I’ve been light on the blogging lately, as I have been completely engrossed in director Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries. For those unaware (which was me three weeks ago), they are a series of documentaries that began in 1963, where fourteen seven year old English children were chosen to take part in a study of class in British society. From that point, the series follows the same children through the course of their lives, visiting them for a new documentary every seven years.
The series in its totality is a stunning work, especially since DVDs allow us to watch all the chapters in succession. When initially released, fans of the series had to wait seven years for the next episode – yet Netflix allowed me to literally watch people grow into adolescents, then adults, then parents, and grandparents, within the course of two weeks. It’s difficult to describe how shocking this is – you’re just not supposed to watch people grow from seven years old into retirement age before your eyes.
Although the series follows the lives of these specific individuals, the show is really more about life in general. It’s easy to pick out the traits in these people that we see in ourselves – and how much of the ebb and flow of their experiences match our own. At 14, many of them are dealing with the crippling strain of adolescence. At 21, they are full of confidence and vigor – by 35, they are mostly worried about juggling families and careers – and at 49, they all seem to be resigned to the lives they’ve led and the decisions they’ve made.
There’s also a strong theme that deals with predetermination. It really is amazing to see that when these children are interviewed at age seven, many of the same characteristics they display will carry them through their lives (Each installment ends with the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”). For instance, when Tony is interviewed as a child, he displays a short attention span, hyperactivity, and a desire to attract attention. As he moves through life, he takes on project after project, never becoming particularly good at any of them (horse back riding, golfing, soccer, acting). But his life is consistent with what you see there before you in 1963.
The whole idea thay you are who you’re going to be by age 7 horrified me. Could it be that my whole life was laid out for me based on my first seven years? Then I thought back to when I was 7, and it is entirely possible that is the case. When I was 7, my parents used to trot me out in front of house guests to do my Richard Nixon impersonation – complete with peace signs, shaking head, and “I am not a crook” speech. Comedy and conservative politics, wrapped into one. How could it be? (Video here)
For me, the star of the show is John, a snooty conservative who, throughout his life, is completely and totally unapologetic about being born into privilege and being able to attend the best schools in England. When interviewed at age 7, he can already say what his career path will be – what schools he will attend, what profession he will have. By age 14, he’s already developed theories on politics and culture that are more sophisticated than most people will ever have (although his speech defending racial discrimination is a bit sketchy). While he recognizes that he has been born into privilege, he strongly argues that it’s still up to the individual to make it happen – which the show clearly demonstrates. Rich kids sometimes go south, and poor kids can lead even more fulfilling lives.
Probably the most shocking part of the series is the 28 Up episode, which actually has a local Wisconsin flavor – even though it’s a show about British kids. I won’t give it away, but if you want a clue as to what happens, click here.
There are so many lessons to be drawn from the series, I could go on and on. It’s clear that nobody ever really gets any smarter after the age of 14. Sure, you may learn more things that you can file away in your brain, but the structure of how you think and how curious you are about the world is for the most part set.
It also makes you appreciate your life for what it is – the effect of watching all the shows in succession is to realize how fast your life goes by. One day, you’re 21, the next, you’re 28, and soon you’ll be 49 and 56. And the decisions you make today mold who you are at those later ages.
So get your hands on the series if you can – it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen. You won’t be able to pull yourself away from the television – even if some of the subjects want you to throw things at it from time to time.