By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “49 Up,” First Run Features]
Recent studies have demonstrated that no, your entire body does not get “renewed” on a cellular level every seven years (skin cells get batched every few days, while some brain cells never change). But Michael Apted’s famous and beloved “Up” films, which have chronicled the lives of 12 Brits since they were precocious second-graders, keeps returning to these cross-sectioned citizens every seven years as if to see if they are in fact the same people. They are and they aren’t people age, lose the fire of their youthful ambitions, marry, spawn, grow more peaceful and complacent, fatten, settle into routines.
Almost by definition, this epic project “49 Up” is the seventh in the string, stretching over more than four decades keeps getting larger, more expansive and more profound with each entry. And yet, nothing cataclysmic happens. Apted’s 12 subjects (two of the original 14 dropped out in their 20s) sit for the camera, disclosing the details of their lives (or some of them, anyway), and Apted continues, as he always has, cutting to the older footage, as if daring us to think we know these people after having seen them grow up from tykes into adults looking at the business-end of middle age. A class-consciousness notion was in place in the first 1964 film, but preexisting agendas couldn’t survive the films’ real-time historical reach life takes over, in all of its banality, private pleasures, employment struggle and divorce hurt.
Of course, with age, the relationship between the interviewee and the project they’d signed on for in their naive youth becomes more complex. The cabbie, the housewife, the librarian, the lawyer, the physicist, the near-homeless outcast all are used to the invasion of filmmaking crews into their homes, but today they’re no longer entertained by the quasi-celebrity and tend to bridle and rebel. Approaching 50 now, several of them understandably bellyache about being forced again and again to evaluate their lives for an international audience. Here’s both the original model for and the antidote to contemporary reality television.
Will Apted (or his associates) press on until they’re all dead? Even if they don’t, the films have acquired an existential chill. The 12 participants move in the blink of the eye from being fresh-faced schoolkids to being weathered dinosaurs, typically beset by obesity, alcohol, emotional erosion, bad English dentistry and the savagery of time. It can get only scarier with subsequent entries, by which time the series may be the most thorough and leveling portrait of ordinary humankind ever committed to film.
Reality took other shapes in the American New Wave of the 60s and 70s, and here comes a forgotten honey: Stuart Rosenberg’s “Pocket Money” (1972), a conscientiously low-key dawdle written by “Terry” Malick and featuring Paul Newman as an unapologetically dopey and penniless Arizona livestock freelancer who accepts a shady deal to buy Mexican cattle and march them up across the border. Helping him is boozy, hedonistic negotiator Lee Marvin, in a filthy suit jacket and leather gloves; together, they spend most of the movie driving around in a shellshocked T-bird, wondering why the world doesn’t understand them. Sometimes the movie is so faithful to the characters’ reality that it loses track of its plot, but the Nixon-era, south-of-the-border sun-scorch is palpable, and the actors are clearly having a royal ball (you envy Newman, sharing a lazy film shoot in Mexico with Marvin).
Remembered today only for “Cool Hand Luke,” Rosenberg was awake to the New Wave’s gritty, symbolic possibilities, and remains underrated. (He and Newman made a total of four films together.) “Pocket Money” comes in Warner’s Paul Newman Collection, one of those ubiquitous studio crate-releases designed to maximize the lesser titles in a longtime star’s library (here, that means 1958’s “The Left-Handed Gun,” 1959’s “The Young Philadelphians” and 1975’s “The Drowning Pool”). But the box, packed with audio tracks and featurettes, also includes the seminal neo-noir “Harper” (1966) and the boxing biopic “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), the commentary on which features Newman, co-star Robert Loggia, director Robert Wise, and all-around gabber Martin Scorsese.
“49 Up” (First Run Features) and “Pocket Money” (part of Warner Home Video’s “The Paul Newman Collection”) are both available on DVD on November 14th.