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Most touching is the com-parison between the scruffy black-and-white interviews from 1964 and those of the present day. In some cases, the differences are stark. The almost supernally cheerful boy Neil has, over time, been hobbled by mental illness and indigence; and yet he hangs on, making useful work for himself in local council politics and church activities.
Like more than a few of the participants, he’s wary of Apted’s cinematic intrusions. Apted acts as the off-camera interviewer, and his dry, almost blasé, but always indulgent questioning sometimes provokes an aggravated response.
Perhaps the truest criticism of the series is offered up by Nick, who was educated in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales before attending Oxford and is now an engineering professor in Madison, Wis. Complaining of the tiny slivers of a life that make it into the movie every seven years, he wonders: “Is that all there is to us?” He rejects the idea that the film truly conveys the lives of its subjects, but, in a larger sense, he says, the participants represent Everyman.
I think he’s both right and wrong. Certainly a primary appeal of the “Up” series is the way it allows us to see ourselves, whatever our station, in these people. For those of us who have been with the series from early on, a kind of parallel existence has grown up between us and them.
But what gives the series its force is not just its universality but also its particularity. These grown-ups may be Everyman, but they are also singular. If the “Up” movies are reality TV, they are its most transcendent expression. Apted doesn’t try to force his interviewees into unnatural situations. He allows their lives to play out however they do. “56 Up” may lack the life-changing dynamic that characterized some of the earlier editions, but that’s appropriate to the life cycle. The quotidian existence is presented without apology. Grade: A- (Unrated.)