Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Two worthy documentaries

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — "63 Up" is the ninth installment of a markedly original documentary series made for English television in 1964 and directed by Michael Apted ("The Coal Miner's Daughter"). The series' aim was to chart the lives of a group of 14 children from age seven and up by revisiting them every seven years. Its original premise ("Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man") was that there was a powerful relationship between the children's' class backgrounds and the way their lives turn out. But as the series followed these children into adulthood, this premise, though clearly carrying a great deal of truth, could not fully explain lives that were too unpredictable and complex to be reduced to their class origins.

"63 Up" was one of the many films being screened at the Spotlight on Documentary section at this year's New York Film Festival, and opens at New York's Film Forum on Nov. 27. I remain deeply stirred by the series, especially when Apted intercuts images of the film's characters from different stages in their life while talking to them in the present. It makes graphic how they have evolved over time, and what changes they have undergone both physically and emotionally as they reach retirement age. And Apted's questioning has become less obtrusive, and more empathetic — a change genuinely welcomed by most of his subjects.


A few of the group have refused to take part in this film and the group that appears run the class gamut. It remains predictable that being born into the upper or upper middle class like the lawyer Andrew and acquiring an Oxford or Cambridge degree offers greater life options than growing up in London's East End. In fact, almost all of the children of the working class men and women who appear in the film do not attend university.

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However, the working class men and women, though conscious of class, don't rage against the system. The bouncy, irrepressible Cockney black cab driver Tony is still energetic and driven to make money, and resides now in a green part of Essex. He's content with his life, and makes a bit of extra money playing minor roles in films. Tony has always voted Tory and has no interest in social change, but he still sees England as divided between "them and us," a sentiment shared by most of the characters in the film.

The two boys who spent time in an orphanage, the biracial Simon and Paul (who moved to Australia), have maintained a friendship over thousands of miles. They convey insecurity, sweetness and authenticity, and have created stable domestic and work lives for themselves. Both are seemingly content, but one feels that these fragile men have always been hesitant to work at jobs that would make full use of their potential.

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Low-key, not particularly introspective Nick from the Yorkshire dales, who became a physics professor in Wisconsin, suffers from throat cancer, and.one of the three East End girls, the socially committed and family-centered East End school librarian Lynn, died after the last film was made. Tough, sharp Jackie, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and has had to give up work and live on disability benefits, is still sufficiently spirited to confront Apted about his complacent attitude toward women.

The most poignant, honest, and wounded of the individuals in the film is Neil, who changed from a charming, bubbly seven-year-old to a depressed, adrift Dostoevskian loner, who at 28 was wandering around the Scottish countryside. With each film Neil often shifts where he lives, but he has found a vocation as a Liberal-Dem member of local councils. He is still an awkward, intelligent solitary man, but he is consoled by his religious faith. What strikes one about Neil is his capacity for resurrecting himself out of bottomless despair again and again. He is an idiosyncratic survivor who can't be easily pigeonholed. Clearly, none of the characters can. A luminous film!

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Another documentary I was impressed by was screened at NYC's Film Forum this fall was Matt Tyrnauer's "Where's My Roy Cohn?" It is a solid rendering of the demonic and totally corrupt career of the New York lawyer, self-hating Jew, and tormented and closeted homosexual who helped electrocute the Rosenbergs, was counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's harassment of communists and fellow travelers, and later used questionable tactics to defend the mob and the young Donald Trump. Tyrnauer interviews a range of people, from the feminist novelist, Kate Roiphe, who has only antipathy towards Trump (she's one of his cousins), to the egregious Trump advisor and convicted felon Roger Stone, one of Trump's advisers. They help deepen the film.

The film's prime theme is how much of a model for Trump was the amoral, ruthless, self-justifying, vile Cohn. The two were close for many years, first bonding over keeping African-Americans out of Trump-owned housing. Cohn also taught Trump his first political lesson —"Attack, counter attack and never apologize!" His strategy in court was always to deny, then lie even more loudly. As a personal attorney he would win high profile cases by deflection and fear mongering — lessons that his bullying, lying and more powerful student has learned only too well.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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