Friday, April 3, 2009

98. The Up Documentaries

98. The Up Documentaries
(directed by Michael Apted, 1964-2006)
UK, documentary, 39, 52, 100, 136, 123, 139 and 180 minutes
Starring Tony Walker, Neil Hughes, Bruce Balden, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Jacqueline Bassett, Lynn Johnson, Susan Sullivan, Symon Basterfield, Paul Kligerman, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Charles Furneaux and Peter Davies as themselves and Michael Apted as The Interviewer.

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

In each instalment of the Up documentaries, this Jesuit proverb is quoted and with each ensuing episode, it is both confirmed and refuted. Every seven years, starting in 1964 with a group of fourteen seven-year-olds from across Britain, Michael Apted has returned to interview the same people to see how their lives and hopes have changed. In the most recent instalment, 2005’s 49 Up, the interviewees are now 49 years old.

More so than in North America, class segregation is a consuming issue in Great Britain. The original intention of the program (Seven Up!, 1964) was to examine the different life-paths offered to upper class children versus those of the lower class. This is especially apparent in a sequence in which the children are asked about their educational plans for their future. Three upper class children (Andrew, John and Charles) list off the secondary schools as well as which houses at which university (Cambridge or Oxford) they will be attending, while two lower class children (Symon and Paul) respond with “What’s a university?” The first instalment is a relatively straightforward interview session with these children, and we can see each child has their distinct personalities, including the Artful Dodger-like Tony (who wants to be a jockey), the strangely delicate Bruce (who wants to teach in Africa), the brainy and talkative Neil (who wants to be a rocket scientist or bus driver) and the shy farmer Nicholas (“Do you have a girlfriend?” “I don’t answer questions like that.”). Although originally intended to look at differences in class, in the commentary track on the 42 Up DVD, Michael Apted regrets that he did not have a more ethnically diverse cast, and also states that the series comments on the blooming of the middle-classes in England following World War II.

It is in the second (7 plus Seven, 1970) and third (21, 1977) instalments that things get really interesting, and the profound changes some of these children go through are both fascinating and unsettling. For an example, the shy Nicholas retreats into one of the most awkward 14-year-olds ever caught on film, only to be an out-going, brilliant nuclear physicist at 21-years-old. In the reverse, the talkative Neil is equally as outgoing at 14, although he displays some peculiar quirks, but at 21 is squatting in a flat in London, having been kicked out of University because the pressure to succeed was too great.

The story of Neil is one of the great biographies, as, by 28, he has clear mental disturbances, and lives in a shack in the highlands of Scotland (“Do you think I’m mad? I know I’m mad.”)—the series itself allowing his 7-year-old self to confront him with his own optimism and happiness.

With each passing series, the group seems to be, in many ways, in lockstep with one another. 28 Up (1985) concerns itself with settling into careers and marriages, 35 Up (1991) with children, infidelity and mortgages, 42 Up (1998) with happiness, friendship and contentedness. 49 Up not only deals with grandchildren and an acceptance of mortality, but also with the effects of taking part in the series itself. Many of the people are exceedingly bitter – Suzanne, Lynn and John especially. Charles dropped out after 21 and Peter dropped out after 28. In the UK, these people are very well known, due to the popularity of the show, and, for better or for worse, come to dread Mr. Apted’s knock on their door every seven years. In the later series, the wives, husbands and children of the original group also become characters in the branching network of these seven-year-olds' lives.

My only caveat is that, if you watche all the films in quick succession, as you will be tempted to do, there is quite a lot of overlapping footage. The first three films are relatively short, but get progressively longer as the series unwinds. There have been a number of attempts to replicate the "Seven-Up" project in other countries, but perhaps the most intriguing endeavour along these lines, is Richard Linklater's ongoing film shoot for Boyhood, in which portions of the film were shot over a 12-year period--should be fascinating!

In his entry in his ongoing Great Films project, Ebert has this to say regarding the Up documentaries: “They…strike me as an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium. No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words. To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.”

How many people will each of us touch in our lives? How different are we from our childhood selves? Why am I me? Why am I here? How many films even bother to ask these questions, let alone attempt to answer them?

The series is still ongoing…

Up Next in the film canon: Four children try to survive on their own

Thursday, April 2, 2009

99. All About My Mother

99. All About My Mother
(directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
Spain, 101 minutes
Starring Cecilia Roth as Manuela, Eloy Azorín as Esteban, Antonia San Juan as Agrado, Penélope Cruz as Sister Rosa, Marisa Paredes as Huma Rojo and Toni Cantó as Lola.

Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar is the recognized leader New Spanish Cinema and the head of La Movida (The Movement), the post-Franco Spanish pop culture scene. All About My Mother was the first film in what many critics considered the mature Almodóvar era and won more international acclaim than any other of Almodóvar’s films, including the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.

Upon the initial release of this movie, Almodóvar stated “I've been making movies for the past twenty years – and, really, the same kind of movie. Sometimes I was accused of being scandalously modern, sometimes an opportunist. But now critics have realized that whatever it is I do, it is authentic. They see how close I feel to the characters in the margin. Characters at the margin of life are at the center of my movies.” Indeed, All About My Mother has a crazy pastiche of unbelievable plot turns and its scenes are filled with transvestites, HIV positive nuns, height-obsessed senile fathers, lesbian actresses and disapproving mothers.

The movie was inspired by one of the characters of The Flower of my Secret, Manuela, a nurse, who participates in role-playing sessions for the surgeons who perform transplants. In the earlier film (and again in All About My Mother), Manuela role-plays a mother who is being informed about the death of her son. Almodóvar had a revelation filming this moment: “When I shot this scene I noticed that the female actors were much better in interpreting their role than their male colleagues and I developed the idea to realize a movie that deals with the ability to act of some persons who are not actors.” In this film, a single mother in Madrid is devoted to her only son, Esteban. He is a writer and is writing a story called “All About My Mother”, which he titles after watching the 1950 film All About Eve.

On his 17th birthday, he gets a picture of his mother as a young actress doing a version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and we see half of the photograph has been torn away. Mother and son go to see a local production of of Streetcar, and, as the son runs to seek the autograph of the lead actress (Huma Rojo), he is struck by a car and killed. The scene she role-plays at the beginning of the film is replayed, only for real, as the surgeons ask her to donate her son’s organs for transplants. Manuela is grief stricken, and flees her job as a nurse, ending up in Barcelona on a quest to find her son’s father. She arrives and reunites with an old friend of hers and her ex-husband, a transvestite named Agrado, only to find that the father, who we discover is a transvestite named Lola, has recently fled the city. Manuela first works for Huma Rojo and her co-star and lesbian partner, Nina, and then ends up caring for a nun who is carrying the unborn child of her ex-husband, Lola (née Estaban).

If all this sounds confusing, it is straightforward as you watch it. In what was no doubt intended to be a lambasting, a critic wrote that an earlier Almodóvar film was “so filled with coincidences, contrivances, and unforeseeable interlockings that it feels like an entire season’s worth of a primetime soap opera played in two hours on a bullet train…” Almodóvar uses this heightened melodrama with elements of comedy to describe the most painful of events – the death of a child – and the effects this has on the life of a mother. He dramatizes the near-superhuman ability required to overcome the pain of loss, to forgive and the unlimited capacity for generosity of the female soul. A child of intense Roman Catholic upbringing and openly gay, Almodóvar has always been praised for his insightful depiction of women. While much of his work can be seen as a reaction against the repressive culture of Franco and his regime, he is also influenced by the comedies of American directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.

A passing familiarity to both All About Eve and Streetcar Named Desire would enrich the filmgoing experience as characters inadvertently act out various moments from both works—at one point, Manuela is even referred to as Eve Harrington, when she gains fantastic reviews after stealing Nina’s role in a play.

Although the two Esteban characters cast formidable shadows over the movie, male characters are absent for much of the movie (unless one counts Agrado as male). I found this refreshing, especially compared to the majority of male-centric Hollywood films. For me, the most moving moment of the movie occurs when Sister Rosa, on her way to the hospital to give birth, meets her senile father in the park she grew up in. He does not know who she is, and she doesn’t let on she is his daughter, although her eyes fill with tears. Typical Almodóvar.

After making Penélope Cruz a star with this film, Almodóvar managed to snag her an Oscar nomination for his last film, Volver (which is fantastic, by the way). His latest movie also stars Penélope and comes out later this year. It is called Broken Embraces and will, undoubtably, be crazy. The trailer looks like film noir crossed with melodrama, even without subtitles.

Up Next in the Film Canon: One of the greatest projects ever undertaken on film.