Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Up Up Up

Coming late to the Up films is certainly intimidating - every 7 years, a new one comes out; every 7 years I tell myself I should see it, but should watch them all first - every 7 years I end up not watching the old ones and then skipping the film because I haven't seen them. In between - I see clips, I don't know if I have seen any of the films anywhere on TV, I don't remember ever sitting through any of them, but watching them, there were certainly lots of familiar moments. And, instead of taking advantage of the 7 year reprieve to catch up - I forget about them until the next one comes out.

Well - 56 Up is out - this year I swore, a bit in advance, that I would watch them all - but I managed to wait until a week before the thing opened without doing anything - and then we got 2 feet of snow. And that, my friends, is why they invented Netflix.... And so: 56 Up: it is fairly pointless to try to review these films in isolation (which is why I am not doing so) - this one in particular seems very - what's the word? - static? It's very much a continuation of the last one - most of them are roughly where they were 7 years ago, in their circumstances, in their location. This can be good or bad, obviously. It's not so good for Jackie - it's something of a miracle for Neil. (It's the first time since 14 that he's been in the same place he was 7 years ago...) Jackie has had a hard time of it, with bad health, and misfortune striking her not-quite-in-laws, and austerity doing what austerity does (making grandmothers suffer) - though he sons seem to be doing okay, so maybe things will be all right. Lynn also suffers from the recession, though maybe more from the longer term decline of good government - she had been a librarian for 30 odd years, and then got laid off, even before the crash, I think. I can't resist a bit of politics here - putting librarians out of work is a fine recipe for national decline. England is done and we ain't far behind...

Sorry. This one is most notable for getting 13 of the 14 who started the show back. (Though "started" isn't quite it - the conceit really starts with 7 Plus Seven - Apted took over, he started revisiting the same kids every 7 years - and he narrowed the number down to 14, at age 14, there...) John is still around - he skipped a couple of them, but seems to have settled in as a regular again. And Peter is back - the other Liverpudlian, last scene bitching Thatcher in 28 Up, and catching holy hell from the Murdockoids, and running for cover... He has a band to promote - one is tempted, I suppose, to rolls ones eyes - but I am not really bothered by it. The series demands a lot of its participants - why shouldn't they try to get something back? And maybe more to the point - back at 28, he named, along with the 1977 European cup final, being on stage with his band as the happiest moment of his life. It's like with John and his Bulgarian charity and ancestry - it's a part of their lives. It is what they do, who they are - it probably goes down easier when its Tony talking about his acting work, because Tony is always in the shows, an enthusiastic and charismatic figure - but if it brings them back, then it's more than a fair trade, I think.

All right. The hardest thing to do with these films is write about them in terms other than the people - and that involves, well - 13 different 56 year olds, documented across 8 movies - a cast rather expanded by spouses and kids and such - by now, Susan, Paul's wife, or Debbie, Tony's wife, are almost characters as much as their husbands - and others, Rupert and Jane say, are constant presences in most of them. There's a lot to keep track of, and a lot of stuff going on. Still - it's worth trying to pull out some of what the show is up to, how it works. It started with a political edge - out to show the continued pernicious influence of the English class system; it evolved - into a sociological study (though not systematic enough for scientist Nicholas, you may remember from 21 Up), and into a story about how these people live. Though it is also definitely about How We Live Today.

And it is also a work of art. Apted got lucky in his subjects - many of them turned out to make very interesting case studies; almost all of them have remained fairly appealing television subjects - and a few, I think, have emerged as absolutely compelling dramatic characters or performers. Neil, I guess, is the obvious case - he has had a rather astonishing life - decades of misery that then morphs into local politics, and what seems to be a fair degree of satisfaction. His dramatic arc is paired with his own willingness to talk about his life, to analyze himself and the world. He makes great television, no doubt about it. He's not the only one, though - Tony is a joy to watch - charismatic, funny, ambitious in his way, driven enough to get what he wants, and realistic enough to accept what he is. There is a lot of talk, on the show and about it, about the three rich kids laying out their lives at age 7 and 14 - but so did Tony: he wanted to be a jockey - he did; if he didn't succeed he'd be a cabby - he did; he wanted a pub - he had one; he wanted to act - he acts. Some things he's a major success at - some he's able to tick off the list - but he did them... I think Apted also lucked out with Nick - the farmer boy turned nuclear physicist. With John - who in his youth, at least, was willing to play the upper class twit for the amusement of the viewing public. (And whether he meant ti all or not, you could see him calculating - you could see him taking positions to be perverse, to shock, to play the part.) In his maturity, he's far less irritating or thrilling, but still a fairly interesting character - unlike his fellow twit Andrew, who grows up to be a bore... Finally - in terms of who comes off best in the series -= there is Bruce - a lonely little 7 year hoping he can teach the uncivilized to be "more or less, good." - and growing up to be an inner city teacher, then just a teacher - but always, from 14 on - a smart, thoughtful, fascinating interview subject, who is also, in a very understated way, far and away the funniest person on the show. "The village socialist..."

