So goes the Jesuit maxim, and, as it happens, so begins almost every review you'll find of Michael Apted's "Up" documentary series. Of course, you can't really fault someone for falling back on that warhorse (or this would be a very ironic paragraph indeed), because it's the concept that brought the original television production Seven Up! to life, intended as it was as "a glimpse into Britain's future." That is to say, into the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds, chosen from all walks of life (though mostly from polar opposites of the class divide) and asked about the world, their ambitions, and just generally how they're doing; they've been revisited for the same purpose every seven years hence.
Similarly, you can't blame anyone for lumping the series into a single essay, particularly now that First Run Features has released a Five Disk [sic] Collector's Edition of "The Up Series" encompassing ages seven through forty-two. With Roger Ebert also popping up every seven years to remind us that these documentaries collectively rank as one of his "top ten films of all time," there's pressure to view them as a single unit, a great big work of art. And hell, why not? It's a deceptively simple idea that has come to be seen as a travelogue of life. But it leaves a rather daunting task for those who haven't had the opportunity to see the films and want to play catch-up whenever the series returns to the public consciousness. I speak from personal experience here: Last year, I rushed out to watch the first six instalments before a surprise limited engagement of 49 Up ended at my local indie theatre. The mission was eventually accomplished, and I was left severely burned out.
So when said box set arrived on FILM FREAK CENTRAL's doorstep several months later (along with the individual DVD for 49 Up), the plan was to start from scratch--with some breathing room this time--and eventually write up an all-encompassing review. Yet as we concern ourselves with the subjects' lives, it's easy to lose sight of Michael Apted, the driving force behind the series. As an artist, Apted has travelled a more frenzied path than most, going from TV researcher to TV director to biopic helmer for icons of feminism and motherhood (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) to action/revenge fashionista (The World is Not Enough and, um, Enough) to the President of the Directors Guild of America, with countless other detours in-between. In his requests for us to visit his career at septennial stopgaps, we must realize that "The Up Series" is not a self-contained world of art or reality. Ergo, the films will be reviewed individually, one disc per week. That way, you and I can enjoy a little rest between films without losing sight of the overall project. We can see where we are and still understand where we have been--and where we are going.
SEVEN UP! (1964)
**/**** Image C+ Sound B
directed by Paul Almond
7 PLUS SEVEN (1970)
***½/**** Image C- Sound C
directed by Michael Apted
The most vocal, and perhaps most cogent, criticism I've ever heard of "The Up Series" is that it's an unnecessary reminder that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Seeing the original film outside the prism of its "sequels," it isn't difficult to arrive at the same conclusion. As an episode of Granada Television's "World in Action" series, Seven Up! was apparently not meant to cultivate a series--instead the plan was to leave the children alone until the year 2000, whereupon we were supposed to learn that the caste system was still alive and well in Britain. It's not a bad idea to investigate, yet Seven Up! seems to have such confidence in its hypothesis that it's shot through with a malevolent streak, i.e., the kind of condescending liberal love-hate relationship--one in which the disenfranchised are set up to fail, simply to prove a point--that makes movies like Babel so offensive. Consider Seven Up!to be something of a proto-"Kids Say the Darndest Things", in that we are supposed to not only chuckle at the child's (mis)understanding of adult matters (the upper-crust children talking about financial reports and the "shares" they own; Yorkshire boy Nicholas stating that if he could change the world, he'd turn it into a diamond) but also regard the too-high aspirations of the lower-class kids with a sense of pity/superiority.
