49 Up

[9 October 2007]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Nothing Like What's Going Through My Head

I do love watching everybody else. [But] I always hate [the films], to be honest. By the end of it, I normally hate you, direct all of my anger in one place.
—Symon

“It’s an incredibly hard thing to be in,” says Nick, “and I can’t begin to describe how emotionally draining and wrenching it is, and that’s even when I’m pretending that nobody else is watching it.” He smiles, a little, glancing away from the camera as he speaks to it. One of the subjects of Michael Apted’s Up series, Nick is a full professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like the other interviewees who have agreed again to submit to Apted’s cameras and cutting, Nick has come to see the process as a part of his life. “My ambition is to be more famous for doing science than for being in this film,” he says, “but unfortunately, Michael, that’s not going to happen.”

The airing of 49 Up airing tonight as part of PBS’ P.O.V. series marks a particular irony in the history of the films, a return to television. An inadvertent and eventually very self-aware precursor to reality TV, 7 Up premiered on Granada TV in 1964, an assembly of interviews with and observations of 14 children drawn “from startlingly different backgrounds” in an effort to offer a “glimpse of England in 2000, now seven years old.” At the time, of course, no one imagined the experiment would continue for 43 years. While two of the 14 original subjects dropped out early, those who have appeared every seven years have helped to build a remarkable record of changing times, hopes, and expectations. The film series’ effects have been profound, for viewers and participants. As Nick’s wife Chris observes, “I think it’s a heavy reminder that he’s missing his roots. There’s an awful lot of emotions attached to having a scrapbook that’s as vivid as this.” 

At least some of these emotions are visible in the film, a mix of self-reflections, social commentary, and eloquent observations on the film as a process in itself. Participants have married, had kids, divorced, and grown older. They’ve come to see themselves as part of the “experiment,” contributors to a text available for consumption and interpretation. The meta-referencing has increased over the years, as subjects have come to expect, dread, or negotiate the once-every-seven-years visitation from Mike and crew. If Nick would rather his work in nuclear physics had made him “famous,” he also appreciates the ways Up has shaped his life, giving him an early understanding of possibilities beyond his childhood home in the Yorkshire Dales. Self-described as “borderline autistic,” Nick returned to England under the auspices of 42 Up, with clips included here showing him with brothers and tractor. The films for him have become a way to keep hold of the past while also creating a peculiar kind of contemplative distance.

As the films regularly incorporate footage from previous installments, the portraits have become increasingly layered and meditative. Bruce feels immersed now in “ordinary family life,” and sounds only vaguely rueful when giving up on his “dream” of playing international cricket (“I just wasn’t good enough”). Growing up, he suggests is learning to “sort of live without our dreams.” Still, he has the cameras following him as he plays cricket, teaches maths, and spends time with his children, proving them with what he didn’t have, a “contact with a father that is loving.”

Jackie, unlike Nick or Bruce, declares the film process intrusive. Still, she comes back each time, and here she allows that she means to set it right, eventually. As she points out to Apted, “You will edit this program as you see fit, I’ve got no control over that.” When he asks her to speak, then, about her own concerns, to make the interview more “accurate,” the film only underscores the effects of editing—which she has just pointed out. “This one may be the first one that’s about us and not your perception of us,” Jackie says of 49.

Prompted by Apted, Jackie tells him how she sees his seeing: “I think I’m actually more intelligent than you thought I would be.” She’s interpreting—as other viewers have—not only her self-performance but also the questions Apted has posed over the years. Her remonstration about the editing, for example, is prompted when Apted asks whether she’s concerned that her son is outspoken, “a bit like I was at his age, really.” Even this effort becomes part of the process. Her current image is affected not only by its position alongside her previous images, but also by her appearance in the film’s line-up of other subjects. Thus her effort to wrest and name her control—or Apted’s effort to grant a semblance of it—only makes clearer its impossibility.

Where Tony (once an aspiring jockey and now a husband, father, and cab driver with homes in London and Spain) and Sue (a self-described “easygoing person” who runs the legal faculty at the University of London) appear content, Suzy may be the most visibly pained by the tension between semblance and truth (or perhaps more accurately, the production of semblance as truth). Describing her work in the films as “very difficult, very painful, not an experience I’ve enjoyed in any way,” she nonetheless sits on her sofa and accommodates the crew in her home. She also acknowledges being part of a project that involves other subjects. “Every seven years,” she says, “it throws up issues that I guess we all learn to put into compartments between the seven years and then it all gets opened up again… We all landed in it and then most of us, for whatever reason have decided to go throughout with it. I’m not an outgoing, confident person. I like my privacy. I don’t like however many million people picking over my life.”

When Apted presses her to confirm that this is indeed how she sees the films, as an opportunity for “people” to pick over her life, she explains her feelings in a way that is at once more abstract and more profound: “People seem to read into what they think we all think, which I find very hurtful really. Because most of them come up with things that they think, which is nothing like what’s going through my head.” This dissonance forms daily and existential struggles, as self-imagining and self-projection collide with interactions and effects in the world (or in multiple worlds, if you understand performances to be shifting for audiences and contexts). Cameras complicate diurnal negotiations, making them seem more spectacular, more “seen.” How does an increased number of judgments shape the judgments or the performances? How does the knowledge that a film crew is coming round every seven years inform decisions or ideas about yourself?

John, one of the three seven-year-olds introduced at a private preparatory school in London, has pursued his family’s “big tradition of helping people” in Bulgaria. He sees Up as part of a broader cultural effect. “I suspect that why this program is compelling for viewers is because really it’s like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. It is actually real life TV with the added bonus that you can watch people grow old, lose their hair, get fat. Fascinating I’m sure, but does it have any value? That’s a different question.”

Maybe it’s not that different. The assessment of value is surely part of the fascination, and the evaluation process changes with every installment. As Symon, “the only child of a single parent” in the series (as well as the only child of color), puts it, his status as “illegitimate” is no longer “a serious matter.” (Though it may remain code for “minority” or a class designation.) While he speaks earnestly about his role as a son (his mother died of cancer when he was young), as well as father, foster father and husband (he met his second wife, Vienetta, in a launderette), he displays lingering uncertainty. The film includes a segment from 7 Up in which young Symon says, “I had one dream when all the world was on top of me and… I just about got out, and everything flew up in the air.”

The notion of such catastrophe remains imminent for Symon, who says now, “I still look up in the sky, because I don’t know any better.  Everything I have, I always think, is that okay, is that right that I have that?” A 14-year-old Symon cuts in, “People are undecided about you. They could be your friend one day, and not the next.” Today, the movie provides him a friend in the form of Paul, another of the Up subjects, now living in Australia. As they reminisce, they agree that they “just wanted to be liked.” Like so many moments in 49 Up, this one is both poignant and self-conscious, performative and genuine.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/forty-nine-up/