Oh, the grand, bittersweet sweep of the Up series. I watched all seven installments (7 Up through the recently released 49 Up, all available via Netflix) in the past month. It was a metaphysical experience. Rarely, if ever, do we see actual life pass us by onscreen. This British documentary -- which has checked in with a group of “children” every seven years since 1964 -- is perhaps the most practical and moving use of film ever. Andrew, Tony, John, Susan, Bruce, Symon, Jackie and her friends -- they are all 49 years old now, and I’ve known them since they were 7. This is not an exaggeration, or a pithy generalization. It is the truth, and it is a privilege.
Aside: For all our culture’s obsession with reality television, we have nothing like the Up series in the United States. (At least, nothing readily available or reputable. Age 7 in America exists, but is not available on Netflix.) All we have is The Real World (which it's not), and Road Rules, and those MTV challenges for well-toned Gen Y’ers. We watch them grow older but not grow up as they wrestle each other from foam totems in the middle of some equatorial lagoon. Points are awarded, gagdets are given out. They return next year for more of the same. The only thing that has changed about them is their tan. Maybe.
Anyway: The narrator's final line of each installment is the Jesuit axiom "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man." The conceit of the series is that we are essentially the person we were at 7 years old, regardless of how old we are now. And there is truth to that. We see shadows of adult Susan in child Susan. We look into adult Tony's eyes and see child Tony's spark. We see child Neil's wanderlust in adult Neil's weary-but-committed search for his place in the world. It's kind of breathtaking. But people change, too, and we can see and feel that change (Susan from a 21-year-old malcontent to a serene mother, Tony from a lower-class crime-leaning existence to bucolic fatherhood in Spain, Neil from pie-faced optimism to rugged-faced realism). How lucky for us that director Michael Apted has stuck with this project. Cinema affords us the opportunity to live many virtual lifetimes within our own, but the Up documentaries lets us surf the imperfect waves of real lives, and our own lives are richer for it.
I can only imagine how deep the Up series will go once its subjects start to die, or at least surrender to the rubs of old age. This has been an organic, ongoing documentary about Life. When it makes that narrative turn toward Death, the Up series' importance and effect will compound exponentially. I dread it, and I can’t wait for it. 56 Up will be released in 2012. I will be 29 years old. Now that I’m caught up with the series, I will be able to assess my own seven-year growth or degeneration in comparison to theirs. It is frightening and wonderful. It is god-like and utterly human. It validates both the medium of film and our shared humanity.