It borders on disgusting, in fact, when the film juxtaposes a boy whose schools and professions are planned for decades to come with another from a charity home who doesn't know what the word "university" means. You can see director Paul Almond behind the camera with his arms crossed and a shit-eating grin on his face: Well, we'll just see who crosses the finish line first, now, won't we? Again, he isn't wrong to pose the question and raise an eyebrow (that's the point, isn't it?), but Seven Up! stinks severely of the one-off it was intended to be. The year 2000 is apparently so far away that it is treated as an impossibility; indeed, Almond left his job half-finished, coming to self-satisfied conclusions forty years too soon. Still, despite its attempt to turn them into straw men, the children have distinct and articulate personalities: think of Bruce's quiet dignity, Tony's gleeful contempt for pretension, or Symon's wide-eyed innocence, which is tempered by an appreciation for logic. We do learn a lot about them all, particularly as a reminder that members of the so-called "age of reason" are fully capable of opinions helplessly dictated by their parents. But as much as we can forgive it as a necessary springboard into greater territory, Seven Up! lacks a basic humanity as far too many "message" films do.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the concept found that humanity once the original film's researcher, Michael Apted, decided to explore it further. He wants a lot of the same answers as Almond sought but maintains a broader scope, and there's never a feeling that he deigns himself in examining it. Find real brilliance in his "interim report" 7 Plus Seven, a film that is disconnected, largely confusing, and perhaps as accurate a document that can be made about that misbegotten age of 14. Like Seven Up!, the piece never lingers on one kid for very long and concentrates on topics of discussion rather than on the people. The reason why should be immediately evident: most of the interviewees appear unwilling to speak on camera. Their gaze wanders at every opportunity and their answers amount to little more than "who cares?"
Certainly some of the kids proudly showcase the foundation built for their lives (John, often derided as an "upper-class twit" by critics, shows immense political savvy as he explains his harrowing idea to replace unions with a wage-determining "tribunal"--in sharp contrast to middle-class Lynn in another segment, thus forging a back-and-forth in absentia debate), but the majority of them keep their cards close to their chest, resulting in the most relevant material. As well-to-do Suzy mumbles her way through her interview, the camera becomes distracted by her dog, who captures and kills a rabbit in the background. Though Apted links it to the interview by exemplifying Suzy's morose acceptance of death, one can't ignore that the cameraman takes his time, adjusts focus, and eventually distracts us, too. If it's not actively condescending like Seven Up!, it's overtly, undeniably rude; moreover, it would be easy to edit around. Apted's inclusion of this scene as-is speaks to a certain knowledge of an impasse between ages and generations (the director being 29 years old here): in spite of our best intentions to impart wisdom, sometimes we simply can't relate well enough to sympathize.
This notion manifests itself through Tony, the East Ender who, at 7, excitedly announced that he will be a jockey when he grows up; at 14, he works as a stable boy for race horses, and his voice barely rises above a whisper. What happened to that loud, boisterous kid, leaping off fences without fear, taking such delight in mocking the rich kids? Of course, we already know--or, at least, we recall it on a superficial level based on hazy memories. What makes 7 Plus Seven so vital is that it forces you to understand and relive the tragic malaise of the early teenage years--that feeling that no one, not your parents, not your director, not your audience, can really comprehend what you're going through--and realize that it's not all just perception. This is the perfect film to claim the Seven Up! idea as a series, too, since 7 Plus Seven throws into relief what an enormous leap seven years really is, especially at the adolescent stage of your life.
Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven are included on the same disc of "The Up Series" box set, and like almost every subsequent film, they come without extras (save a byline for Apted and a pair of photo galleries) or subtitles. Seven Up!'s full-frame, black-and-white image is practically blanketed in dust and scratches but has a nice vintage feel for it; the Dolby 2.0 mono sound occasionally echoes (scenes from 7 Plus Seven seem to indicate that it's the recording itself), though Douglas Keay's "National Geographic"-style narration rings loud and clear. Apparently unavailable on the home-video market for years until the box set came out, 7 Plus Seven's fullscreen transfer and DD 2.0 sound are washed-out and noisy, looking and sounding like a 16mm piece of crap in that unique '70s way. Note that, beyond the scuffmarks that also cover this film, flashbacks to the b&w Seven Up! have been rendered in a strange off-sepia tone.
***/**** Image B- Sound B
directed by Michael Apted
Certainly the most interesting aspects of 21 (the series not officially adopting the "Up" suffix until the next instalment) are its bookends: all fourteen original participants are brought together for a private screening of the first two films, and the camera captures their individual reactions to their former, ignorant selves. Contemplating the participants watching this film as they watch themselves is a heady experience indeed, but it's through this sequence that Apted illuminates a problem with the project at this juncture: He's essentially asking his subjects to not only evaluate their lives up to this point--with the pipe dreams of adolescence being the only tangible precedent--but also determine where those lives are headed. All of this at an age that teeters on an uncomfortable peak of doubt. "Where do you think you're going to be in, say, seven years?" Apted asks Simon, a meat-company worker who lives with his mother and worries for her mental health. Interviewer and interviewee both know that the question was posed to act as something of a segue into 28 Up, but they're likewise keenly aware of the only possible answer: Simon has no idea where he'll be within a single year, much less seven. Because it takes place at such a predictably uncertain crossroads, 21 has everything and nothing to say.
