Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Seven-Year Itch

British documentary series takes engrossing, thought-provoking look at 'ordinary' people

By Jim Ridley

AUGUST 7, 2000:  The current spate of "reality-based" shows like Survivor and The Real World--which bear roughly the same relationship to reality that a petri dish has to a rain forest--can be traced back, in some ways, to an ambitious documentary project launched in England in 1964. A film crew assembled and interviewed a group of 7-year-old British schoolchildren of diverse backgrounds--boys, girls; black, white; rich, poor. Every seven years, the crew would return to follow up. The object was twofold to chart the kids' parallel progress through Britain's hidebound class system, and to show who would serve as the country's future in the year 2000. "Give me the child until the age of 7," intones the narrator at the end of the first episode, invoking the Jesuit credo, "and I will show you the man."

But in a display of the uncertainty principle--the idea that when you try to observe something, you inevitably disrupt its natural state--the series referred to as 7 Up had subtle but inescapable side effects. As well-intentioned a social document as it was, its appeal to a wide audience wasn't much different from that of a long-running soap like Coronation Street or Days of Our Lives. Every seven years, anybody with a TV set could peek into the subjects' private lives; the subjects themselves became minor celebrities. But if the object was to show the lives of "normal" people, how normal a life could they have with a camera breathing down their necks every seven years?

That question just makes the series' latest installment, 42 Up, which opens Friday at the Belcourt, all the more compelling. You don't have to have seen the earlier films to appreciate 42 Up; in fact, since it recaps the highpoints of the previous five installments--and since the changes in the subjects are now so much more dramatic--it's conceivably even more interesting to first-time viewers. I hadn't seen any of the previous films, and 42 Up kept me riveted for more than two hours. But watching it is like attending a high-school reunion, with the same mixture of dread and curiosity: Who got divorced? Who got fat? Who failed, and who succeeded?

Maybe I should add, at this point, that I skipped my own high-school reunion to avoid just those kinds of questions. And indeed, three of the 14 original 7 Up subjects decided they didn't want to be filmed anymore; in essence, they voted themselves off the island. (One now runs a documentary unit for Britain's Channel 4.) But those who remain in 42 Up have nowhere to hide. Anything they say or do in the present can be matched against unguarded utterances they made 35 years ago; they even measure their lives against the previous installments. ("I wish I'd done something more exciting," laments one this time around.) However ethically troubling the results may be, they're never less than fascinating and intensely moving.

The boys and girls of 7 Up are now middle-aged men and women. Each segment starts with black-and-white footage of the original interview, then advances through each seven-year installment to the present day. Symon, the only black child interviewed in 7 Up, is shown describing his ambition to be a movie star; by 42 Up he's a forklift operator. By contrast, Nick, the kid who exults about space travel, grows up to teach nuclear physics at the University of Wisconsin. It's a delight to see that Bruce, a would-be missionary at 7, hasn't abandoned his youthful ideals: At age 42, he's teaching kids of diverse backgrounds and races.

As varied a group of kids as the series gathered, by this point in their lives the subjects are in remarkably similar places. At 42, most are themselves parents--even Suzy, who is shown at age 21 sounding hopelessly jaded about raising a family. "Until you go through it on your own," says Lynn, whose daughters are almost grown, "you never ever realize what hell you put your parents through." As much as they love their kids, though, many of them suggest they've settled for something less than their childhood dream. Tony, a happy man in a Melbourne suburb whose marriage has endured some rocky trials, nevertheless says of his life that "this is as far as I can go." Even Nick uses terms like "realistic" and "small victories" in assessing his lot.

There are plenty of creepy questions raised by such an intrusion into these people's lives. One of the pitfalls of writing for a newspaper is tending to see the people around you as "stories"--fodder for column inches. The same is true of documentary work, especially with such interesting material--I mean, people. (In Nashville, the condition extends to songwriting.) At its most reductive, 42 Up compresses their lives into bite-size Behind the Music ironies: If someone says on camera his job'll be around forever, you can bet that in the next breath the movie will mention the office closing. But in a gripping coda, the director, Michael Apted, who's been with the series since the beginning, asks the subjects point-blank how the series has affected their lives. One says he "bitterly regrets" the day his school headmaster pushed him forward for the project.

Yet 42 Up ends on a note of grace and jubilance that renders these concerns almost irrelevant. The most controversial part of 35 Up concerned Neil, a bright, imaginative kid who spiraled into homelessness and despair by age 28. In 35 Up, he was shown in deep depression; at his lowest ebb, he said he wouldn't want to have kids because they'd inherit his misery. Neil's story, which forms the conclusion of 42 Up, takes a turn that's both surprising and exhilarating; I wouldn't dare spoil it for anyone. Except to say that it dovetails unexpectedly with another 7 Upper's life--and that the "small victories" Nick mentions suddenly don't seem small at all. --Jim Ridley


Grand slam

I was 3-and-a-half years old on the night that Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth as the all-time career home-run leader for Major League Baseball, and though my specific memories of the summer of '74 are vague, Hammerin' Hank's wallop had an impact that reverberated through my childhood. My older brother kept a box of Aaron-related news clippings, and my fascination with both the box and my brother led me to read every Aaron biography that I could find in the juvenile section of my local library. Hank Aaron became a hero to me because he wore the uniform of my favorite team in my favorite sport; but even more important to me were the accounts of Aaron's early years in the Negro Leagues and the racist hate mail that he received during his pursuit of Ruth. I got an early lesson in the civil rights struggle and learned the determination it took for a minority to thrive in a country overstocked with ignorance and shame.