There is that. And there is Apted's shaping of the show. It is a masterpiece of editing, of course - you notice it more in the early ones, where he was probably still trying to score political points - there's an almost savage transition in 28 Up from Andrew's "I've been lucky" to Neil, at close to his lowest point. But it's not all political, and over time, you come to appreciate his transitions in an almost formal sense - they shape the material, and their occasional explicitness helps to keep that act of shaping visible. It's a very self-conscious show, as it must be - the participants talk about it, quite a bit in the last couple - and Apted's sometimes overt manipulation of imagery serves that purpose too. As does his manipulation of the introductions - watching all these films in a week makes it clearer - the use of familiar clips, their slight reordering or recutting, the occasional recombination of visual and sound, and so on. This is a show about change over time, and over time, it becomes a show about memory, about how we shape and reshape our lives - and Apted makes the point formally, in his shifting use of all that footage, and its connection with the current state of his characters.

And still: when it started, it was meant as a political show - especially by Apted. And though that focus has changed over the years - Apted's original point has been made pretty clearly, I think you'd have to say. His point is that the class system was alive and well, and your life was fairly determined by your station when you were born - and it's hard to argue with that. A couple people have gone far - Nick and Sue, you could say; and Neil, though he's a different case, having been pretty obviously derailed by his health... Some characters have moved up financially (Tony especially), some have moved physically - but for all that - it is most notable how little class mobility there is. A couple things come to mind. Here is one: of the kids on the show - all the rich kids except Suzy went to University (she just ended up marrying well.) None of the poor kids did. The middle class kids went, one passing, one dropping out. Okay. They are all older now, they have kids of their own, all of them - and of those kids - all the rich kids' kids of university age went to university (I think; the ones who talked about it.) One - 1 - of the poor kids' kids has gone.

Here is another thing that comes to mind. Bruce taught in the East End for a long time, in poor schools. Lynn, meanwhile, was working in the libraries of the schools in the East End. Both, that is, working in the same school systems of the same part of London. In 49 Up, Bruce had moved off, to teach at St. Albans; while Lynn was still in Bethnel Green, worrying about her job - which she lost by 56 UP. Now it seems to me that all along, Apted has been very enamored with Bruce - that he has shown him in a very good light. Through most of the series, I think he took Lynn's work for granted - but in 49 Up it felt different. He dwelt on her job, her place in the school system - showed her working with handicapped kids, talking about her work with them. It felt as though he had suddenly noticed - maybe because Bruce had left - that she was doing pretty much what he was doing all those years. But he had his Oxford degree and the chance to go wherever he wanted. When she lost her job - she was done. And there, I imagine, is where the politics lingers - and why the class rigidity the series set out to explore remains, as bad as ever - maybe worse. There is a lot of talk about opportunity in the series - and there you see it. Both in the way he is able to move on to something else - and in the way - well, you don't really have to worry about St. Albans school cutting their librarians.

I could go on about this a while - I maybe should, but I suppose this is not the time. But - England does not seem to be getting better. They seem, in fact, to be getting more American - one of John's lines way back in 21 Up. But opportunity, social mobility, call it what you want is not getting better here - I believe it is declining, relative to mobility in the past; and relative to Europe. What is different in the US from the UK seems to be that here, the classes are not so defined - it might not be so obvious, from your accent or the type of school you went to, what your class is; but that's because class, here, is driven mainly by money. And that comes up in these films - that while the class distinctions they grew up with seem less obvious, the class system based on money is stronger than ever. And - I don't think you could dispute that. I can't dispute it here - most people in the US live roughly the way their parents did. And I think this is more true now than it was 40 or 50 years ago - my parents' generation, I think, had a lot more chance to change their status - to go to college, to increase their financial circumstances, to move, physically - than my generation had - and I think it is probably getting worse for the next generation. Maybe - they are just coming of age now. So - I guess their fates are up in the air. But judging from these films - they better get used to living with mom and dad, cause it's gonna take some doing to move out.

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