Thursday, June 19, 2008

Queue It Up: The Up Series

Tarsem’s The Fall, about a girl who gets lost in a world of imagination, will strike a lot of people who catch it on the art house circuit as a bright-and-blue version of the grim-and-gray Pan’s Labyrinth. Thus it might interest you to know that the latter didn’t influence the former. According to its website and a recent profile of Tarsem by Roger Ebert, The Fall was shot in 18 countries over a whopping four years. But this post isn’t about creative originality (heck, The Fall is said to be based on a 1981 Bulgarian film called Yo Ho Ho). Instead, it’s about that unusually lengthy shooting time, which allows for The Fall’s greatest magic trick: the performance of Catinca Untaru.

Playing Alexandria, Untaru delivers what must be the most amazing performance by a child actor that I have ever seen. A Romanian who memorized her English dialogue on the spot, Untaru essentially plays two parts: Alexandria the 4-year-old hospital patient with a broken arm and Alexandria the imaginary adventurer. In the first role, Alexandria is mind-bogglingly childlike yet refined. Her delivery of dialogue seems both spontaneously discovered and carefully plotted. It’s a wonder to behold. As for the second role: that Alexandria seems a little more assured, a little more direct, a little more mature. And that’s because she is. Tarsem shot all of the young Alexandria scenes when Untaru was 4-years-old. He shot the other Alexandria scenes about three years later.

Given the financial realities and pressures of making movies, few filmmakers would ever be so bold as to attempt this strategy. The effect, however, is stunning, because you just can’t fake the difference between 4 and 7 – a three-year gap that at that developmental stage might as well be three decades. As I was reflecting on The Fall, I tried to think of any films that offered a similar effect. And that’s when I started thinking about the Up documentary series.

To be clear: that gap between shoots is the only thing that the Up series has in common with The Fall. There are seven Up films, each shot seven years apart. Taken as a whole, it’s an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking, one that I suspect is the result of a combination of initial naiveté, subsequent earnest effort and, in between, lots of luck. If you’ve never ventured down the series’ rabbit hole, I suggest you do so at least once. What you’ll find is a diverse documentary portrait that’s made memorable as much by the time spent not shooting as by the footage compiled.

My original 2006 review of 49 Up, the most recent installment in the documentary series, follows. If you're new to the Up series, The Cooler recommends that you start with 42 Up or 35 Up, giving yourself the chance to move forward with the experience, which is half the fun.

49 Up
By the time I saw my first Up episode in 1999, Roger Ebert had already proclaimed that the documentary series was on his list of the “10 greatest films of all time.” Watching 42 Up, I didn’t feel like I was in the presence of something that historically stupendous, but I called the film “remarkable” and listed it among my eight favorite movies of that year. Now though, having just seen 49 Up, I’m inclined to side with Ebert. The reason for my change of opinion has nothing to do with the latest chapter being in any way superior to its immediate predecessor – in fact I’m partial to the twists and turns of 42 Up – but for me to truly appreciate the series’ genius it took seeing two episodes seven years apart. That’s the way the series is filmed and, it turns out, the way it is best viewed.

The Up series was born with the 1964 television broadcast of 7 Up, in which a dozen children from different backgrounds and social spheres in Britain were asked to talk about their present lives and visions of the future. That film, the first step of a revolutionary social experiment, was a response to two things: Britain’s vast class system and a Jesuit saying that goes, “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” The filmmakers, led by producer Tim Hewat, hoped to explore whether these children’s lives were predetermined by their backgrounds. To do that, they planned to check in on their subjects every seven years.

And so it has gone, from ages 7 to 14 to 21 to 28 to 35 to 42 and now 49, and, in the process, from 1964 to 2006. Michael Apted, who got his first film job working as a researcher on 7 Up, has been the director and principal interviewer of the series since the 21 episode. The project’s survival owes not just to his dedication but especially to that of the documentary’s cast, ordinary people who were selected to participate by their teachers a half-century ago and now return every seven years to continue a narrative that they never volunteered for but that can’t survive without them.

That the Up series is still upright is a triumph in itself. Over the years a few of the subjects have bowed out completely, and others have skipped an episode or two only to return later. But in large part the irreplaceable cast remains. Their commitment is both inspiring and touching. Throughout the course of their lives they’ve opened up with broken hearts and after broken marriages. They’ve persevered through career disasters and crushed dreams. Some have moved far away. Some have stayed close to home. Some have turned out almost exactly like they predicted at 7. Others, at 49, are enjoying lives that they couldn’t have imagined at 42. And all the while we’ve been allowed to watch, as life genuinely unfolds right in front of our eyes.

It struck me during 49 Up that these documentaries put the reality in reality entertainment, though the series was born long before the current fad. These days “reality” programming comes in the form of celebrity profiles, talent contests, dating shows and home/life improvement programs, yet even when 42 Up hit theaters in 1999 the reality movement as we know it today was merely poised for invasion. MTV’s Real World series had been on the air since 1992, but Survivor didn’t debut until 2000, and two more years went by after that before much-talked about programs like The Bachelor, The Osbournes and American Idol were beamed into our living rooms.

The subjects of the Up documentaries didn’t join to be stars. In fact, for many of them the moderate fame that has resulted from their participation has been an inconvenience or an outright embarrassment. Taking part in the interviews can be understandably painful: just imagine if you had to re-live your entire life every seven years – first through the question-and-answer segments, which have a way of digging up the past, and then through the resulting films, which show archival clips as part of the examination. It can’t be easy. But as children, teens and adults, the Up subjects have shown a forthrightness and bravery that deserves our respect.

Beyond that they also deserve our understanding. In 49 Up, one of the women complains that her life hasn’t been accurately represented by the films. We see Apted’s view of her, she claims. And it’s true that even with a running time of 135 minutes we can’t get to know everything there is to know about each one of them. But Apted’s approach is as fair as can be expected. He and editor Kim Horton allow for lengthy takes when appropriate and often let us be privy to the questions, so that even though we can never appreciate the complete context of a response, we can be assured that – unlike most reality TV shows – nothing is taken entirely out of context and mashed up in the editing room for dramatic effect.

If you’ve never seen one of the Up documentaries, you could start with 49 Up and not feel left behind. Apted and Horton are masterful at cutting through the crap and getting to the core of the cast. To see the latest Up is to watch lives develop in forward and reverse. We might see someone at 49, then at 7, then at 35, then at 14; it all depends on the person and the topic. Often what these men and women once were is as surprising as what they’ve become, and the series’ unique gift is that it gets richer with age. It’s so fitting that 7 Up was filmed in black and white and 49 Up was shot in digital. From the sweet and simple absolutes of childhood we now see adults in their full color, and in sometimes painful detail.

Amazingly, 49 Up has a way of looking back without feeling redundant. Some of the clips of the wide-eyed kids at 7 are in their seventh running now. But we see those clips differently as they apply to the 49-year-old than we do at, say, 35. My fear going into 49 Up was that too many of the subjects would have quit the project, having grown weary of its demands. But to my pleasant surprise attendance is almost complete. Nearly 50, they seem as comfortable in their own skin as at any time since they were 7. And maybe it’s because I’m staring at 30, but I was overwhelmed by their bountiful youth. Though heavier, slower and frailer, these don’t look like people at midlife. They like people transitioning into a new life. This time with decades of experience to help guide the way.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]

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