14 Up in America, premiering this month on Showtime, is the second film in the American version of Michael Apted's 7 Up series -- 7 Up, Seven Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and the soon forthcoming 42 Up -- which has, in seven-year installments since 1963, revisited a dozen or so Britons to see what their progress, or lack of it, might indicate about the effects of nature and nurture, the permeability of class and the persistence of character. The stateside version, directed by Phil "Rattle & Hum" Joanou with Apted serving as producer, has a "cast" of 17, chosen -- obviously not at random -- to cover a spectrum of ethnicity, income and environment, from the Chicago projects to rural Georgia to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Like its cousins, 14 Up (which follows and incorporates parts of Age 7 in America) is shaped like sociology but effective as entertainment: It satisfies the novelistic charm of watching distant lives unroll and the everlasting fascination with visible proof of the passage of time -- it is comforting, I guess, to know we do not ripen or, more important, decay alone. (Comforting to me, at any rate, fellow mortal.) To be sure, the distance from age 7 to 14, though rich in experience and made especially tortuous by rude, awakening hormones, is not so great as to suggest any final words on human destiny -- still untouched by the minutiae of self-sustenance, or self-destruction, these kids are quite aware of being, in the words of one, "through with the main part of your childhood, but ... not even close to adulthood yet." But the film works as much or more as a portrait of the state of the union as seen through the eyes of its young -- who comment on race, religion, money, sex, drugs and that old national pastime, the pursuit of happiness -- as it does as a portrait of individual lives.
We do learn, of course (are reminded of, rather), a thing or two or three about what it means to be teenage, to be confounded by possibility, to shake off old limits while glimpsing new. Notwithstanding some sterling exceptions -- The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, Roseanne, Party of Five -- television does not as a rule take young people seriously; they 're dragged in, as at other grown-up parties, to be shown off as cute or amusing or precocious. But as 14 Up elegantly demonstrates, seven years is time enough to understand pretty well the rules of one's tribe -- it demonstrates also that we're a land of many tribes, which only appear to share a language and culture -- and 14 years is enough to understand that the rules are not beyond questioning. The film treats its subjects with respect, does not prod them to perform, but patiently takes them in (a model for all human engagement), and because it is well-cut and visually elegant, it lends weight to their words, elevating ordinary experience, just in the way that a quality frame dignifies a casual snapshot. The effect is the exact opposite of a moral freak show like Jerry Springer, which might lead one after a while to think the world is made up of lunatics and morons; 14 Up gives one hope that enough of the race -- rich or poor, country or town -- still inclines toward sensible good will.
To be sure, there are no hard cases here -- no spooky little white supremacists, no junior gangbangers, no babies raising babies. None of these kids has made a life-constricting misstep such as we find a little down the chronological road in Kelly Loves Tony, the "video diary" of 17-year-old Kelly Saeteurn and 22-year-old Tony Saelio, airing Tuesday as part of PBS' wide-ranging documentary series, P.O.V. It's a real-life good girl-bad boy, cross-the tracks romance set among the Laotian community of East Oakland and for which the pitch might run, were we thinking sitcom and, hey, you never know: She's an A-student with dreams of college ... He's a former gang member straight out of San Quentin ... Together they're ... whoops ... parents! Hilarity does not, however, in this case ensue.
Still, it's good television, semi-tragical as it is. It's quite possibly true, as four out of five adult-education creative-writing teachers swear, that every one of us has a story of some value to tell; making it interesting, however, takes art, craft and, above all, editing. For Kelly Loves Tony, filmmaker Spencer Nakasako provided the couple with a camcorder to document their evolving, yawing and pitching relationship, and from 120 hours of footage, shot by the couple over 18 months, he has fashioned a compact, compelling single hour -- a shooting ratio that could make even my life look dramatic -- with a clear narrative drive but (this being reality and all) no clear conclusion. It won't kill the suspense to say that, in spite of the sunny title and affectionate effort on either side, the main value of this tale is cautionary, and that the lasting impression is of a mismatch made in haste and cemented by children, and hill-country custom. "She's school people," a mentor advises Tony. "She can come up, and she probably wants to come up.... You're the kind of person that's not gonna come up that kind of way. And that's why people like you and people like her, they don't always make it in the long run." Call it America's Saddest Home Video.
Making it not even in the short run are most of the boys of When Trumpets Fade, directed by John Irvin (Hamburger Hill, Nell) and coming your way on HBO. The film takes as its subject the battle of the Hurtgen Forest, one of the bloodiest and, it has been subsequently judged, more tactically meaningless engagements of the Second World War. Nicknamed "The Death Factory," it produced a whopping 24,000 American corpses in a short three months. Combat as Meat Grinder is a theme not exactly new to the genre: We have seen the Pointlessness of War portrayed before, as we have also seen such hallmarks of the form as the cynical vet, the raw recruits earmarked for oblivion, and the distant and blundering brass -- all present and accounted for in this motion picture. And yet -- without much of a story, or even real character development, only a thick layering of awful event and cruel irony, with brutal little set pieces arranged in a circular arrangement -- the film leaves a strong and fairly original impression.
Artful all around -- crisply dialogued, cannily staged, photographed in such a way that the picture itself looks fatigued, and sturdily acted -- it is in every respect a lesson on how to size big action to the small screen. The excellent Ron Eldard is the (anti-) hero promoted against his will into a position of dangerous responsibility, and despite being up to his bum in dead men and half-departed himself, he's better off here than at his last known address, Men Behaving Badly. As the officer who promotes him, Martin Donovan, long known to fans of Hal Hartley, works his patented attitude of aggressive disgust; man-of-two-careers Dwight Yoakam plays the starchy, self-satisfied voice of military unreason; and Frank Whaley, of Swimming with Sharks and many another groovy movie of the younger generation, is around as well, as an overtaxed medic. "The film, whose mood and look seem at least partially inspired by Full Metal Jacket (and, indeed, writer W.W. Vought, previously employed making "industrial videos," wants his audience "to look at World War II as they do the Vietnam War"), generates teeth-clenching tension the whole way. (A bite guard may be useful.) Since almost all I know about war has reached me through movies and TV, I can't say whether this is, as Eldard assures his new charges, anything like "the real fucking deal." But it's real enough for my lucky life.
Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1998 and 2011