he reads the Financial Times), the amazing insight (Jackie's take on race), and the joy of watching kids being kids.

What's amazing is that this supposedly one-time special has blossomed into something bigger. Following the Jesuit motto stated in the first episode, the series has continued every seven years since then. "Seven Plus Seven," showing the group at 14 during another hour-long show, is followed by feature-length "21 Up" (pictured above), "28 Up," "35 Up," "42 Up" and "49 Up" (released in 2005).

Michael Apted, who was a research assistant on the first program, has directed every entry since then, developing a rapport with his subjects, an invaluable asset that allows them to open up easily and provides a continuity of content from one entry to another. He admits that the children were initially selected based upon their backgrounds, and the producers wanted these backgrounds to be as extreme as possible.

The results are fascinating. In "49 Up," John refers to the series as a form of reality TV. To a certain extent, he's right, in that we're watching the lives of real people unfold before us. But that's trying to put this series into a modern context, and it doesn't work. If made today, the selected children would either want the fame, or their parents would want it, or there'd be a plastic reality-TV sheen to the whole proceedings, where entertainment and forced conflict would take precedent over any value that would come of it.

With the Up series, that's not the case. Several participants freely admit to the difficulty of reliving their lives every seven years and being thrust into a spotlight that would last their entire lives. Others seem to enjoy the opportunity of sharing themselves and creating this living scrapbook.

The other unexpected delight is that every participant has an interesting story to tell. There's Tony, for example (above). He's a character, to say the least, who as a child had dreams of being a jockey, and as an adult has successfully driven a cab in London, does some acting work on the side and clearly loves life.

Then there's the trio of Jackie, Lynn and Susan, friends as girls whose lives have taken unexpected turns, yet all remain positive take pride in where they are at.

To go on about their lives would spoil the joy of meeting and discovering these people.

When John, again in "49 Up," wonders what the meaning is to the series, it's pretty obvious: it's about life. If these children were selected based upon their demographics, then the series makes it clear that regardless of our backgrounds, our politics or our class levels, we all share common life experiences -- love, marriage or being in a partnership and navigating the sometimes difficult waters of staying together, the death of your parents, children (for most), careers.

It's these things that bind us together, and how the tapestry of life plays out for the men and women chronicled in this series is what's amazing. It's not that these people have lived spectacular lives, it's that they've lived -- and in doing so they are like us, whether the results are uplifting or heartbreaking.

There's no other movie or documentary that captures life any better. My only wish is that I could somehow meet Apted and these participants and thank them for taking part (if six degrees of separation is to be believed, then I should have a fan who knows someone who knows someone who knows one of these people, so pass this along to them!) I know it can't be easy sharing your life with the world, or saying something at age 14 that you might be embarrassed about now. But when this is done, the world will be left with an unparalleled chronicle of life, from childhood to old age, something that future generations will watch, enjoy and study.

It's an amazing endeavor, and one we should all take advantage of.

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