In 1963, filmmaker Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) interviewed several seven-year-old British students for a film called “7 Up”; he and his cameras returned every seven years to track their progress personally and professionally. It’s not a compulsory thing, and the participants can drop in and out as they wish.
The cumulative programs are great documentaries and fascinating anthropological projects. I saw “35 Up” when I signed on at the Ithaca Times in 1991, and “42 Up” seven years later. Seeing “63 Up” (Britbox, 2019, 144 min.) really feels like catching up with old friends.
One person’s lifespan may seem mundane and ordinary in real time, but seen this way, it’s epic stuff. Think about your own family and friends, and how much can change in the span of seven years. There’s Tony, who wanted to be a jockey when he grew up, and grew up to be a cab driver, actor and entrepreneur. At age 63, he’s been married, divorced and remarried with three kids. Sue got married, divorced, and she’s been engaged to the same nice guy now for over 20 years.
Apted has a knack for cutting together each subjects’ life stories in a series of cuts from childhood black and white to colorful adulthood, and he has been doing this for decades before Richard Linklater came up with “Boyhood,” the popular 2014 film that followed a similar conceit. You get the spread of a person’s life in a series of cuts that feels like a magic trick at times. At this point, there’s real suspense as to whether Apted and company will make it to “70 Up.”
“63 Up” screens at Cornell Cinema on January 26 at 3:30pm and on January 28 at 6:45pm.
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Documentaries can also be a great crash course in an unfamiliar area or person. For years, I associated the name Merce Cunningham with arts listings in the front of The New Yorker. I had no idea what a talented and revolutionary choreographer and dancer Cunningham was.
Russian filmmaker Alla Kovgan’s “Cunningham” (Magnolia, 2019, 92 min.), now playing at Cinemapolis, doesn’t just talk about Cunningham’s work; how can you talk about dancing without showing it? The doc is about one-third archival film—home movies, news reports and other recordings—that go into detail about Cunningham’s process: he never set dance pieces to music, and the first time anyone would hear the composer’s work was in performance. He loved to collaborate, and worked on his pieces with artists like John Cage, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
Cunningham never seemed to go for an emotional effect. He was just making things and throwing them out there without preamble or comment. It was your job as the auditor to decide what it meant to you.
As to the rest of the film, working with choreographers steeped in the Cunningham style, Kovgan and cinematographer Mko Malkasyan actually restage excerpts from the ‘50s and ‘60s pieces that vaulted him from NYC obscurity to international acclaim. I would say about one-quarter of the excerpts are filmed in abstract theatrical space in studios, but the majority of them are staged in ballrooms, on city rooftops, in front of buildings and in the woods.
These pieces are stunning, in and of themselves for Cunningham’s abstract, kinetic approach and for taking dance out of the dance studio and into the real world. I’d be lying not admitting that a few moments struck me as pretentious and affected, and reminded me of old “Bad Playhouse” SNL sketches. But getting to know Merce Cunningham—he died in 2009—I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared. He was happiest making things.