The "characters" of 21 are presented to us as a Kübler-Rossian model, representing stages of that uncertainty in early adulthood: cautious optimism (John, Andrew, Charles); furious suspicion of older generations (Jackie, Lynn and Sue, who take offense to Apted's questions); bouts of depression (Suzy); moments of happiness and hope (Tony); and an interest in politics that eventually gives way to disillusioned apathy (Bruce, a self-described socialist who can no longer get excited for his cause). It finally lands on Liverpudlian Neil, who at twenty-one is a squatter and casual labourer in London; he seems to be carrying the symbolic weight of this film and his entire generation--and it's turned him into an emotional wreck. In his misery, however, he manages to perfectly capture the ironic cynicism of his counterparts. Explaining his Christian upbringing, Neil sarcastically rewords of one of Jesus's tenets: "If someone slaps you on one cheek, let them do it on the other." Spoken like a man slapped in the face one time too many.
If 21 is less engaging than its immediate predecessor, it's because Apted occasionally succumbs to unnecessary directorial flourishes. He can intellectually appreciate the objective distance needed for 21 to work, given that this is an even more literal "interim report" than 7 Plus Seven, yet something possesses him to take the wheel at inappropriate moments. In voiceover, sadsack Paul explains how his outlook on life has become much sunnier as Apted's camera captures a day at the beach, casually revealing the woman in Paul's life in the process. A romantic presence certainly explains Paul's dramatic transformation, but the reveal is orchestrated as a facile a-ha! moment that is unwisely never elaborated upon. Find it again in footage of the post-screening party: an oft-revisited chat between John and Tony feels particularly forced, shot with anticipation of some kind of never-realized inter-class feud. Perhaps these moments can be attributed to ego, boosted by a series of films that brought the director into the limelight during the '70s (Stardust, his first cinematic effort; directing Laurence Olivier in a TV production of Harold Pinter's "The Collection"), but whatever the case, Apted may be so consumed with that elusive concept of "good television" that he occasionally forgets how good he already has it.
Looking like it was cut from the same piece of soft '70s cloth as 7 Plus Seven, 21's 1.33:1 image is at least sharper and better preserved, containing considerably less of the print debris that plagues previous chapters. The DD 2.0 mono audio is awfully robust for such a quiet film, occasionally suffering from--and thus lucid enough to catch--the gentle whir of the camera. Again, "real" extras don't appear until 42 Up: a mini-bio for Apted, a short paragraph about First Run Features, and a sparse photo gallery appear here, as they do on all the discs in "The Up Series" box set.
28 UP (1985)
****/**** Image B Sound B-
directed by Michael Apted
The earliest indication that there's something different about 28 Up is the fact that it's shy two participants. The first is John, who felt he "had nothing more to add"--though the real reason probably stems from his complaints in 21, in which he resented director Michael Apted's insinuation that the rich kids' ability to get into the schools of their choice (planned for them since the age of seven) was solely attributable to an "indestructible birthright," thus dismissing the blood, sweat, and tears required of them all the same. The second is Andrew, who in the interim started working at the BBC producing documentaries; he would later go on to produce the docudrama Touching the Void. While 21 finds the subjects questioning the project's motives and "usefulness," 28 Up has them actively fighting back: In refusing to return, non-participants speak volumes about both the series and themselves (John's disappearance implies denying an entomologist of his research; Charles's smacks of a refusal to acknowledge the correlation between "The Up Series" and his career), while the holdovers seem almost defiant in how they present their lives to the camera. Causality and the observer effect have become tricky beasts, and as the fourteen come to understand this to deeper and deeper degrees, they grow more comfortable with battling Apted for the reins. Here, documentarian and subject are so intertwined that we don't quite know who's calling the shots.
