Film Review of 56
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/15/13
Watching Michael Apted’s latest installment in the great The Up Series- whose films he’s all directed, save the first, helmed by Paul Almond, 56 Up!, sees a film that, at 144 minutes, is the longest yet in the documentary series, and is an exercise in expectation and disappointment. One expects the familiar, because the bunch of British people profiled for nearly half a century are everymen, despite their protests and pronouncements to the contrary, and disappointment for their supposed promise gone south is inevitable. They are average- at times, teeth-gnashingly and painfully average; to the point of not even really understanding how average they are. They protest, often, that the film distorts them, but, when allowed to opine on their depth, they offer none, and one doubts that Apted is deliberately making a mockery of them.
For the purposes of honesty and openness, after my review of the last installment, 49 Up!, I inaugurated a series of written interviews, called The Dan Schneider Interviews, and, along with thinkers and artists, I wanted to get one of more of the subjects of this series of films to agree to an interview, as well as asking Apted for an interview. I received no takers, two polite declinations, and only one of the subjects engaged in a minimal correspondence with me. More on that in a bit.
The film opens with a rehash of how the series started, its aims, and so forth. Then it zeroes in on the subjects. The first thing noticeable about the film is that, this time out, Apted’s presence, in questioning the subjects, is much more pronounced. Apted, perhaps in refutation of some of the criticisms of himself and the series, between the last film and this, and contained within this film, seems more willing to push, prod, and annoy his subjects, and not simply take their flak. In short, his presence as the author of this work is more obvious, but that’s not as a bad thing, as, in an earlier review about this series, I wrote:
The next up on the show is one of the three working class gals from the East End, Jackie Bassett. She too spends much of her few minutes of current footage bitching- but about Apted’s cutting of prior films, claiming he’s underestimated her when, if anything, he seems to have gone out of the way not to depict her manifest failures. Yet, what she fails to realize, and so do most critics, is that this series is not just a chronicle of the fourteen original children, but the ever unseen fourteenth life- that of Apted, whose very editorial decisions are as important, sociologically, as anything that occurs in his subject’s lives, for they reflect the import of events to a chronicler of the age. Doubtless, Apted will be skewered and lauded by future historians with political axes to grind far greater than Jackie’s shallow and self-serving one.
Subject One is the first of a trio of ‘poor girls’ from the first film- Sue Sullivan- who actually enjoys being in the films, and, despite no college education, has worked herself into a position of authority at an English college. We see her with her children, and like all the people within, their children, or lack of them, seems to be a source of great pride or despair. Her series of famed scenes throughout all the films is rehashed, and, of all the subjects, she seems easily the most contented, despite some ups and downs. Of all the people in the film, she is most quintessentially the everyman, or everywoman, or, indeed, everyperson. She is likeable and nice and….mostly forgettable because of it, as nasty as that sounds. She is the member of the reunion you are comforted most by being in their presence, but you somehow forget to tell the ‘real’ people in your ‘real’ life about, upon your return to said life, because there’s not much about her life you recall.
In a sense, the second subject, Paul Kligerman, the immigrant Aussie, is sort of the male equivalent to Sue, in that he is likely the most thoroughly likeable of all the subjects. Handsome and buff in his prime, he is now balding and working for his wife, in a business centered on senior citizens. But, like Sue, his life has turned out well, and his grandkids are now his life. The camera follows him and his wife to England, to visit their daughter. No great wisdom ensues from his segment, but, like Sue, he is a comfort to see, and the famed scenes of him not wanting to eat his greens as a 7 year old, and then traveling across Australia with his wife, in their 20s, remind us of things that, in a sense, should only be fondly recalled by an individual. That we not only recall these things about him, but do so with great fondness and anticipation to see them again is an odd sensation, and one virtually unique in all human history. One wonders what insights into life and the cosmos might be gleaned from seeing a young Alexander the Great protesting his childhood manna, or from shots of a newlywed Napoleon Bonaparte, weighing his obsessions with Josephine and European hegemony, as a young man.
The third subject is Neil Hughes- the ‘black sheep’ of the series- a young boy of seemingly enthusiastic zeal and intellect, who descended into morose madness by 28, only to recover into lonely life, as a small time politician and religious revivalist and lay minister. He was the only subject to engage me in correspondence when I requested an interview, and the exchanges were brief, and sadly paranoid, to a degree. Nothing rancorous, but this segment reminded me of the disturbed way this person’s mind works, for, Neil is quite bitter, in a passive-aggressive sort of way. He claims to be a writer- albeit of fiction or essays or poetry or drama we are not told nor shown, and claims to never have even gotten a rejection slip. Of course, he uses a 50 year old typewriter, and, if my correspondence is any indication of his cognitive and creative abilities, the world is not missing out on any great literature sprung from his mind.
