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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 02, 2013

 

Saturday Night at the Movies

56 Up: What the hell happened to me?


By Dennis Hartley




Have you ever stumbled across one of your own childhood photos and mused, “How could this grinning idiot have not seen a future in computer science?” Or, “Pardon me, but…have we met?” Granted, perhaps that is not what every person would think, but you get the gist (“If I’d only known then what I know now…”). The tendency many of us have to brood ever more obsessively over a life tragically misspent with each successive birthday is bad enough…but imagine doing it on national TV, whilst thousands of voyeuristic strangers look on, parsing your every thought and action. If that reminds you of The Truman Show, you’re not too far off the mark. Back in 1964, a UK television film series-cum-social experiment kicked off with Paul Almond’s 7 Up, a documentary profiling fourteen 7 year-olds from a full spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds, sharing their dreams, hopes and aspirations. 7 years later the same subjects appeared in 7 Plus Seven, with the eclectic (and prolific) director Michael Apted taking over the helm. Seven year updates continued with 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up and, wait for it...49 Up.

 Which brings us to Apted’s latest installment in the series, 56 Up; like its 7 predecessors, it has been picked up for a limited theatrical run. First, it’s nice to see that everyone is still above ground (currently being 56 and ¾ myself, I find this particular fact somehow…reassuring). This is not to say that, by this point in their lives, the participants haven’t been put through life’s wringer in one way or another. Health issues, multiple marriages and financial problems abound. Some are doing better than 7 years ago, some worse; most seem to be maintaining the status quo. Some are happy, some not so much (lives of quiet desperation, and all that). For me, the most fascinating character continues to be Liverpool native Neil Hughes, who is like a real life version of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. A charming and funny little kid in 7 Up, he was a homeless, mentally troubled university dropout by 21 Up. Over the next two installments, he remained directionless and homeless, moving first to Scotland, then to the Shetlands. By 42 Up, however, he had discovered a knack for politics, in which he seems to remain ensconced.

In this age of dime-a-dozen reality TV shows and smart phone attention spans, the idea of a filmed series where the audience has to wait seven years between episodes may seem trite; perhaps even downright anachronistic. But if you think about it for at least 10 seconds, I strongly suspect that sitting down to watch any number of episodes of, say, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, over any number of years, would not be likely to provide you with any kind of keen insight into the human condition (it’s much more likely that a roomful of monkeys with typewriters could eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare…and in much less time). At least here, there were/are noble intentions; and you certainly cannot say that Apted, having devoted 40 years of his life (and counting) to the project doesn’t have “the vision thing”. Interestingly, not all participants share in the altruism; in 56 Up some of the interviewees continue to badger the director to hang it up and be done with it. Granted, 10 to 15 minutes of screen time, every 7 years cannot give you the whole picture of someone’s life, and that’s one of the primary issues in question.

As far as the “social experiment” aspect of the project is concerned, that has been off the table for some time now, especially when you consider that the participants have become celebrities in the U.K. One of the interviewees (a cab driver) tells a great anecdote about having a rather famous person in his cab. An excited passerby tapped on his car window, asking for an autograph. The driver says he tried to wave the person away, basically indicating that his passenger didn’t wish to be bothered, but was surprised when the persistent fan indicated that it was the cabbie’s autograph that he was after. So it appears that over the years, the “experiment” has become a little less Margaret Mead and a little more Andy Warhol. Indeed, one gentleman, who has declined to participate since his strident anti-Thatcher rants in 28 Up made him a pariah in the British press and led to his resignation as a teacher, makes no effort to sugarcoat his cynicism. “I’ve only agreed to come back” he tells Apted, “…because I want to promote my band.” Still, for the most part, everyone is game. And there’s a real sense of poignancy this time around, especially since Apted has a sizable archive of clips for each interviewee, from all periods of their lives (he makes good use of the flashbacks and flash-forwarding). The lives depicted here may not be glamorous or exciting, but most people’s lives aren’t, are they? And as cliché as this sounds, it all seems to boil down to that most basic of human needs: to love or be loved. You know what? I’ll bet that’s what was making me smile in my childhood photo.

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