By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 24, 2013 at 7:04PM
Last week, I wrote a piece on Michael Apted's Up documentary series and how its evolution over time has distinguished it from similar extended film projects. Thursday afternoon, I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel discussion on the series with HuffPostLive, the online streaming web channel offshoot of the Huffington Post. Also part of the chat was Apted, Huffington Post UK Entertainment Editor Caroline Frost and two participants in the American version of the series, Eric Nicolaides and Lucy Blumenfeld. The video is embedded below:
For those unfamiliar (and the segment above does a fine job of orienting those who haven't yet been introduced), the series follows a group of children originally chosen for a one-off British TV segment documenting the determinative nature of the British class system. Over the past half-century, Apted and his crew have visited with these participants every seven years, observing the many changes in their personal and professional lives.
HuffPostLive panel moderator Mike Sacks asked Apted about the level of connection the British public has to this select group of individuals. It made me think that the best analogy for the overall series is a televised family reunion of sorts. Not just for the participants, but for the audience as well. Think of the extended family relatives that you hardly get to interact with, maybe only at pre-determined, pre-planned gatherings. You might remember Cousin Theo for that one joke that he made at local diner and until the next time you see him, he becomes The Bacon-Avocado Omelette Joke Cousin. Take a funny, mid-air jump photo with your dad's uncle's fiancé and that becomes the enduring memory, even in visual form. "Friends" brought to previous family gatherings can morph into "spouses" with no sense of the incremental changes that usually mark such a transition.
By incorporating key details and checkpoints from each installment, Apted gives a running account, a snapshot in time of all of these participants at periods of upheaval and times of peace. In our chat, Eric echoed the sentiments shared by a few people in the original Up series. If nothing else, this has given everyone involved a chance to have a record of their younger selves for all the world to see.
The method of that audience reach presents a curious distinction between the way the series is received in its home country vs. abroad. The series has stayed a production of Granada TV, with each new film initially airing in British homes. But some American audiences will have the opportunity to see the film in theaters in advance of its future run on PBS. The idea of seeing these stories in a public arena adds a certain level of participation to the story. The act of buying a ticket and gathering together to experience these stories only adds to the personal investment that fans of the series have.
The true value of what this collaboration between subject and filmmaker has produced will come when another 50 years have passed, when there's a removal from the currently-evolving nature of the series. Once the cycle is complete and the first-person accounts of these people's lives by necessity have to end, there will be a fresh perspective on how much global change their lives encompassed. It won't be, "Wow! A lot's changed from the early '60s to now." It will be, "Wow! A lot changed between the early 1960s and the 2030s. And think how much we've done since it ended!" Their living history will give way to a historical sense of how these collective lives played out at their respective decade markers.
With each new installment of the series, new wrinkles (both literal and figurative) present different insights into how we approach the prospects of getting older. New generations of family members mark the changing attitudes towards family, politics, society, religion and the other general attachments that come with interpersonal relationships. The "Up" series is one that doesn't overreach and try to capture entire cities or neighborhoods or entire segments of a population over the span of a few reels, but instead selecting those tiny periods in time that do far more to depict the everyday lives of a lucky few.
"56 Up" is now in theaters, at the IFC Center in NYC and the Nuart Theater in LA, with various other cities to follow.
Through February 2013, Indiewire is taking a closer look at how the over-60 audience is served by the movies made for them as well as profiling the actors and filmmakers who are their peers. It's part of a partnership with Heineken, which is sponsoring the "Heineken 60+ Challenge" that reaches out to the creative community to film, photograph or write their observations on the lifestyles and preferences of the 60+ age group. The goal is to help Heineken create innovative products to suit this golden