Monday, August 14, 2006

The Up Series

I wrote this beautiful song in the shower, and it was so good, so true, and so sincere. I imagined how well received it would be in an emotional sense, if not a critical one — that people would feel it as something so true, something that they understood from experience — inchoate sentiments they had yet to verbalize. However, there is the fact that I have no musical ability whatsoever, and a song is really nothing without music, is just a bad poem.

This was because I was really emotional, am still a little so, and was made so by the large cup of coffee I recently drank, as well as by the viewing of 42 Up. This is the last one of the series that is out on video. 49 Up is going to have a screening this fall at the New York Film Festival (this, a future note to myself). For those that do not know, the Up Series started in 1964 with Seven Up, a documentary that followed 14 British 7 year olds from different social strata, with the intention of critiquing class structures, showing how the rich kids were bound for further richness, and the poor kids for further poorness. Every seven years, Michael Apted and his crew followed up on the 14 subjects, looking at how their lives have progressed. It is an amazing film project for so many reasons, not the least of which is watching human beings grow — children grow into adults, happiness fade into sadness, sadness fade into happiness. I came across a lovely analogy that is so perfect I am going to have to quote it. It is from Vogue writer, Molly Haskell, “Amazing. . . the spectacle, as in time-lapse photography, of human beings taking shape before our eyes.”

I made the mistake of watching them into close a succession and got burnt out and a little tired of the series by 35 Up. The problem I had was that each film shows so much footage from the previous films as they show the progression of these subjects. The films were originally made for TV in the pre-DVD era and so all that footage is a refresher since they were aired every seven years. Watching it all in a couple of weeks, some of that footage seems boring and unnecessary, but I understand the necessity even if I did get bored by it at times.

But this last one, 42 Up, I enjoyed so much, having taken a short break between this and the previous one. It is so sad to watch these people age, as it probably is sad to watch anyone age, seeing them go through traumas (the death of parents, marriage, divorce, children, etc.) and looking all the worse for those traumas. It shows in their faces. And that these are things everyone goes through, that I will go through, is totally terrifying. Neil Hughes, who in Seven Up is a gorgeous, cute, sprightly young boy, is one of the saddest stories in this series. Something happens to him after that first film and I am not what it is, but he loses all that enthusiasm, that cuteness, and eventually becomes homeless, and it is so sad. All these stories are so sad, perhaps because they are so real – stories of divorce and raising kids by yourself in some bland council flat – that not everyone, not anyone, grows up to have a storybook life. But there is happiness to be found and most of the subjects by the time they turn 40 are all decent human beings, their rough edges being smoothed out, and with some wisdom gained through those years.

There is so much to say about this series, so many possible avenues to explore, so many questions — and so many of those questions, at least in my case, are unique to the viewer. That this character reminds me of my aunt Sue, and so I love this character and wonder how my aunt is doing these days. And then, of course, there is the projection of yourself, of myself, up onto to that screen, wondering were my life to be filmed every seven years, were I to have to report progress and give an accounting of things I had done, how would it look? I was a cute 7 year old. Everyone was, is. But what happens to those qualities, those enthusiasms and dreams you had then? People don’t grow up to be cute 7 year olds. They grow out of that and disappoint.

And so I wonder if I am already a disappointment, or if, like most people, I am headed in that direction. What would there be to prevent that from happening? What would be the circumstances that needed to be present for you to say that this subject, this Charlie, was a success, was happy, and lived a good life? I am not sure about the answers to any of those questions. I have some ideas and right now, those ideas are pointing toward non-success, toward possibly already failure. In the shower, which I was taking because I was incredibly nervous and they tend to calm me down, I thought about these questions, tried to tease out answers to them, and it only brought up more questions, and more doubts as I recounted what, at that moment, seemed like a long string of missed chances and missed opportunities.

I could recount them for you, but really, there is no point – the same old gripes that so many people have, that you could easily predict – imagining all the decisions in your life as the wrong ones. And this song was so good. I don’t remember all the lyrics, and it might have a couple of blatant end rhymes to the structure, but the theme involved truth and divulging secrets. I was thinking about my family, but now I see that the song also dealt with an underlying theme in The Up Series, of people being honest, showing wounds, and showing their human side. And I think the chorus might have been: “Tell me your secrets and we’ll set them free / I am no shaman but my ears will do.” And really it doesn’t sound amazing as I recount it, but it was so good. It just needed a backing track.

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