Forty years before I learned the meaning of heroism in sports, the young folks of the 1930s were getting a similar lesson thanks to another Hammerin' Hank--Henry Benjamin Greenberg, the Semitic slugger of the Detroit Tigers, who towered over the game in the same era that Hitler was rising to power overseas. Aviva Kempner's documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg offers a linear biography of Greenberg's prolific career as a ballplayer and as a soldier in World War II, but just as vital to the film are the reminiscences of teammates, family, friends, and Greenberg himself (in archival interviews). And above all come the fans, who recall the ethnic slurs that Greenberg withstood with grace and humor while establishing himself as an icon to a generation of American Jews.

There's so much about Greenberg's story that's just so right: His appearance in the national consciousness just as anti-Semitism was sweeping the country and the world. His two assaults on single-season records (Lou Gehrig's RBI record and Ruth's HR record) that both came up just short. His status as one of the first baseball players to enlist in the war against the Nazis. His return to championship form after the war. And his final season with the National League's Pittsburgh Pirates, in the same summer that Jackie Robinson broke into the majors. Through all these episodes--and through his failures--Greenberg conducted himself as a gentleman.

A respected journalist and critic, Kempner spent 12 years assembling this picture, and her total immersion in the subject matter means that The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg has the awed approach of the iconographer. The director doesn't ignore her subject's marital troubles, his souring on religion, or his occasional self-centered attitude toward the game, but this is not a Behind the RBIs TV biography. This is a film about a man whose excellence in a uniquely American sport endeared him to people who otherwise might not have allowed him into their homes, let alone their hearts. It's about a larger-than-life figure who has been all but forgotten, except by the people whose eyes still brighten at the mention of his name.

Would the film be better if Kempner had probed deeper into the conflicted heart of her hero? Possibly, but given that Greenberg passed away in 1986, such an incisive interview was all but impossible. And it's not especially necessary. The vogue for tarnishing our idols (by way of humanizing them) has its merits, but that's not always the best way to go. We all need people who we can look up to without question. For my sake, I have a Hank Aaron baseball card encased in plastic sitting atop my desk, right next to my Captain America coffee mug. And sitting next to Cap? That box of clippings about the night that my Hammer hit his 715th home run. May the next generation find a Hammer of its own, to pound as strongly. --Noel Murray


Trainwreck

Parents with a bent for nostalgic, old-fashioned entertainment--for life before Pokemon--tend to look kindly upon Thomas the Tank Engine. The short "animated" segments of his TV show, imported from Britain, refuse to cater to toddlers' taste for action, and the toys that go with the show are durable wooden heirlooms rather than plastic disposables.

Nothing inherent in these qualities dooms the feature-length movie version of Thomas; it's possible to make a nostalgic, old-fashioned kids' movie without pandering to the current fashion for perpetual motion and excitement. But not the way the makers of Thomas and the Magic Railroad go about it. Even at 85 minutes, the film is hellishly long and deadly dull. Everyone will be ready to go home after the opening credits.

It's not just the lack of animation or action that dooms this movie. The TV show's simplistic style, with its limited number of stock shots and moving parts, doesn't give kids much to look at, so a good story needs to be added to keep their interest for over an hour. The story of the Magic Railroad, however, is as strange and confusing as any children's story I've ever heard: something about an evil diesel train running an engine off the tracks long ago, and now she's lost, and Alec Baldwin has to find more gold dust so he can travel on a secret railway, and Peter Fonda never smiles anymore, and the Conductor's nephew is allergic to grass. The characters are always explaining what's going on to each other, but contrary to the filmmakers' intent, none of it helps. To motivate this constant explanation, some character in the film has to be as confused as we are, and if the characters can't figure out what's going on, how are we supposed to make heads or tails of it?

The human performances are headscratchers too. Baldwin, as Mr. Conductor, is a caricature of a children's theater performer, gesturing goofily with oversized facial expressions, while Fonda underplays so drastically that he's practically comatose. Mara Wilson, Cody McMains, and the supporting cast are fine, but Britt Allcroft (who created the TV series and is the sole hand on the throttle of the movie) has no idea how to integrate them into her fantasy world. What was charming and enthralling at five minutes has become sheer torture at over an hour. And in the end, the difference between Pokemon and Thomas is vanishingly small: Both are about learning to recognize a vast cast of characters, and then to ask for them at the local toy shop.

You have to feel for the family with young children standing at today's movie ticket window. Better that the kids be bored to tears by Thomas, I suppose, than sexually warped for life by the raunchy PG-13 movies in the rest of the multiplex. But as the trailers for Disney's hip Christmas comedy The Emperor's New Groove play before Thomas and the Magic Railroad leaves the station, we all should remember how hard this whole kiddie-movie thing really is, and be grateful we've got a couple of studios that do it consistently well. You'd be well advised, until you see "Disney" or "Dreamworks" attached to the title, just to stay home and play Candyland. --Donna Bowman


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