In 1963, 7-year-old children from various walks of life were interviewed for a BBC broadcast, in an attempt to see if the class system was still alive in Britain. Every seven years since then, Michael Apted, who was an assistant on the original project, has made a documentary film, tracing those children into their adult lives. They are now 56 and the subject of “56 Up.”
We can only begin to perceive the value of the “Up” series, or imagine what social scientists will make of it in the decades and centuries to come. But the films do have the quality, peculiar to important works of art, of making us uneasy, of leaving us with feelings that are big and yet not completely classifiable. We feel good, refreshed and depressed in watching these people get older, also embarrassed in moments and cautioned about the passage of time. If you’re familiar with the series, seeing “56 Up” is like catching up with people you know. If this is your first exposure, you will have the bizarre experience of watching people age almost 50 years in the course of 10 seconds.
Apted has rightly described this new installment as more hopeful than he’d expected. Coming after “49 Up,” I can see why he was surprised. In “49 Up,” his subjects all seemed miserable – perhaps they just dreaded turning 50. At 42, they had looked, more or less, like young people. By 49, most looked fairly old. Some had also gained a ton of weight, which was astonishing. If you know you’re going to be on movie and television screens at 49, how do you not go on a serious diet at 48?
But at “56 Up” everyone looks … nice. And more mellow. And not wanting to bother anybody. And not angry about anything. The ones who had kids are now enjoying their grandkids. The ones who’d seemed arrogant have stopped competing with everybody. The ones who’d seemed disappointed have moved on.
Not everything’s great. Some were slammed by the financial collapse. One of the women has rheumatoid arthritis, but she’s no more beaten than anybody else. Her life has pleasures in it, and value. Everybody seems OK.
So here’s a thought: Just as every rosebud looks the same, and every dead rose looks the same, and yet every full-blown flower looks different, so perhaps it is also with human beings. When they were kids, they were interchangeable. The condition of their being children was more profound than the differences in their personalities. Then in youth and middle age, they were all quite distinct. And now – easing their first toes into late middle age – they may be entering another period of life when the similarities outweigh the differences, where the distance to the finish line means a lot more than a bank account or professional accomplishment. We will see more in “63 Up.”
In the end, that just might be the takeaway from the “Up” series, that a 28-year-old, say, has more in common with another 28- year-old than with his own incarnation at 70. Who knows? There are mysteries of life captured within the frames of this film that are eluding our grasp. We’re still too close to it.