There is a connection that occurs, artificial though it may be, from prolonged exposure to characters we see in film and television. It doesn't matter whether it's a person real or imagined, whether it's the cast of Survivor or The Simpsons; given enough time, we all start to feel like we know the people whose lives play out before our eyes. And the more we think we know them, the more invested we become, the more we start to care. And it's this emotional construct, built upon the most unreal and flimsy of foundations, that keeps us coming back for more. It's also what has kept so many fascinated with the lives of a handful of people profiled by filmmaker Michael Apted for over 40 years.
In 1964, the British television series World in Action aired a special called Seven Up! The premise was simple: The program showcased a dozen or so 7-year-olds from various backgrounds, giving a glimpse of who the adults of England in the year 2000 would be. Every seven years Apted revisited most of the subjects (some stopped wanting to be profiled after they turned 21), and now, with the remaining participants all pushing 50, the Up series has finally arrived at its intended destination—the 21st century.
The interesting thing about the Up series is how thoroughly effective it is at building a false connection with its audience. Collectively, the films clock in at just over 700 minutes—approximately eight hours of footage that spans 42 years in the lives of nearly a dozen people. When you stop and do the math, you realize that when all is said and done, you haven't even spent a full hour over the years getting to know any one of the individual participants. So why do we care so much?
49 Up works, as do the rest of the films in the series, in part because it feeds into the sense of voyeurism so many of us have. Perhaps it's a testimony to the superficial nature of most relationships that it feels like we know people like Tony and Suzy and Neil so well. At the same time, the series does have a sense of honesty and reality. Not the sort of reality that is now pawned off on television, but rather something significantly less hyperbolic. None of these people is vying for a cash prize, and, after so many years of participating, most are very vocal about how much they don't really want to do it. If anything, the films start to feel like the high-school reunion you attend out of some sort of obligation to let others know what you've been up to, and to get the dirt on others.
The Up films are hardly the train wrecks we've now come to associate with reality television and, sadly enough, some documentaries. But the films, none of the earlier of which is required to enjoy or appreciate 49 Up, are extremely compelling. In fact, in its own way, 49 Up is perhaps the most compelling since 21 Up, the first film in which the participants were no longer children. Most of the first six films were spent looking ahead to the future, but with 49 Up, there is more reflection on the past. Some have become comfortable in their skin, others have not. Some are becoming parents for the first time; others have slipped comfortably into the grandparent role. The children that we have come to know so well have finally grown up.
Opens Monday, Oct. 16, at Cinema 21.