home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance | destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
35 Up VHS
42 Up, the latest installment in Michael Apted's long-running series of documentaries
for British television, began less as a film than a sociology thesis. In 1964, Apted
interviewed a group of seven year olds in an attempt to show the full rangeof British
society as reflected in the innocent opinions of its children. It was a demographically
loaded enterprise, with the subjects selected as much for their class backgrounds as their
charm. Every seven years since then, Apted has interviewed them again, following their
progress as they've moved from adolescence through young adulthood and now on to early
Six episodes into the experiment, the series has shifted its emphasis to become a sort of documentary soap opera. Those of us who've followed the series (most Americans became aware of the films with 28 Up, the first feature length installment) are hopelessly addicted now. We've become invested in these people's lives: can motherhood and marriage possibly satisfy the once-cynical Suzy? Is Bruce still driven by his commitment to social justice? And the most heartbreaking question of all: will Neil ever overcome his mental instability and stop his homeless drifting?
Apted moves freely between recent interviews and material from the previous episodes, letting us compare the characters to their younger selves. It's a startling effect. Where most of us choose to forget the steep expectations we had for ourselves at 21, these people have to see their naive dreams used as introductions to their current compromises. Most of them have come to terms with the fact of the film - they comment knowingly about things they've said in earlier installments, confident that those clips will end up in this episode as well - but it's easy to see why more subjects leave with each program. The level of self-scrutiny they face each seven years must force painful realizations.
If the early episodes were about young people grappling with the choices that would come to define their lives, 42 Up is about settling into those lives. As the subjects embark on careers and begin to raise families, we see them reaching for comfort and stability. This makes the film less gripping than it could be - accommodation and complacency are inherently undramatic - but it's never dull. The subjects' lives aren't up for grabs in quite the same way, but there are constant jolts and shocks as we see how they've progressed.
The class arguments that underpinned the original undertaking are implicit now in the courses these lives have taken. Apted chose a representative cross section of children in 1964, from privileged children in boarding schools to orphans in youth homes. What's astonishing to an American viewer is the fact that none of them have moved beyond their class backgrounds - the lower class kids grew up to be cabbies and factory workers while the scions of the ruling class went on to produce television shows or raise children on country estates.
Seeing each child grow into a life preordained by social status is sobering and rather sad. It speaks to a truth which Americans are ideologically reluctant to acknowledge. If only because its foreignness allows it to come to terms with one of the great taboo subjects in our national life, 42 Up is a tremendously valuable film.
- Gary Mairs