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Movie Blog: ‘56 Up’: When Art Goes Anthropology

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(credit: CBS) Jonathon Sharp
Jonathon Sharp is a web producer and blogger at WCCO.COM. He started...
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56 Up is the latest entry in a long-running cinematic experiment that follows a group of British people, all from different backgrounds and socio-economic levels, as they make their way through life and its various joys, troubles and heartbreaks.

Using loads footage from the previous Up documentaries, of which there are seven, filmmaker Michael Apted presents each person in the group, more or less, individually. In doing so, he makes a prismatic but segmented documentary composed of short, complicated profiles.

These profiles are somewhat dizzying in that they don’t present people’s lives in chronological order. Instead, the lives are edited into a time-jumping string of quotes and images. Watching one is like falling into a singularity –  a whirlpool composed of bits of a person’s life.

After watching 14 of them, the viewer needs a break. An interlude would have gone a long way.

For those unfamiliar with the Up project, here’s some background: The Up series started in 1964 with 7 Up, a movie that captured a group of 7-year-olds reflecting on life in England. Then every seven years after that initial movie, Apted found the kids and filmed them for a few days, asking about their aspirations, politics, relationships and even the Up series itself.

In 56 Up, we find the kids looking toward the dusk of middle age. Many, to my surprise, seem content with their lives. Most enjoy their work, families and economic situations. Some are able to laugh off unfulfilled dreams, and others can offer insights into enduring tough times.

Naturally, the most fascinating people in the experiment are the outliers.

There’s Neil, for instance, who is undoubtedly the most troubled. After dropping out of college in his 20s, he was never able to hold a job, and thus drifted about the UK, often homeless. In interviews, his intelligence cuts through the murk of his anxiousness and apparent depression, making him someone we care for as he trudges along, bent on changing the world through politics and literary efforts.

There’s also Symon, the only non-white subject. His father abandoned his mother when he was very young, and Symon grew into an aimless youth. At 56, however, we find him with his second wife, and quite happy. He works in a warehouse moving freight, but his family life is robust and loving. The viewer cheers for him.

The movie’s social/political bedrock — laid down in 7 Up — is obvious. Those who went to better schools as kids generally enjoy more interesting work and higher paying jobs. Few in the Up series really broke the mold, few lead exceptional lives.

But the project — a true behemoth of film making –  isn’t wonderful because the people depicted lead novel or outrageous lives. If anything, it’s something of the opposite: the people in 56 Up could be anyone in the English-speaking world. One watches, listens and wonders how his or her own life would look edited together in such a way, how you would answer Apted, film after film, as he asks about your work, your love life, your politics, your dreams.

In this way, the movie is, for my father’s generation, something of a mirror. You look in and wonder.

“56 Up” is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

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