Neil is one of those people that most would, upon seeing him, avoid, for he just looks and moves like someone not all there. As a low level politician he takes great pride in getting state of the art public toilets installed in his district, and as ripe as that is for humor, one sees that this is what matters to him, as he has no lovelife, no money, and no real future. He opines that he will be content to die at 70 or 75, which, of course, raises the specter hovering over this series- which of the regulars will be the first to die, and when, and how? That all dozen plus have made it thus far is statistically pushing the envelope, for usually disease or violence or just bad luck and accident will have done in one member of such a group by now.
I previously wrote of him (re: 28 Up):
The longest segment in this film and series is the over twenty minutes devoted to Neil’s mental breakdown- captured on camera. At 28 he is homeless and wandering Scotch lochs, living in a shitty trailer. His answers are self-pitying, wacky, and he bobs up and down as he speaks, as if trying to avoid demons, although he has stopped blaming others for his failures. He lives off of the British version of welfare, and is on the brink of insanity. His is the only life that violates the series’ maxim [‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.’].
Aside from his writing malaise, Neil feels a great, almost blanket, resentment toward viewers who claim they know what he went through with his mental ills and loneliness. He takes umbrage, yet says nothing of any profundity to disprove the claims of kinship. Again, it’s unlikely Apted would have edited out these comments, and more likely that Neil simply feels things he is unable to grasp, much less elucidate. His insular life has made him solipsistic, and, after decades in the arts, I can state that the Neils of the world are aplenty, and ALL of them have these feelings, and all of them are easily understood, despite us not needing to know the particulars of a failed romance, an aborted stab at depth, or a disappointment rationalized into small victory.
Subject Four sees the return of Peter Davies- a musician and former teacher who dropped out for the last three films, thus, remarkably, has spent half his life away from the series, last appearing in 28 Up! His claimed reason for departure is that he was widely criticized in the media, after his last appearance, for his liberal political beliefs attacking the then current Right Wing Thatcher government. His claimed reason for return is equally slight- he wants to promote his mediocre British country music band- The Good Intentions; which includes his second wife, Gabby. In the 28 years since his last appearance, he has switched careers from teaching to law to civil service in the department of work and pension. There’s a moment in his segment that reminds me of a scene from Woody Allen’s great 1989 film, Crimes And Misdemeanors, wherein the Woody character- a filmmaker, clings to an Honorable Mention award he won at a Cincinnati based film festival, only to be reminded that EVERYONE won an Honorable Mention. Similarly, Peter clings to an award he won from an obscure musical board regarding his band’s equally obscure musical genre. Other than that, and a mediocre singing career, he seems utterly reticent to voice any opinions of note. Once bitten, twice shy, or just nothing to say? Either way, his segment is easily the shortest in the film, but, perhaps, on the next go round he’ll opine more deeply?
The fifth subject of Apted’s film is another of the ‘poor girls,’ Jackie Bassett, and, of all the subjects, she seems to have been doomed to the worst fate (even more so than Neil)- lack of love, poverty, bad health, and the premature deaths of the people she loves: her ex-mother in law is dying of cancer, as is that woman’s son, her ex, and father of her oldest son. The father of her two youngest sons is already dead, in a car accident, and now the government is cutting her disability benefits because, even with arthritis that curls her hands, she has been deemed ‘able to work.’ The only shimmers of light in this dank and doomed existence are the earlier clips from Jackie’s life, wherein she was an outgoing, if overweight and none too bright, girl. Still, although nothing in her life seems right, what the next seven years brings will be interesting.
Subjects Six and Seven are interviewed together, and they are rich girl Suzy Dewey and physicist Nick Hitchon. They are not a couple, but, over the years, became email buddies, and when Nick brings his family, and second wife, to visit his rural home, they paired him up with Suzy. Of all the subjects, Suzy seems to have been destined to succeed the most, and she has, despite being the epitome of the bourgeoisie, having never held a full time job. Earlier clips of her incessantly bitching about the series seem to belie the fact that she has appeared in every episode, and, yet, despite all her good fortune, seems to have left no imprint on life, outside of a small group of people (and, due to no fault of her own, whatever future viewers will be moved by her tale). Of her, and the others’ tendency to whine, I previously wrote:
Suzanne Dewey, complains that the series is an intrusion into her life, and seems to suggest she won’t appear in any more films. She’s not the only one who complains, but it’s always struck me as an indication of the immense selfishness and density of some of the participants to say things like that. No, they had no choice but to appear in the first film, but they also have an opportunity that few people have in life- a slice of immortality. In several centuries, all but a dozen or so of the biggest name film stars of the past century will be known to people then. But, these films will stand in paramount importance in truly understanding what life was like in Western civilization at the turn of the millennium. The names of all these participants will be far more well known to the intelligentsia than the hot one minute, cold the next movie star of the moment. And the only thing they have to endure are a few questions about their lives and opinions? How many of us would jump at such a golden opportunity? Plus, they all get paid for their appearances by Apted, out of his own fees for making the films, and whatever cash awards he wins along the way.
