Personal Finance on Film: The Up Series
Though there are many fine books about money available for the general reader, I've always been disappointed that there are so few movies about money. Anything directly about finance tends to be sensationalist in one way or another.
Despite this, I think that excellent films about money do exist — you just have to know where to look for them. Two years ago, for example, I reviewed The Farmer's Wife, a poignant six-hour documentary about a Nebraska family struggling to make ends meet. “This is a great film,” I wrote. And it is. Today I want to share a series of documentary films that's just as good.
In 1964, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) produced a short film called Seven Up that explored the lives of fourteen seven-year-olds from various cities and social classes. Every seven years since, director Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, James Bond's The World is Not Enough, and the forthcoming The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) has returned to interview these same fourteen subjects, documenting their growth into adulthood.
The Up series is fascinating. Sure, we all get to see our families and friends grow up around us. (And then we watch their children grow.) But that happens in slow motion (well, in real time, actually.) These films allow viewers to watch fourteen people grow from childhood to middle age in a matter of hours. We see them pass through adolescence, get married, have children, lose their parents, become grandparents, and more.
Here's a clip from the most recent installment, 49 Up:
Though the Up films explore all aspects of their subjects' lives, there's no doubt that questions of money and class play a huge role in their biographies. Viewers are allowed to decide for themselves whether the Jesuit maxim is true: Can one actually see the future adult by examining a seven year old child? Or even a fourteen year old? Do our class origins dictate our lives? Does wealth bring happiness? And what is it that gives life meaning?
Each participant has a different relationship with the films and the filmmaker. Some of the group actively dislike director Michael Apted and are reluctant to be forthcoming. But the most illuminating stories come from those who are willing to open up and share everything — warts and all.
- For example, Tony was brought up lower class in London's East End. He dropped out of school at fifteen to become a jockey, but it didn't work out. He became a taxi driver instead, a job he's held for nearly thirty years. By 42, Tony and his family had left the East End after buying a second house in Essex. By 49, they'd taken out a second mortgage on their London house to buy a third house in Spain. Tony seems to have pulled himself up to the middle class — but I wonder how much of this was financed by debt.
- Suzy comes from an upper-class family. Hers is not a happy family, though. During the 1960s, her parents become divorced. Suzy grows disaffected. Up until the age of 21, one might guess she was headed for a life of spoiled indulgence. Ultimately, however, she settles down and raises a lovely family. Though she lives a comfortable life, she faces a different sort of money worry than the other participants. Her husband undertakes a business venture that puts some of their capital at risk.
- The participant with the most poignant life is Neil. As a seven-year-old, Neil is happy and bright, a charming lad from a working class Liverpool family. By 21, though, he's dropped out of college, works odd jobs, and squats in an abandoned building. For the next twenty years, he's essentially homeless, roaming around Britain. He's dogged by mental health problems. But Neil is a deeply intelligent man, and he appears to turn things around during his forties. He still lives on a pittance (including some public money), but he's become involved in local politics and seems content with his situation.
The participants sometimes chafe at the roles they believe they're forced to play. In 21 Up, Apted asks the subjects if they think their class has affected their choices. The answers are surprising.
The three prep school boys (John, Andrew, and Charles) argue that their situation has actually limited their choices, that they've been boxed in by a rigid set of expectations. The three East End girls (Jackie, Lynn, and Sue) make the same argument, but from the opposite end of the class spectrum. They believe they have more choices than those in the upper classes have.
But as they age, the answers to this question change. (Perhaps people are being more honest.) In 49 Up, for example, Andrew admits that his origins played a big role in granting him the opportunities he's had in life.
A clip from 49 Up showing some of Neil's background.
Again, money is just one of the subjects these films cover. The Up series also explores family, love, spirituality, and more. As with The Farmer's Wife, these films aren't for everyone. I think many would find them boring. But for those with patience, the Up series can provide a rare glimpse into what it means to live.