28 Up is also the first entry to formally organize its individual segments by person rather than by topic. We begin with Tony, who may be the easiest subject to start with because his life ineffably reminds us of the "Up" series as a whole: Jockeying and taxi-driving were in the boy's plan from the get-go, and at twenty-eight he's a cabbie, having retired from the race track after three races because he feels that that dream was fulfilled. "Some lives seem to proceed with a certain inevitability," Roger Ebert writes in his Great Movies essay on the entire "Up Series," which is true--to a point. In 21, a determined Tony mentioned that his only concerns were "dogs, prices, girls, Knowledge, roads, streets, squares, and Mom and Dad and love--that's all I know, and that's all I wanna know." But when we learn that he takes acting classes and works as a film extra, despite that the kid's a natural it raises the question of how far "The Up Series" pushed him in that direction. (If you're going to be filmed at pivotal moments of your life for all the world to see, you might as well make something out of it.) Did the existence of these documentaries prompt him to stay on his touted path? And in placing Tony, an easygoing representative of the series, at the beginning and tragic Neil near the end, has Apted himself finally succumbed to the idea that people are up for facile categorization?
Maybe so, but again, Apted is losing control by 28 Up, thereby bringing a shade of irony to the way the film is assembled. (Is he challenging his subjects?) Most of the "Up" children are married, and husbands and wives play a paramount role. While Apted was eager to point out significant others (what few there were) in 21, perhaps because he feared that early-20s romances would be too fleeting, he shied away from examining them--and now they are unavoidable. Yet it feels like Apted's been pushed into an incidental role here: there's the sense that scenes which include the families--that is to say, most scenes--are being orchestrated strictly on the subjects' terms. (Note that "out and about" moments are more natural and less rehearsed in 28 Up, where the cameras are forced to operate around their lives, as opposed to the other way around.) Many of them brim with confidence alongside their spouses, perhaps because having a significant other represents a necessary opportunity to explore the totality of their lives--there must be certain relief, after all, to find someone else to analyze them from more intimate, more subjective eyes. A "witness for the defense," so to speak, against Apted's perceived prosecutor.
Children, too, are a strong presence in the film--even among those who have none, as many of the "Uppers" are teachers in some regard: Lynn has run a children's bookmobile for the past seven years; Peter is "undervalued and underrated" at a comprehensive school; Nick is a nuclear physicist and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin; and Bruce works at the same East End school that Tony attended as a boy. However, one of the most striking sequences sees Suzy, once bitter and cynical about marriage and having kids, newly imbued with a sense of happy responsibility through both. The first of the subjects to lose a parent, Suzy could not be present at her father's deathbed: eight months pregnant, she was refused a seat on every available airline. Such a natural procession of life and death occasions us to consider what the "purpose" of any given generation truly is--maybe it's only to sire and educate the next one. But these individuals are also eager to create something for themselves that undeniably exists outside the perimeter of "The Up Series", if only to prove to Apted and his viewing audience that they are capable of impacting the world beyond a passive acceptance of this sociological experiment. Maybe that's why Neil--drifting alone across the Scottish countryside, quietly fighting mental illness--appears so troubled by the very idea of his interview, playing along but uneasily rocking back and forth, living under the threat that his greatest legacy may lie in a document of how he was unable to create a legacy on his own.
As Disc Three of "The Up Series" box set, the A/V specs on 28 Up aren't very impressive, though they are, of course, a product of their time: hazy and indistinct, the fullscreen video transfer looks fine in bright situations but suffers under darker ones. Meanwhile, the DD 2.0 mono sound is clear but periodically invaded by a fatally annoying high-pitched whine. Along with the same Apted bio as before, this disc's photo gallery contains several more still pictures of the non-participant Charles than are actually included in the feature proper.
