Monday, November 12, 2007

As Time Goes By...

...or, Up and Down in Paris and London.

The wife and I recently watched the entire Up Series. It's a sort of proto-Truman Show on tea and crumpets. The set-up is simple enough: in 1964, British television, intending only a one-off documentary, put a bunch of little buggers in front of their cameras to get a glimpse of the future leaders of the Empire. The result was an amusing, but slender and facile, product that could've been titled Blimey, But Children Do Say The Most Remarkable Things.

They checked in on them again seven years later and found that The Kids Were Alright, despite the horrendous fashion sense, oversized ears and appalling dental habits characteristic of British youth throughout the ages. (Hey, glass houses, over here!) Again, this episode, conceived and presented as a clever sequel to the original, was unassuming and ultimately underwhelming.

Then, a funny thing happened. The director, Michael Apted -- perhaps pre-emptively atoning for inflicting upon the world the Sting rockjazzumentary Bring on the Night -- stuck with the concept, hauling the little lords, ladies, lads and lassies back in front of the cameras every seven years, right up to the present. And in the process, something like greatness was stumbled upon.

Part of the accidental genius of this project is that, although conceived long prior to the home video market, it was absolutely made to be presented on DVD. Whereas the original audience had to wait seven years between updates, you can now pop the discs in and watch the whole 49 years unfold in about a week.

Unfortunately, the producers of the series still haven't gotten to the point where they've really made use of the possibilities of the medium. The DVDs are barebones, with skimpy bonus features and no subtitles for the most part.

The lengthy intervals between the films also means that there's a lot of repeated background stuff designed to re-orient viewers who may have forgotten which one of the obnoxious public school upper class twits wanted to be a barrister and which wanted to be a solicitor.

Unlike, say The Real World and similar "reality" television shows, there are no contrived plots and no stacking of the deck intended to cause fur to fly. (In fact, there's almost no on-camera interaction among the participants after age 7 at all -- the people involved have parallel, but self-contained, lives.) This lets us see the forces at work upon them. The producers of this series, being British, are first and foremost concerned (obsessed?) with class. The series starts from the (mostly unspoken) premise that, in England, Class Matters. The premise is probed only gently until the kids hit 42, when the question of class and its effect on them is explicitly asked of each of them, and they respond thoughtfully and convincingly. Their verdict: Yes, But. My brash Yank take on it is, Does class matter to what? Success? Wealth? Career Opportunities (the ones that never knock)? The likelihood of turning into a complete wanker? The answer is yes. Does it matter to happiness? Not as much as personal satisfaction in those areas and, more importantly, in family relationships. Yes, class is a factor, and a big one, but it's not completely determinative.

Apted's methods, like the series itself, are disarmingly simple, almost artless, but in retrospect wise and effective. He never appears on screen, which gives him a god-like evaluative distance as he prompts his subjects. His major rhetorical device is to just ask, "Why?," thereby nudging his subjects to ever more candid dissections of their lives.

(It's ironic that Apted has also directed two James Bond movies, given that that series has presented an intentionally idealized and fantastic portrait of quintessential Englishness over exactly the same period of time, and at comparable intervals.)

Surely most people who watch the series will be drawn to the tale of Neil, who starts off so full of promise and cheer, only to fall steadily but shockingly through cynicism, despair, untreated mental illness and virtual homelessness in quick order. The other really memorable character -- in every sense of the word -- is Tony, who charts a course from scruffy East End dreamer to small time hustler to honest working class striver to devoted family man enjoying his holidays in the sun. Tony would be the one guy in this show who would be the most fun to have a pint with. Or two.

We also watched Before Sunrise and then, a few days later, Before Sunset. The first is the well-regarded Richard Linklater film wherein Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wander around Vienna deciding whether they should fall in love before he has to catch a train in the morning. The second is the sequel, both set and filmed nine years later, wherein they meet again in Paris.

I liked both of these movies a lot, but I found the second one to be richer and more rewarding.

In the first one, they are young, free, hopeful and open. Jesse is on the rebound and Celine is eager to flirt and be flirted with, as a sort of trial for stepping out of Eastern Europe and seeing something of the world.

But in the second one, they have families and careers and apartment leases and cell phones and all the other trappings of young adulthood.

It is one thing to backpack through Europe chatting up French girls when you are 23. It is quite another to make momentous decisions about life and love when you are 32 and everyone has complicated bonds connecting them to other people, who do not share in the decision-making process. People will get hurt by the consequences of the actions of these characters.

The wife says the second film functions as an anti-Casablanca, not only because of the "we'll always have Paris" aspect, but because it all comes down to a decision whether to get on a plane or not.

I agree with Roger Ebert that the people who made these films should consider making a third film in a few years ("After Sunset"?), and then continue with new installments every nine years. The wife says, no, the story is over -- what is there left to say?

If you have young daughters, or even if you don't, you will be familiar with the many princess stories in which the heroine wins the love of the handsome prince, and the story ends with the line, "And they lived happily ever after." As if it's that simple! As anyone who has ever been married can tell you, the hard work is just beginning.

Before Sunset ends with one of the great closing lines in recent film history, and it sure looks like Jesse is settled in comfortably on the couch in Celine's apartment. But the story certainly doesn't end where the movie does. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, after Celine's done slinking around to Nina Simone songs (or, OK, the next morning), Jesse hightails it to the airport and flies off to see his kid. It's complicated.


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D.B. Echo said...

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