Surely one of the most ambitious, provocative and strangely poignant projects in all of documentary filmmaking is the "7 Up" series, begun in 1964 by Britain's Grenada TV and continued every seven years since then. The new installment, "35 Up," opens today at the Charles, and it is by far the most compelling.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the "Up" series is an examination of class, heredity and destiny, played out in real time. It began in 1964, when the British commercial network Grenada did a soporific profile on 14 "typical" British TC schoolchildren, then all 7 years old. The kids were drawn from all classes, meant to provide a "cross-section" of the future of society, as the narrator grandly put it.
Somewhere along the line, somebody got the bright idea of revisiting the children every seven years to gauge their progress: "35 Up" is the fifth such enterprise, using footage from the four previous visits.
Seven years ago, "28 Up" was almost three hours long, and its length grew cumbersome. The director Michael Apted seems to have understood this and the current edition is much tighter and more precisely organized; he introduces us to each child, then flashes forward in seven-year leaps, from then to now, topically. On a subject -- say, "the opposite sex" -- he'll juxtapose the comments of 7, 14, 21, 28 and 35, so we can watch the attitudes change as responsibility and fortune (or the lack of fortune) bear down upon the subject. This crispness keeps the piece hurtling ahead, and the two hours of the film fairly fly by.
Of course the primary fascination is biological: It's watching faces permutewith age as they expand or in some cases contract, acquire wisdom or in some cases smugness. But not all the news is bad: In some cases, older is definitely better. The results are all over the map: Some frogs turn into princes, some princes turn into frogs, and some princes stay princes and some frogs stay frogs.
What is perhaps more impressive, however, is the film's discovery not of cynicism and bitterness but of optimism and goodness: It seems that each subject is trying desperately to live a "moral life." No one has turned out a rotter, even if in earlier editions the public-school kids were cast as class criminals (several of them refused to participate in the "28 Up" edition for that reason).
Class does count a lot, of course. The kids with the public-school head start have turned out very well, but most of them have tried to live useful lives, centered around duty and family. Susie, who at 21 professed to be "cynical" about marriage, has ended up a radiant and doting mother of 3 at 35. John, initially the snippiest of the snobs, has used his wealth and successful career at law to become involved in an aid to Bulgaria program, so much so that it has become the true cause of his life and his sustenance.
Yet none of the working-class kids has sunk into bitterness, and the truth is, each of them has turned out decently, too. None feels particularly oppressed by not having been sent to a post fee-paying educational institution; each has come to terms and is trying to get by as well as possible.
The saddest is poor Neil: He was an irrepressibly bright child who somehow never stepped fully into adult life. He remains a troubling man-child, living on the dole, wandering about the wet landscape gibbering to himself. It is strange that he is so self-aware and discusses his life with such eloquence and frankness, and yet so helpless. It is also somewhat impressive that in the past seven years he's managed to find some sort of stability. Still, his prospects do not look good.