One big complaint about Facebook is that it is not what it claims to be. Specifically, in order to break out of the market of college kids following each other around, it marketed itself as a virtual class reunion, where you could catch up with old friends from high school, college, or previous employers. The catch: once you’ve made that connection you’re inundated with every tiny little detail they post. If you really cared that much about this person you probably wouldn’t have fallen out of contact. Checking in every so often is probably all you need to make the thumbnail sketch you’re really interested in.
Michael Apted’s Up series doesn’t make this mistake. Indeed, it would be hard to produce — let alone watch — a documentary as detailed as some Facebook feeds. For those who aren’t already familiar, a group of British children born in 1956 and 1957 were interviewed in 1964, at the age of seven for the documentary 7 Up. Every seven years Apted — a researcher on the original documentary — has revisited these people to check in on their lives. Every seven years we get to catch up with a dozen old friends and see what’s been happening. This year they are 56, and Apted has produced 56 Up
Of course, it’s open to discussion whether this means anything or not, and for the last few installments that discussion includes the interviewees themselves. None of them seem to feel they’ve been accurately represented, though they have different takes on it. Some of them are indignant that some of us in the audience think we know who they are; obviously that’s impossible with seven minutes of new footage edited from seven days of filming every seven years.
Still, this doesn’t mean the project is worthless. As one of them puts it, “it’s not an accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” The characters we see in the films are, in a sense, not the people being filmed. They are, rather, our own interpolations between a series of snapshots. And there are any number of other curves we could draw between these few points. The series itself bears this out; who could have guessed where Neil, for instance, would be at 56 given what we saw at 28?
You may rightly wonder, though, whether it’s possible to follow the eighth installment of such a series without being familiar with the previous seven. Luckily, the segments for each character contain as much flashback material as new footage, so you can be familiar with at least some of their previous thoughts on similar topics. In fact, this pattern makes playing catch-up something of a slog, seeing so much repeated information so often. I suggest instead to start with 56 Up and work backwards until you’re satisfied you’ve backfilled enough detail for your tastes.
But the idea of reversing the order suddenly highlights one choice Apted has consistently made, which may well be a flaw: all the films in the series are edited longitudinally, examining one character over time, followed by another. Once we think of rearranging the footage, why not “latitudinal” edits, cutting across each character’s take on similar questions, either at the same time or at different times. Even better, what if Apted were to make available all the footage from the series as an array of tagged clips, which could be used to create “supercuts” on various subjects. I would love to see all the different opinions on the existence or non-existence of a class system in England stacked up and arranged into a dialogue between the public school boys, the East Enders, and those from the North.
Of course, no such dialogue has existed; the interviews are conducted largely separately. But is the idea of a conversation between so many people over so much time all collected into one place really any less of a construction than these characters are in the first place? After all, the editing room is where cinema creates its stories, and — as Godard says — every edit is a lie. What privileges one lie over another?
Pipe dreams of remix culture aside, the chance to view these snapshots and to understand a dozen characters — whether or not they’re “accurate” — over the scale of half a century is a unique and impressive project, and one which is not to be missed.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: lacking the customary meeting between Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, I have to say it fails.