Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Michael Apted
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 135
Date: 15/09/2005

49 Up (2006)

4 Stars (out of 4)

This 'Up' Runneth Over

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy 49 Up on DVD

In 1964, the British TV series "World in Action" hosted an episode entitled Seven Up! In it, director Paul Almond interviewed several seven year-old children from all different classes and backgrounds about what they would like to do with their lives. The theory was that, by the age of 7, children had already formed the personalities and thought patterns that would carry them throughout the rest of their lives.

Seven years later, an assistant on that program named Michael Apted tracked down the children and interviewed them again for a show called 7 Plus Seven (1970). And every seven years since he has done the same. In 1985, the project became long enough and varied enough for an American theatrical release, entitled 28 Up, which earned it new acclaim.

The years have marched on and it's now time for 49 Up, opening this Friday in Bay Area theaters. Whether or not Almond's original idea has panned out is up for debate, but the series has certainly raised many other fascinating issues.

Apted includes footage from all previous entries so that we can see how the interviewees have changed. (Unfortunately, the new footage is shot on rather splotchy digital video.)

Over the series, many of the subjects have moved, changed jobs, married, divorced and had children. But in the seven years since 42 Up (released here in 2000), the tidal wave of change has slowed. Most couples that were married in the last film are still married, though many now enjoy grandchildren too.

Many of the subjects have even begun to look into retirement options, which is one of the most fascinating factors of this series. These British and Irish-born folks have aged quite a bit more gracefully than their American counterparts. Picture some of our fortysomethings currently working in films (Johnny Depp, Diane Lane, Brad Pitt, etc.) and they retain a youthful, prime-of-life feel. You'd hardly catch any of them playing with grandchildren and retiring to Spain.

Additionally, Apted's subjects have become savvier about the overall effect of the film. Some of them confess feeling uncomfortable watching the films and rebuke Apted about his interviewing techniques. One subject, John (a barrister), compares the series to a bad reality TV show, but confesses that his minor fame has helped him in his business affairs.

Of course, Apted has also achieved a certain amount of fame outside the project, most notably for his Oscar contenders Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Nell (1994), and his contribution to the James Bond series, The World Is Not Enough (1999). And so, when he comes back to his interviewees every seven years, he is not without his own bargaining chip.

Despite all this, the Up participants still lead relatively normal lives, some successful, some less so. Scientist Nick was forced to give up a lifetime of studies when it became apparent that his energy storage system didn't work. His participation in the movie series did not alter this event one jot.

So what makes it different from terrible reality TV, or for that matter, different from Dana Carvey's "Grapefruit Factor"? (Carvey once posited this scenario: If you feature a grapefruit every day on television for a week, then put it on display at the local mall, people will point and say, 'That's the grapefruit from TV!')

For one thing, the Up series has integrity. American reality TV is almost always based on some kind of competition, or less often, on pure spectacle. None of the Up subjects have been kicked off the island, nor have they eaten scorpions or used their heads for bowling balls.

It also has very little to do with the fact that they appear on a screen. They're no more or less memorable than any other figure in any other documentary. No, the most fascinating thing is to watch the aging process, and to watch how the thought process ages. Even at seven years old, each participant believes they know the definitive answer to each question, and this follows throughout. But very rarely do their certainties actually lead back to reality.

Every seven years the subjects have adapted to everything that's happened to them, no matter how terrible. And even in the new film, if someone has anything pessimistic to say, it will most likely be forgotten or proven wrong seven years from now, in 56 Up.

It's a real testament to just how fluid and undefined our lives really are, no matter how much control we believe we have or how much planning we do. Ultimately, the mission statement of 49 Up shouldn't be "Child is father to the man," but rather John Lennon's lyric: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

Which brings us to the movie's most fascinating and unpredictable character, Neil. In various entries, Neil has been homeless, on the verge of insanity and, then, suddenly, working as a small time politician. Without giving anything away, Neil has once again performed a 180-degree turn, and provides some of the film's most lasting wisdom.

Through the story of a butterfly, he shows that he alone seems to have grasped the secret behind the Up films, and indeed, perhaps the secret of life.

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