Bringing the Real and the Imagined Alive: Remembering Michael Apted

Apted at the Peabody Awards in 2013 (Photo: Anders Krusberg)

When you talk with your filmmaking peers, it comes as no surprise they have always have a few filmmakers they follow closely, perhaps someone who isn’t necessarily a household name… or even necessarily an art house movie theater name.

Michael Apted was one of those filmmakers for me. He died at the age of 79, earlier in January (I’m just getting to writing this post now). You can read obituaries and remembrances from the BBC, the Guardian, Variety, and NPR among others.

One part of his career you see mentioned again and again is the Up series, documentaries made at seven-year intervals looking at a particular set of Britons starting in 1964. It has become –as I recall one reviewer putting it– “a time-lapse film of human lives.” It’s simple, straightforward, and extraordinary.

Apted continued to make fiction and non-fiction films for the rest of his career… and the fiction films included a James Bond spy film and an installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. His filmography is rightly described as “eclectic.” And with a background in both anthropology and theater, with a love of films and history, you can perhaps begin to see why he was one of the filmmakers I followed.

For those of you who have seen my biennial Favorite Films sort, none of his fiction films ever make it into my top 50 and –by virtue of me wanting each feature to stand on its own– that eliminates the Up series from competition (its heft comes from the whole package after all). But I would be hard pressed not to find something interesting an energizing about every single one of his movies. In part, I think it’s because he always finds ways to bring forward truth in the fiction.

Nowhere is this more on display for me than the natural double-feature of Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart. The former is a thought-provoking documentary about shootings and subsequent trials at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The latter is Hollywood mystery thriller with Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Greene, among others, oh so clearly inspired by the real events, but distinctly different.

There are always bits worthy of note in all of his films. For instance, in 2001’s Enigma, you get a good breakdown of how codebreaking actually works versus the typical “hack the Internets” silliness sometimes on display in films.

Still from 2001’s Enigma (cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey)

So while my biggest disappointment is how the Up series will continue or end (something several people are now wondering), there are plenty of other films, big and small, I was hoping might pop up there.

Time to revisit some films…

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