Dec 11, 2006

growing up

I'll go out on a limb here and say the Up series (7 Up & 7 Plus 7, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up) is one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had. There aren't any real spoilers down below but this is the first blog post that I would encourage people not to read. Simply because you should be spending that time loading the Up series into your Netflix queue or heading down to a video store to pick them up. Do it. Now.

I've spent the last week watching the Up series. I had vaguely heard of this experiment over the years but never investigated it further. Talking to my mom last month she mentioned she went to see 49 Up! My mom rarely goes to see movies so I knew something was up.

The premise is quite straightforward. It is the original reality show. However I don't like reality shows. And most people who do, don't like these movies. A number of British children, aged 7, were 'interviewed' back in 1964 and this was televised in England. This was supposed to be a one-time show that worked off the premise that if you know a child at 7, you'll know the man. When the kids were 14 years old they conducted similar interviews and updates on their lives. This has continued to the current 49 Up.

The original show apparently was targetted at the issue of classes. The concept of classes is not particularly internalized in the U.S. since I would argue class lines are not as well drawn nor are they as rigid as in the U.K. Growing up in England I was emminently aware of class structures. I fit into the middle class structure for most of my life (going to a public school) and popped up into the upper middle class (going to a private boarding school) for the last few years before moving to the states.

While the primary theme is around the effect of class, you can't help but notice that there are many other themes that emerge over time that seem much more important. Class structure sets up your opportunities in life and for the most part those opportunities are realized. But there is enough variation in the outcomes in this movie that you can't make any sweeping generalizations. The examples that demonstrate the rules of class structure (the upper class John and the lower class Tony) play out stereotypically. But the deviances are quite eye opening. The shy quiet farmer boy turns into something you wouldn't expect. One of the upper class, well educated kids has doubts about his place in society. An extremely rich and educated girl checks out of life. An exuberant, sharp middle class boy becomes homeless.

There are some takeaways however.
  • Class clearly has some effect on the participants. And it is largely reinforcing with the upper class having their lives to some extent planned out and a rejection of the upper class lifestyle by the lower class participants.
  • 14 years old is an awkward stage in life. Exuberant, energetic, unrestrained 7 year olds become shy, awkward, and unable to look at the camera at 14.
  • 21 years to some extent becomes a strong demarcation of who people are. The same person can differ greatly between 14 and 21. But 21 to 28 is not such a big jump. They can change after this age but there is some stability in who people are at this age.
  • As people get older their enthusiasm and energy keeps dropping.
  • Old people are much less interesting than young people.
  • Happiness is elusive and hard to define. It's unclear who you would want to switch places with at the end of the movie if you had to.
  • Watching people from age 7 to 49 in the course of a week is disconcerting and brings up existential thoughts.
  • Between age 35 and 42 the body seriously starts to degrade. Hair, skin, posture, mental energy all see to take a turn for the worse.
It's clear at some point that this movie is less about class at the end of the day and more about how to live a life. What is happiness? What makes you happy? How does parental nurturing and parental discipline affect a child? Can you change your life for the better at all stages of life? What should you spend your time doing on earth while you are here?

Some other interesting aspects of the movies:

The education of the upper class kids at 7 and 14 is simply astonishing. These kids are talking about reading newspapers, using words like 'superlative' and 'reactionary', and know exactly which schools they are going to all the way through university. The 7 year olds are constructing adult sentences and talking about adult topics. They are still clearly naive (some would argue they stay naive), but they know a crapload of stuff. They have clearly upper class accents. Almost characatured accents (John sounds like something you'd expect from Monty Python). They are conditioned and live very structured and productive youths. At what cost and at what benefit, it is not clear.

The most telling aspect of each individual is when they get defensive. For example the 3 lower middle class girls bristle when asked if they are concerned about their opportunities and level of economic privege compared to rich people. One rich boy bristles at the way he comes off in earlier films concerned that he looks like a pompous ass. These are most telling because they tell you something about what motivates them and what their insecurities are. Those who aren't defensive seem content and happy.

A few kids drop out through the series. I couldn't help but feel a little guilty at watching the movie. Putting one's life out for public scrutiny starting at age 7 must be a difficult thing. Clearly some of the participants feel the same.

1 comment:

jesse said...

Well written, and succinct. I was googling blogs to find out what happened to the guy with 5 kids, why he wasn't in 35 up, and read through a couple blog entries. Yours was the most thorough and well written... well done. You've also exposed a couple insights that made me think through some things a bit more.

I started watching these from hearing how marvelous they were for years now, and finally finding them for rent this past weekend. I was hooked after the second one, and find it monumental that we are able to view lives of strangers in a biographical nature, in hours instead of the tedium of books, while getting a much better feel for the personalities involved because they are live on screen.

Truely amazing that this type of thing only seems to exist in lousy(other than this series, I don't like todays tv so-called "reality" tv) scripted "reality" programming nowadays, or in deliberately slanted reporting in the MTV way, though I relished the "Real World" and "Road Rules" for the first 4 or 5 seasons.

This film series takes a flat angle to the lives of the 14, and seems to stay with their lives diversity from their young selves, as much as it slightly shows that some were programmed at 7 for the lives they'd have, sadly. It is very thought provoking on the issues of divorce intruding on childrens future relationship ability, and class structure keeping most in check.

Made me think of my own personality, relationships, parental divorce long term affects, job choices, and course through life so far, but mostly how our future selves may be predicted by our early childhood character traits.