Nonetheless, she reveals some minor difficulties she had as a child which actually reveal how little trouble she had in her life, as the worst she ever experienced pales in comparison to the woes of a Neil or Jackie.
By contrast, Nick (whom Apted has stated is the subject he most closely relates to, and is also an American emigrant, and also a journeyman in the arts and sciences, like Apted- save for this series of films) has led an interesting life, and if Suzy is the dullest of the bunch, Nick is the only of the original 14 subjects to even come anywhere near having had a life of any real, deep, or profound meaning. Yet, some disappointments in the field of physics have led him to get a sinecure as a professor, rather than staying in research and development. He tears up at the grave of a relative that died even before the first film introduced him into the world. After always being one of the more amenable subjects, this time out, Nick tends to agree with Suzy that the film has been an intrusion, and his ten minutes of seven year fame reduces him from an individual to an archetype, complaining that what we see is a mere picture, not a person. But, he acknowledges the medium’s limits. Yet, the fact that this most accomplished and interesting of the subjects still can only proffer the most banal insights into his, much less, anyone’s existence, shows just how important this series is for future generations who will, doubtlessly, pine for a golden era at the turn of the millennium that never existed.
The eighth person profiled in this series is Symon Basterfield, who missed only 35 Up!- the lone black Briton, and one who started off his life in a boy’s home with Paul, the emigrant Aussie. Like some of the other subjects, Symon’s life seems to be in a good, solid place, now. His second marriage seems strong, and he and his wife are foster parents, while Symon regrets not pushing himself while younger, for he ended up a forklift driver when he and his wife feel he could have been an….accountant. In this little reveal, much of the whole series’ charm is revealed. These people are so ordinary that they have NO idea how utterly interchangeable they are. That Symon actually thinks being an accountant would be some step up from forklifting (in any way aside from money) is one of the more ‘essential’ moments in the whole series.
Bruce Balden is subject number nine, and his life and career as a teacher is explored, as is his late entry into marriage and fatherhood. Due to increasing obesity, I sense he may be the first subject, or one of the first subjects, to die, and if not by 63, then by 70. Nonetheless, a family trip to his college, as well as a glimpse inside his latest teaching job at a Quaker school, shows just how full circle a life can be. Bruce started out as a rich kid, who traveled abroad early, only to become a neo-liberal in his 20s and 30s, only to settle into increased indifference toward the world, in all ways and means.
The tenth subject is the last of the three ‘poor girls’: Lynn Johnson. A career librarian, she’s had a marriage approaching four decades in length, found herself made ‘redundant’ due to cuts in the library system, yet boasts of being a governor at a local Anglican diocese. Despite being outspoken all her life, in this edition of the series, her life seems stable, yet, something about her- call it my own premonition, makes me feel that, like Bruce, she may be amongst the first of the subjects to leave the series due to death.
The eleventh and twelfth subjects are two of the three ‘rich boys’ of the original 14 subjects, and they are Andrew Brackfield and John Brisby. The third of the ‘Three Wise Men,’ as Apted dubbed them, Charles Furneaux, has not participated since 21 Up!, and has had bitter relations with Apted ever since (even attempting to get his prior images in the first three films removed), even though he has become involved in documentary films himself. He is not even mentioned by name in this episode, and we only see him in some flashback scenes with the other boys. Andrew is a lawyer and a social liberal who recognizes that the series’ original premise that classism holds sway in the U.K is correct, whereas John, also a lawyer, and the series’ closest equivalent to a villain, especially in the earlier films, declares it is nonsense. John long ago decided to use the series, when he appears (he’s missed two episodes), simply to promote his Balkans charity work. Although he was among the more privileged children, like Suzy (who aired her parents’ divorce during the second film, in this episode), John trots out that his mother had to work to support his pursuit of education, blissfully unaware (like Suzy) that his ‘hardship’ is mere everyday life for most people. In another embodiment of how blissfully out of touch with almost all the rigors of life the other subjects experience, or, at least, are aware of, he expresses a sense of personal failure that he is a mere successful lawyer, whereas two of his oldest chums from youth have now become (roll of drums) government ministers. On one level, this humanizes John, but does so by demonstrating his pettiness and materialism, as well as how little he has evolved from that snotty little rich kid of the first three films.