35 UP (1991)
***½/**** Image B Sound B+
directed by Michael Apted
The legacies created by the subjects of 28 Up have resulted in a deep, unspoken sadness that somehow exceeds the misery created by the documentary series they were so desperate to escape. At 35, Tony openly regrets not making it as a jockey and, under the banner of "life is for living," admits a temptation to cheat on his wife; Jackie and Sue are rebuilding their lives following painful divorces; and a record three participants--Peter, Charles, and Simon--refused to return for this fifth outing. The most affecting out of the group, however, might be Nick, here interviewed alone in his dark living room; dissatisfied with her appearance in 28 Up, Nick's wife refused to be filmed again, while both agreed that their one-year-old son should not suffer "the sins of the father." Stripped, then, of the support that played such an important role in the last entry, Nick seems emotionally naked, and he exhibits a clear remorse that he cannot be closer to his family in England. (The other emigrant, Paul, expresses similar feelings while living in Australia.) If the project is an albatross around its subjects' necks in serving as a perpetual reminder of past failures, it's also a reminder of past victories--a lucid photo album that encourages us to contemplate the possibility that we're disappointing our former selves. What do we sacrifice when we decide to settle down?
After opting out of the previous instalment, barrister John returns to the series with great unwillingness. Likening his involvement to a "pill of poison," he makes it perfectly clear that he's only there to shed light on his efforts to provide aid to Bulgaria (he being the great-great-grandson of its first prime minister and married to the daughter of a former ambassador to the country). He is of course referring to finding potential backers for his cause, although his casual condescension betrays a certain egotism, leaving us with the impression that he's rubbing his good deeds in our faces. It reflects John's hatred of "The Up Series" in general, but it likewise happens to be a fascinating reversal of the criticism so often levelled at documentaries--specifically the Michael Moore school of "I'm such a good person," applied to subject rather than to filmmaker. This calls into question the very nature of the genre, as well as whether any documentary can be made without some smug bastard getting in the way. The oh-so-pleasant financiers' parties John attends are particularly insipid in contrast to scenes involving Bruce, the London teacher who is spending a term in Bangladesh to teach children and school instructors alike. But even as Bruce's actions are borne from a lifelong concern of racism and third-world strife, John's superficial selfishness casts a pall over the entire film, and so we wonder: how altruistic are Bruce's intentions? Is anyone capable of a totally altruistic act?
We wonder this because as they rapidly approach middle age, all of the subjects have become increasingly aware of their own mortality (especially Lynn, who suffers from blackouts and discovered that she's "got these veins, up here [in her brain], that shouldn't be there"), forcing them to look back on what they have accomplished and perhaps prompting them to overcompensate. Regret and self-doubt are slowly replacing youthful optimism--something they're not quite ready to mourn. In this respect, Neil is once more thrown into the role of the Uppers' generational representative: Recently ousted as the director of a village acting troupe in the Shetland Islands for his perceived inflexibility, he still lives on social security and struggles to maintain his sanity. Apted asks him what he'd like to be doing by the year 2000. (We're getting dangerously close to the due date of Seven Up!'s originally-projected sequel.) "I can think of all sorts of things I'd like to be doing," Neil says, "the question is, what am I likely to be doing?" Apted takes the bait and asks; with a painful chuckle, Neil responds, "That's a horrible question." And yet it's one we'll never stop asking ourselves.
35 Up's full-frame transfer is somewhat dull and dark, often containing a distracting level of grain but almost completely free of print debris. Meanwhile, the DD 2.0 mono audio suffers from minor hiss but otherwise bests that of any film in the series thus far. The same Apted bio and another photo gallery (half of which is dominated by Neil, though it also includes a pic of unmentioned absentee Peter) wrap up Disc Four of the box set.
42: FORTY TWO UP (1998)
**½/**** Image B Sound A- Commentary A
directed by Michael Apted
We're as close to the year 2000 as the septennial intervals will allow, and the spectre of Seven Up! has finally caught up with the series that it spawned. Although Apted has always made it a point to flash back to relevant discussions from previous instalments, 42: Forty Two Up (hereafter 42 Up) uses flashbacks as a crutch. Representing a huge chunk of a somewhat-bloated running time, they turn the film into a near-exclusive retrospective only marginally interested in the here and now. The greatest indicator of this comes at the end, as the film breaks tradition with a montage of the remaining Uppers answering the same two all-encompassing questions: 1) Do they believe that there's still a deep-rooted class system in Britain?; and 2) What effect has appearing in these films had on them? The conclusiveness of it feels mystifying, giving the impression that things are wrapping up--to the point where we are forced to ask, They're still relatively young; why are we ending here?
