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DVD Review: From 7 Up to 49 Up

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Reality television is a genuine guilty pleasure of mine. I watch many series in the genre, Project Runway, Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef, and Charm School to name a few.  I love watching real people acting up. As most folks know, the editing is manipulative (who wants to watch a bunch of people sit around and be nice to each other?), and the a social bastardization of the Heisenberg Principle (the very act of observing a phenomenon inevitably alters that phenomenon in some way) makes what we see somewhat less than ‘reality.’ This, however, doesn’t change my personal enjoyment of the genre.

Perhaps I love it so much because of documentaries that explore real world interactions with actual human beings rather than historical conjecture and photo montages. The granddaddy of all of these voyeuristic peeks into ‘normalcy’ is Michael Apted’s brilliant “Up” series.

The premise is powerfully simple: in 1964, Apted interviewed 14 seven-year old children. He asked them about their dreams and tastes; he filmed them at play and in group interviews. The plan was to then follow up with the 14 children every seven years to prove the contention (and the tagline to the series) “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

The series has now developed into seven interlocking documentaries, the most recent being 49 Up. All but two of the original 14 are still involved. With 49 Up the children have grown up and we’ve seen them go from believing in the endless opportunities of life at seven and fourteen, to knowing all there is to know at twenty-one and twenty-eight, to realizing that life is a bit more complex than they thought at thirty-five and forty-two, to relaxing and dealing with life as it comes at forty-nine.

The twelve that remain are almost all unhappy about the experiment on their lives — every seven years, Apted shows up to ask them about their failures and disillusionments of their earlier lives and you can see the toll these questions have on them and, for some, their spouses and children. Most of them have gone through a great deal of change — one gentlemen was full of the verve of teaching math to inner-city youth until he spent five or so years doing it and at 49 has now all but abandoned his ideals for the comfort and stability of teaching in a posh, private prep school. Marriages go from the bloom of new love to the stagnancy of routine to either divorce or the security of familiarity and rediscovered appreciation for one another.

The series answers a lot of questions about an ordinary life. It also brings up nearly unanswerable questions about the nature of the self reflection foisted upon these people every seven years and the effect it may have on them. In this latest in the series, the question that I couldn’t shake was this: Given that Apted has been a fixture in their lives for most of their lives, what is the effect on them when Apted dies? He is obviously a good deal older than his subjects and there is a strange element of paternalism to his presence in their lives. It is likely that Apted will not live to make more than a couple more — he will be nearly eighty by the time his subjects are in their sixties. How will his death be perceived by these people and is this effect something Apted has ever considered over the past forty-two years?

If you are interested at this point, but are put off at the idea of watching over 16 hours of this series, I recommend the following “short” course on viewing — 7 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, and 49 Up. However you watch them, watch them. This series is genuinely groundbreaking and will likely never be duplicated — with the entire world becoming so savvy to the effect of instant celebrity by eating deer penis and double-crossing other housemates, a study with this much sincerity will never be possible again.

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