The series, nearing retirement age itself, prompts questions about how much time is left for its subjects, for its director, for all of us, and reminds us that we cannot know.
By Sarah Larsen | The New Yorker
The Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”—portentous, mysterious, mildly weird—is well known to fans of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, which has followed the lives of a collection of British people since 1964. As a young researcher at Granada Television, in Manchester, a year out of university, Apted helped choose the children who became the subjects of the first film, “Seven Up!”; every seven years since, he’s given us the gift of an update. In “63 Up,” which opens in the U.S. this week, we begin to see the end. The subjects’ physical changes startle and fascinate us; watching aging in these films is like scanning the progressive class-year groups at a high-school reunion. At sixty-three, our friends aren’t elderly but are just beginning to look like senior citizens; they’re talking about retirement, grandchildren, how their lives have gone. But everyone’s personality—Apted’s included—is exactly the same. As each portrait begins, anticipation sets in as we await new details about an ordinary life.
The “Up” series is nearly spellbinding in its sense of accumulated meaning—a feeling that’s enhanced by its form. Over the years, Apted and his longtime editor, Kim Horton, have incorporated several clips again and again, and seeing and hearing them strengthens the films’ incantatory quality. Many lines from “Seven Up!” have become as familiar as song lyrics: “I wanna be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I wanna be a jockey when I grow up!”; “I read the Financial Times”; “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy”; “I’m going to work at Woolworth’s”; “Stop that at once!”; and so on. The backbeat could come from the Monotones’ “What Would I Do,” to which our young innocents dance together at a party, balloons popping violently as the classes mingle. At this point, “Seven Up!,” black-and-white and bursting with energy, feels like a sacred artifact, beautiful and odd in detail, to which we return again and again to scrutinize against the passing of time. “63 Up” is the ninth in the series; Apted, who has also directed other acclaimed films, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Nell,” is seventy-eight. The question of how much time the series has left quietly permeates what could be the final entry.