The answer is, of course, that we're not. The director had always intended to personally continue the series as long as he was alive. But because Paul Almond promised a look at "the executive and the shop steward of the year 2000," Apted must follow through with some analysis to that end. One might say he's taking the opportunity to rest on his laurels as a brilliant documentarian, but I believe it's more accurate to say that we're witnessing his insecurities as a filmmaker. With this landmark, Apted himself has received a sudden reminder of his past as a researcher for Granada Television, and he feels obliged to finish what his mentors and former superiors never did by bringing it all full circle. Alas, a return to Seven Up!'s original intentions also means a return to a narrow-minded mentality: By ending 42 Up the way he does, Apted is trying to summarize "The Up Series", forcing himself to believe that there are solid answers to grasp instead of intangible concepts borne from the existential ether. (Opinions and theories are offered from the subjects, but no such luck.) Maybe such a desire is an inevitable, necessary evil where the series (and life, n'est-ce pas?) is concerned, yet it's an endeavour that was always doomed to fail.
But then there's the idea that the repetitive interviews may have somewhat pushed the director into that frame of mind. His subjects are certainly not uninteresting, tight-lipped, or uncooperative, but they almost uniformly subscribe to a form of quiet serenity. The bitter loss of youth and sullen awareness of mortality have been reduced to a shrugging "it is what it is" acceptance--a refusal to let such concerns interfere with their lives. Many of the divorced are happily remarried; Symon became bored of the lifelong anger aimed at his absent father and went so far as to name a child after him; Lynn has come to terms with her delicate medical condition; Tony, having succumbed to the temptations mentioned in 35 Up, is reconciled with his wife; and, although he still lives on state benefit, even Neil has found a steady niche as a member of Hackney Council in London. Out of their shells by this point, the Uppers are decidedly more interested in looking to the future as opposed to dwelling on the past--and, perhaps blindsided by his own personal ruminations, I don't think Apted was quite ready for that this time around.
The sixth "Up" film, 42: Forty Two Up was the first to find itself on DVD as a standalone title, and as such the fifth and final platter of First Run's box set recycles the 2001 release, making it the only disc to sport any real special features. Although those scenes filmed especially for 42 Up were shot in 1.66:1 widescreen, the transfer is unfortunately not enhanced for 16x9 displays and thus presents the new footage letterboxed within a 4:3 frame. The image is soft besides, with brighter colours looking too pumped-up; the DD 2.0 stereo sound is fantastic, however, particularly deep despite occasional fluctuations in volume. A priceless, viewer-friendly commentary from Apted accompanies the film but encompasses the series as a whole. In his preternaturally-narrative baritone, the director speaks for a few minutes at the beginning of each segment (both on the subject at hand and about the project in general), then invites us to watch the film and join him again at the beginning of the following segment. If he occasionally repeats himself and resorts to haughtiness (his dismissive attitude towards Jackie, Lynn, and Sue seems like intentional troublemaking), such moments are dwarfed by innumerable shows of humility as he enlightens us on his own youth, the series' creation, and his relationships with the subjects between films, including how he approaches them when the time comes to do another one. Other priceless anecdotes: attaining the key shot of 7 Plus Seven, i.e., the dog-rabbit encounter; scheduling a private screening of The World is Not Enough for the Uppers; and Peter's unmentioned disappearance from the series after 28 Up. A theatrical trailer for the First Run Features documentary Fighter--unavailable on DVD itself--and the familiar Apted bio (but no photo gallery) finish off the disc as well as the package proper.
