'Up' With People

In showing the ongoing lives of regular people, Michael Apted has made a film that's incredibly sad

Every seven years since 1964, a group of filmmakers has insinuated themselves into the lives of up to 14 English people in a strange experiment in documentary filmmaking. Beginning with the 1964 film Seven Up!, the Up series has followed these people as they (in the words of one of them) "grow old, lose their hair and get fat."

It's hard to imagine that this could be very interesting. These are truly ordinary people. Their lives, and I think this is the most salient point of the whole series, simply do not have an inherent narrative quality.

Instead, what you see is a group of people who, like most people, never had a clear idea of what they wanted, nor a definite enemy, nor a central, life-defining event. In other words, you see people as they actually are: devoid of all the literary devices that produce stories.

No one in the Up series became famous or gained superpowers or overcame childhood difficulty in a special cathartic moment of hugging. Instead, and this becomes especially clear in the seventh installment, the only thing giving their lives direction is the arrow of time.

This distinguishes the Up series not only from narrative films, but from other documentaries as well, which, in general, cull from the limitless facts that make up reality to produce a story with something like a beginning, a middle and an end.

But is there anything interesting about watching ordinary people simply live their lives and "grow old, lose their hair, and get fat?"

To some extent, no. But the lack of interest actually becomes a point of interest as it becomes clear that all the lives are tragedies, because everyone in the film has been cursed with living in a film. Not only that, but as they've watched the films of their lives unfold over the last 42 years, it seems that each of them has realized that he or she is in a film featuring a pathetic protagonist. It's impossible to live a life that's as compelling and neat as that of the hero of a story, and yet these people have been forced to see their unheroic lives splashed on the big screen time and again.

One of the subjects, suburban mother Jackie, confronts director Michael Apted, who has helmed the series since its second installment in 1970. She notes that she has no control over the story of her life, because it is whatever Apted edits it to be, and the dialogue comes out of whatever questions he asks her. Her life is her own, except that its story, as presented to the world, belongs to someone who simply shows up every seven years to point a camera in her face.

As a result, many of the subjects have responses like that of Suzy, who says "being in the film? Not enjoyable in any way."

In most of the Up films, the person who seems to be having the least fun is also the person leading a life that comes closest to being cinematic: Neil. He describes himself as "eccentric," was born into poverty, refused the bourgeois life that most of the subjects have adopted and spent his youth hitchhiking around Britain. His youthful idealism and spirituality confronted a horrible reality when he became homeless and mentally ill. But in 42 Up, he seemingly had overcome his difficulties and become a council member in London, as though providing a coda to his life story.

Of course, that only works in a film with an ending. In 49 Up, he's abandoned London, moved to the distant Shetland Islands and found himself struggling to make ends meet.

The film is best summed up by Andrew, who was one of the wealthiest of the children selected, when he says, "People like us don't have very much to say that's very interesting."

It's true. And that's what makes it interesting.

Apted has taken people whose stories would never be told--because they do not have stories--and given them the sort of treatment that only the famous or the interesting normally get. What he has produced is perhaps the saddest film I've ever seen. It's sad because all we have to compare it to are the stories that we normally see, stories of heroes and major events.

Or maybe it's sad because that's the way Apted has edited it. It's not like the real reality of these lives can ever be shown, only carefully selected snapshots at seven-year intervals. But whatever he's done, Apted has created from these lives, or shown in these lives, something better than stories. I don't think there's a name for it. Maybe in the future, they'll call this kind of narrative an "Up."