The New York Film Festival and other venues are proudly presenting Michael Apted's awesome cinematic effort 49 Up, which, needless to say, is light years more honest and direct than today's "reality-TV" shows and even many contemporary documentaries.
Once again, we peek into the lives of Tony, Jackie, Sue, Bruce, Suzy, Paul, Simon, Nick, Andrew, John, Lynn and Neil. Some reveal how they are resigned to their professional status. (Tony had wanted to be a jockey but is now a cab driver.) Many discuss the difficulties they have had in their marriages. Others are proud of their lot. (John is an Ivy League teacher who has started a family late in life.) Still, some present more questions than answers, including the mysterious Neil, who had become homeless, then rejoined society-in parliamentary politics, no less!
It was director Apted's brilliant idea to continue Seven Up from its U.K.-based Granada Television roots to what is now considered a legendary anthropological experiment. The important aspects to all the films were established in the first black-and-white piece, actually directed by Paul Almond, not Apted (who was then the researcher): the backgrounds of the schoolchildren, the balanced number of probing questions, and the combination of freeform cinéma-vérité and "talking-head" styles. One could quibble about the lack of ethnic diversity of the participants initially chosen, but the central idea provides a superb model for human-interest investigations and filmic reportage.
The cleverly inserted clips from the previous films not only show the development of the subjects over 42 years but also provide a melancholic Proustian referent. The crosscutting from past to present and back is quite jolting at times, both technically and thematically. (The entire project was inspired by the Jesuit maxim, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.")
Also, the excerpts from Seven Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up enable uninitiated viewers a chance to "catch up" with the entire series, which in no way is to diminish the impact of the earlier entries. In fact, First Run Features is now distributing all of the films as a DVD box set, which includes audio commentary by Apted on 42 Up. Viewing the collection would be more than a worthwhile commitment, though 49 Up alone is quite astonishing to behold.
What is valuable and different about 49 Up is the degree and nature of the reflections. As the angry Jackie puts it to Apted, "This one maybe, maybe is the first one about us, instead of your perception of us," after discussing an embarrassing personal question he had asked her decades earlier. Suzy, on the other hand, talks in bittersweet tones about her grown children moving away ("It's like a closed chapter now, 'cause you can't bring those days back"), but she could be referring to herself and her fellow "guinea pigs." Apted is also more "present" than ever in his questioning, though he does not reflect on his own shortcomings or disappointments.
If ever a film project emphasized process over results, it is 49 Up, but even those wondering about the gaps and "missing pieces" or what will happen in the future will not be disappointed by this remarkable work.