49 UP (2005)
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
directed by Michael Apted
A riddle wrapped in an already impossibly complex enigma, the seventh instalment of "The Up Series" examines not only the interconnective tissue that guides our lives, but also what it means, exactly, to know oneself as one ages. At 49, the Uppers have more or less settled into a permanent lifestyle, and they're torn between looking back at five-decade lochs of life and trying to determine what's left. They grew up during a time of immense social upheaval and eventually followed the natural order to become the Establishment themselves. A direct companion piece and counterpoint to 28 Up (the peak vs. the descent?), 49 Up finds the subjects once again understanding just how much control they have over this series, their actions to that end now encompassing a desire to keep prying eyes away from their business. Several loudly refuse to allow Apted to film their spouses because it intrudes on their intimate lives; John, meanwhile, returns to the fold after his second fourteen-year hiatus, perhaps only because the recent reality-TV boom has finally offered him a pulpit from which to smirkingly criticize the project. But while this is yet another indication of how much this man hates Apted and his documentaries, it also manages to establish "The Up Series"--and, by extension, the generation John represents--as a trendsetter gradually being replaced by hipper successors. Once again, the Uppers feel annoyed and violated by the camera, but those feelings don't lie with the intrusion itself so much as the fear that they will be anchored to the series' perceived obsolescence--just another reminder (along with receding hairlines, dulling reflexes, and grandchildren) of rapidly-advancing age as they approach the half-century threshold. Notice that the Uppers most open and willing to participate are those who are imbued with "new" presences in their personal lives: Bruce, who now has two children; Nick, remarried; and Tony, who recently acquired his long-desired holiday home in Spain and had a stage production written about his life.
That mutual fear has formed an empathetic bond among the participants. We've only seen them all together twice on film (once at 7, once at 21), and there's little indication that they've socialized with one another much beyond those instances--even Bruce and Neil, such good friends at 42 (derelict Neil lived in Bruce's home for several months and later read at his wedding), have drifted apart. And yet they refer to themselves in relation to each other more often than they have at any other point in the series, usually as "us"--a united front against Apted. Prompted by a question of whether she worries that her son takes after her, Jackie pulls the filmmaker into an argument, and eventually concludes: "You will edit this as you see fit. I have no control over that. You definitely come across as [saying] this is your idea of what you want to do, and how you see us, and that's how you portray us... This one may be, may be, the first one that's about us, rather than your perception of us." Jackie is responding to Apted's typically sneering attitude towards his trio of East End girls ("I like it when you shout at me" is the last straw), and her statement reflects knowledge that the director's patronization tempts her fellow subjects to fight back.
Interviews and commentary tracks have shown Apted to be by and large a kind, humble fellow--and Jackie finally suspects that his haughtier moments are a put-on, specifically designed to cut through the bullshit and force his subjects to uncover their "true" selves, observer effect be damned. If true, though the gambit worked spectacularly for the filmmaker in 28 Up, Jackie's opened up a whole new line of discussion, that being a question of the "truth" that such manipulation can offer. (Apted continues his train of reverse-psychology here to try to convince unwilling participants: Suzy's segment, the shortest of the bunch, ends with her promise that she will "bow out" of the series, then an abrupt cut to black; and Charles, who apparently attempted to file suit when Apted refused to remove his image from this film, is only given a curt narration that denies us the usual explanation of where he's been since 21.) With that out in the open, the Uppers are once again thrown into a role of indignation, and in finding another way to question Apted's ethics, they've peeled back another layer of reality to reveal yet another aspect of life--the endless cycles of self-awareness. Where it will all lead, of course, will have to wait for 2012 and 56 Up.
The first "Up" to be shot on digital video, 49 Up afforded Apted the opportunity to shoot his subjects for uninterrupted stretches without having to change film magazines and, additionally, looks fantastic on DVD: the 16x9, 1.78:1 image is sharp and unblemished, while flashbacks to the previous entries are beautifully restored without sacrificing their vintage quality. The DD 2.0 stereo sound, meanwhile, is also wonderful, with that stern "World in Action" music sounding better than it ever has; dialogue registers as especially crisp. In the accompanying extra "Roger Ebert Interview with Michael Apted" (29 mins.), the critic engages the director in a pleasant conversation on the set of "Ebert & Roeper at the Movies", shortly before Ebert's long-term hospitalization. Although this piece mostly regurgitates ideas found in Ebert's many essays on the series as well as in Apted's audio commentary for 42 Up, it offers a few important expansions--including the metaphysical aspects of the series as a whole and contemplation of the potential deaths of the participants--in a refreshing, frank discussion. A Michael Apted biography (expanded and rewritten from the bio featured on the "Up Series" box set), a portraiture-themed photo gallery, and trailers for War Photographer, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Bright Leaves, and Bonhoeffer finish off the disc. Originally published: February 11, 2007.