It's been seven years since 49 Up and, like clockwork, director Michael Apted returns with 56 Up, the latest installment in his groundbreaking Up series. Checking in with the lives its English subjects every seven years since they were young schoolchildren, this series of made-for-television documentaries has yielded an amazingly emotional look at ordinary lives lived; their failures and triumphs aired for all the world to witness. It's one thing to appreciate the idea that informs these films, but watching them is an entirely different experience, as it's possible to be drawn into the otherwise private details of the lives of complete strangers.
If this sounds roughly like the effect of watching a season of reality tv, it's probably due to the undeniable influence that the Up series has had on that genre; Apted's initial chapter in the series predates An American Family, PBS' 1971 experiment in reality-based television, by seven years. The difference between the Up series and, say, Jersey Shore, is profound; whereas most reality television takes on a leering gaze, the Up series has always had more anthropological aims in mind. In Apted's hands, the 14 subjects who have taken part in the series have been less representatives of themselves than of the universal experience that is living life and gathering stories along the way.
As we pick up once again with the familiar faces in 56 Up, many of them are beginning to evaluate where they are in their lives, often within the context of the series and how it has and has not fairly represented them. Some complain that it has offered the public a sense of identification that isn't earned, and, surely, being repeatedly approached by complete strangers who want to commiserate with you over the private details of your life must be exhausting. Neil Hughes, whose past struggles with homelessness made him the subject that most viewers worried about in prior chapters, has found stability and is probably the most vocal in his protests that people don't know how he feels just because they've seen small slices of his life on the telly every seven years.
All in all, 56 Up isn't going to surprise viewers, whether or not they've checked in with the series before. But it does offer the same comforts as the past few chapters, mainly the possibility of transformation over time, as many of the "characters" found within have achieved some form of peace with the way their lives have unfolded. Like previous installments, 56 Up betrays its roots in television, especially how each person's story remains a discrete section of the larger whole; Apted doesn't cut between the tales as he might were he presenting a feature documentary, so, even if we're seeing it in theaters in the U.S., the overall style is that of the small screen. This should in no way dissuade anyone from checking in with it, though, as this latest chunk of the Up series retains its fascinating power to pull viewers into the lives of its subjects.
56 Up premieres at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, January 4th. It opens locally at Cinema 21 on January 25th. More info available here.
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