There are a few sure signs that I’m getting older. One is that pain I feel in my legs and feet if I stand for more than fifteen minutes. Another is waking up every morning two hours earlier than I ever did as a teenager (and not needing an alarm clock for it). Another is the number of times I have to visit the facilities every night. But perhaps no sign is so definite and so certain as the release of a new entry in the Seven Up! series (and I’m not talking the soft drink). Yes, Virginia, it’s that time of the millennium again. I’m seven years older, deeper in debt, and 56 Up is in the theaters.
For those of you who may not know, Seven Up! was a documentary made in 1964 that profiled fourteen seven year olds of various backgrounds. It was originally intended as a one off TV special. Seven Up! was directed by Paul Almond, but Michael Apted, who did research for Almond, had the idea of coming back every seven years to see what has happened to their subjects and the two have joined forces on the documentaries ever since. Their basic idea, and the driving force of the series originally, was to see if there is a class system in Britain and whether one’s future is determined by one’s past.
I hesitate to describe going to 56 Up as visiting with a group of friends I haven’t seen for seven years. I mean, it’s such a cliché. At the same time, I don’t know how else to talk about it. It’s silly in many ways. I’ve never met these people. I’m not related to them. And yet, after all this time, I have an emotional attachment to them and I have to know how they are getting on.
Well, they’re all 56 now and in many ways, that’s about all there is to say about them. They’ve gotten older, but it’s hard to say that much else is going on. Most are married, have children, have made a life for themselves and there is little chance now that anything will change all that significantly for them (except for taxes and…, well, you know). For the most part, with a couple of exceptions, their lives are just going on like they always have. I’m not sure what to make of that. In one way, it’s very comforting, I suppose. It’s even very moving. In another way, it’s very depressing from an existential point of view. This is it. This is life. It’s not a Shakespearean tragedy (or a comedy). It’s not even a boulevard melodrama ala Ibsen and Strindberg. There’ no long day’s journey into night here. It’s just life.
The original idea, that of examining the class system, seems to have fallen by the wayside to a great degree, and when brought up, often feels a bit forced. No one seems to want to talk about it much except the directors. At the same time, the movie just about proves the truth of that system to some degree. The ones to the manor born are still pretty much there. The ones who were not never managed to get much past the working/middle class. And of those, many are finding their way of life slipping through their fingers in ways that the uppers aren’t as the social safety net that England is so famous for is being reduced (strangely enough, almost no one blames Margaret Thatcher—they all feel sold out by Tony Blair and the labor party).
56 Up starts out well with some fascinating looks at Neil, the participant who had to drop out of Cambridge due to mental illness and found himself living on the road, and Jackie, a working class girl who has faced a number of people dying or who have died. At the same time, as the movie goes on and each person is given their due, this entry finds it a little difficult to keep the forward momentum going. It gets a little tedious here and there as the filmmakers struggle to bring more meaning to various participants’ lives than there is. And Apted and Almond couldn’t really come up with a satisfying final scene to tie it all together. In fact, it just kind of runs out of steam and ends. But still, I loved it and was moved by it as I always am. And all I know is that though I can gladly wait for 62 Up (there’s no hurry, really, take your time), still, I can’t wait for 62 Up.