I approached 63 Up with two metanarratives about the series wrestling to frame my experience.
The first narrative — and seemingly the more common one based on early reviews — is that the very longevity of the project imbues it with a greater sense of meaning. The World Series may not be as big a deal culturally as the Super Bowl, but the longer path to get to it tends to amplify the significance of steps upon that path. One could recognize that Cal Ripken, Jr. was not the greatest baseball player of all time and still understand, as his consecutive game streak came to an end, that his accomplishment would not be replicated in our lifetime. Or, if you prefer a movie analogy, 63 Up is the documentary counter-part to Avengers: Infinity War. Its emotional weight is more a product of its place within its franchise’s timeline than it is the result of anything intrinsic to this particular episode.
But there is a second, less celebratory but still real, metanarrative about 63 Up. This one suggests that the series lost much of its urgency after it reached middle age. Its initial premise was that looking at the seven year-old gave us a glimpse of the working “adult” and, perhaps, an idea of what Great Britain would look like “in the year 2000.” In the second installment, Seven Plus 7, the narrator intones that the series is “half-way” towards realizing its goal of comparing the child to the “man.” (No gender-inclusive language required in 1964.) The series could not have envisaged Facebook or the Internet in its early-70s hey-day, much less reality television. Why wait seven years to check in on that person you knew in High School? Why travel hundreds of miles for a reunion when an update on people from your past are just a click away? Additionally, absent some dramatic life-altering event, most people don’t change as much between the ages of fifty-six and sixty-three as they do between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one.
After watching 63 Up, I am still struggling to decide which narrative frame is closer to the truth. On the one hand, Tony’s wife says ten minutes into a 135 minute film (more on that word choice in a second) that he is who he has always been and always will be. On the other hand, Nick reports he has cancer in his throat and its undeniable that this news skews differently than it would coming from someone we were meeting for the first time.
I saw 63 Up as a long film but its press kit positions it as three television episodes. This would explain why, unlike some of the earlier documentaries, it doesn’t jump from interviewee to interviewee as frequently. Another change that has happened since the advent of the Up Series: the lines between serial television and film have been blurred. In critics groups in which I voted, I argued against including The People vs. O.J. Simpson as a documentary “film” even if it had a handful of theatrical screenings to become awards eligible. It isn’t just where you watch it that differentiates film from television. The changes in venue create different rhythms and structures. What is structurally repetitive in a film — now Michael asks participants to reflect on class issues, now he asks them about fears of aging — can be perfectly fine in a series of shorter episodes.
So, yes, I have reservations, but they are “film critic” reservations. Will most people care whether it’s a film or a mini-series? Not really. Will anyone who cares enough about these people to watch this care whether they say anything new or profound? I doubt it.
One of my mild surprises is hardly limited to this particular iteration. Given that the participants are nearer the end than the beginning, there seemed to me to be little religious reflection or expression. Perhaps this reticence has to do with British culture in comparison to American — where we are a bit more public about religion. Perhaps it is generational in that the 20th century certainly seemed to see a waning in religious belief. Or perhaps we have inherited the “carpe diem” mindset of the Romantics more than we know. Bruce, who wanted to be a missionary when he was seven, speaks of family and jobs when assessing his life’s meaning. That’s typical, and perhaps to a certain mindset, as it should be.
The film–and perhaps the series–ends with Neil speaking of the heartbreak of unrealized potential. It is hard to tell if ending with Neil is a thematic choice on Apted’s part or just a way a prolonging suspense since his precarious state in previous iterations has been the closest thing that the Up series has had to a cliffhanger hook. A film that started with Neil and ended with, say, Tony (who more or less endorses the film’s thesis) might be more emotionally self-congratulatory, but I don’t think it would be all that different in meaning. In the end, it was not whether or not the thesis was validated that made the series so beloved; it was the audacity of the project itself.