With the arrival of 56 Up, I think it's fair to ask if Michael Apted's legendary documentary series has become more fascinating in theory than in actuality. It is, after all, the only movie being screened four times at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
If you're coming into the project for the first time, it's easy to understand how it could feel like a monumental achievement. Nearly 50 years in the making, it began with a 1964 British documentary in which a group of 7-year-olds from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and life circumstances are interviewed. Apted has revisited many of them every seven years since then. Watching this handful of characters grow from children to teenagers to adults - through parenthood and, in many cases now, grandparenthood - has been remarkable.
Where these men and women are concerned, however, there's not much further for the story to go. Since the thesis of the original program was that the British class system locked kids into their future life circumstances at an early age, the work was in many ways done once we saw where they stood in mature adulthood. It may be comforting to check in periodically and see that Neil, Jackie, Suzy, Tony and company are still kicking around, but there's nothing revelatory to be found. They are who they are, the continuation of the project perpetuating its magnitude simply by virtue of not stopping.
Indeed, the most compelling moments in 56 Up are when the participants reflect not on their lives but the experience of being part of the series itself. Peter, who dropped out of the program years earlier, returns to use the film's platform to promote his music; Neil laments the way his mental health has been portrayed over the years; Nick, a physicist at UW-Madison, muses on how the series is not just about them but "every person, how they change." (Nick will attend the Saturday evening screening at Sundance.)
We're learning just a little more about our subjects, but we're learning a lot about the process of making the longest-running experiment in reality television. That, in and of itself, is pretty interesting.