The final participant of the film is little Tony Walker, the erst-jockey-cum-cabby whose past infidelities were central to prior episodes, and we see him in Spain, in his home away from home, and also in London’s Olympic stadium, where his former dog track was. He and his wife are raising their grandchild due to their own daughter’s mental health problems, as well as some remanent resentment and bigotry that Apted addresses.
Overall, this edition is one of the more sedate editions, and now, having had eight total films, it’s fair to state that the most insightful ones have been those set at 7, 21, 28, and 42. 7 introduced us to the individual subjects and series, while 14 showed them merely to all be suffering from versions of their own teenage crises. 21 showed them as idealists with dreams, and 28 saw most of them chastened, with the first glints of maturity shining through, even as, in a sense, it was an almost continuation of 21. 35 saw them post-youth and pre-mortal awareness. By 42, most of them had experienced losses in their lives, due to death or divorce. 49 and 56, like 21 and 28, are almost bookend editions, which show the subjects at similar points in their lives. 63 promises to be the next major edition, as, unfortunately, I have a feeling the first death shall occur. Of course, after 49 Up! I wrote this:
By 56 Up, it would not shock me if the first death occurs within the fourteen- I just get a sense of it- perhaps Lynn or Jackie, or perhaps some tragedy, so that sense makes each episode with all of them all the more meaningful.
So, hopefully I am wrong again, and alive, myself, to be proved amiss.
With eight films in the series, it is easy and obvious to declare The Up Series as the greatest film series of all time- fictive or documentary, but it’s worth noting that while all the films have their own ‘ins’ to greatness, and the collective bunch certainly does, the films are easy to divide into two groups in terms of importance and mere presence. The first film is important, as it introduces the children, format, and conceit, and, at 7, the children are all unique persons in their second five years of life- that period where tots differentiate from each other, and a tot that may have seemed bland or quiet or rambunctious, becomes a real person, an individual. The second film, at 14, is a mere presence film, for all the kids seem awkward, shy about this, that, and especially sexuality. Their general reluctance shows how easily teenagers box themselves, and while this is a socially and sociologically important thing to note, it is not, in and of itself, compelling viewing.
The next two films, at 21 and 28, are important, even though they are, in a sense, and extension of each other. The subjects have again individuated, tested their waters into the working world, and by 28, even, are about to test themselves. They are opinionated, and frustrated by life and those who have come before. They have striven and failed, personally and professionally, but still look ahead. The film of them at 35, by contrast, is a placeholder. Now, most of them have married, reproduced, and settled into averageness. As in the teen edition, their commonalities, or, to be honest, their utter commonness, is their overriding quality. 42 is another important film, because now the subjects are middle aged. They know they will not leave a great impress on life. Nick Hitchon even remarks that his goal to be more famed for his science work than the films is not going to happen. Mortality hovers over the film, as many have lost parents, lovers, and others to death and divorce. They now know that more of their life, statistically, is behind them than ahead of them. 49 and 56 are, like 21 and 28, almost corresponding halves of a larger single film, although this ‘older’ film sees the subjects resigned to whatever life tosses at them. For the most part, they are no longer the stars of their lives, but resigned to supporting roles in others’ lives. These are, almost, the ultimate placeholder films, for the subjects wait for their children’s lives to get on, so they can enter the last portions of their lives, and focus on themselves again. Hence, this return to self will likely be the dominant theme of 63 Up!, and not a return to dust.
56 Up! won a 2013 Peabody Award, and deservedly so, but, much like the truly great works of film and television art out there (think The Prisoner), its import and excellence transcends the simian need to backpat. It probes into something beyond self, even as it starts from self, although few see anything but self. The films are like a mirror for we see less about the individuals onscreen, and more of the people whom we never see- the ‘some person’ that Nick Hitchon describes when he sees himself in 56 Up!, that whirr of child to teen to swain to man to father to fortysomething to oldster. The films are a portrait of society in micro, but also of individuals in macro, so that the individual traits are often blanched or blown up beyond recognition; at least in the short term. But, that’s the point, for these films are meant, ultimately, as a record for the long term, for people and beings yet born, so, consider yourself lucky to have seen them at such an early state of their import, and wonder just how you would fare, were you to trickle your life and losses to eternity.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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