Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Charles Furneaux, 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: 139
Date: 18/03/2013

42 Up (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Meaning of Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This was my first time to the Up documentaries of Michael Apted, but I've been aware of them since 1985, when the fourth installment, 28 Up came out. Even knowing what the project was and how it was being carried out was enough to impress me, without even seeing it. But seeing one of the films adds a depth that one can hardly imagine.

One of the basic appeals of film is how it preserves us. My guess as to why so many people want to be in films is so that their images will last forever. Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and thousands of others are still alive for us when we put a video on. Even more astonishing is that we can watch Marlon Brando age, from the young rippling powerhouse in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), to the old, chubby, graceful teddy bear in The Freshman (1990) with One-Eyed Jacks (1960) and Last Tango in Paris (1972) inbetween as markers. But that's not really Marlon Brando. That's him playing characters. And while we can get a fleeting glimpse at his emotional state at the time, we don't know anywhere near the whole story.

The Up documentaries follow a group of English people, mostly white males, a few women, and one black man. They were assembled in 1962 at age seven for a British television series. They were culled from all different backgrounds, questioned about what they wanted to do with their lives, and put together to play for a day. Not only do we get to see these people age and grow up in the space of two hours, but we get to see their destinies. We get to see their dreams fulfilled or not fulfilled.

Not surprisingly, the upper class characters all held down decent jobs and made a good living. The lower class characters have struggled to make ends meet. One character knew at the age of seven where he was going to school and that he would be a lawyer. As we see him today, he seems dead inside. His life is what he wanted it to be, but there was no surprise. He never really learned to live. A great class success story is Nick, who was born on a farm and developed a passion for science and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin. But even greater still is Neil, who was homeless in the last installment, 35 Up (1992), but is now holding public office and trying to give back to his community. I'm sure everyone thought Neil would be dead by 42 Up and it's an exciting and moving turnaround.

Besides careers, the documentaries focus primarily on family. Many of the characters were married and then divorced. One of them, Bruce, a schoolteacher, finally gets married at age 42 and we see his wedding. Many of the characters have kids of their own and have dealt with the deaths of their parents. The rich lawyer, by the way, was married early and is still married. Most of the characters talk about the hopes they have for their kids that they were unable to fulfill for themselves.

Strangely enough, 42 Up does not really touch upon the idea of fame and immortality for our group of ordinary people. Paul wanted to become an actor at age 21, and has since appeared in a few commercials. Not a stellar career, but was it helped at all by his appearances in these films? It's telling that Apted only calls his subjects by their first names. Only once do we get a glimpse of a last name, when Nick shows us a book he's published. During the last five minutes of the film, Apted asks the subjects what they think of their lives being documented. The answers run from vague to honest, but none really covers it.

On the other hand, 42 Up doesn't really offer a glimpse into anything American. These are specifically English lives. If the film were made in America, you may have seen more crossovers in class. But the films demonstrate how difficult, if not impossible, it is to move in social class in England. Indeed, these films really ought to be social science experiments and would be quite boring if not for the vivid human connection. That the public is interested in seeing the films is fascinating in itself. It shows that we may be slightly more sophisticated than wanting to follow a real-life soap opera. We may be ready to think about mortality and destiny and see those sticky notions more clearly.

DVD Details: First Run Features released a five-disc box set in October of 2004 featuring all five parts of Apted's extraordinary documentary.

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