Up

(sorry, a bit slapdash! had to write a review for tomorrow morning as well)

A habit I would happily be rid of: watching serialized things that are available to me without a waiting period one after another until suddenly I’ve demolished a weekend. The first time I did it was spring break one year of grad school when I came to New York with only a few things to do and was staying in the apartment of a friend with season II of “24” (yeah, I know) on DVD. I’d like to say the weather was bad or something but the fact is I just spent two whole days in a New York I did not yet live in (therefore a New York full of endless possibilities, as if seen from the Queensboro Bridge) mainlining episodes. More recently it has been noted that, for a time, I watched too much The Hills. As bad habits go, well…it doesn’t hurt anyone.

It’s a piece of good timing that I discovered the “Up” documentaries when I did. It’s one of those things you’ve heard of, and then it shows up on Roger Ebert’s list and you don’t watch it because it doesn’t lead to a quick, satisfying, checking-off on the list. But then it turns out it’s available streaming on Netflix and it’s a weekend after a deadening week and there you are, I mean I am, at 2 a.m. on Friday finishing off “21 Up.”

In case these aren’t familiar to you, the Up series checks in every seven years with 14 people who were seven years old when the series began in 1964. They’re British, intentionally selected from distinct class backgrounds, originally with the express intent of seeing how rigid the British social class system was. This project faded somewhat as the series went on, I think both because it became too narrow a focus to satisfy an audience that wants to know what these people they may have quasi-known all their lives is up to and because the subjects eventually found this project in particular reductive of their lives. A number of them, at some point in the series, object to the questions and the assumptions–not surprisingly, most vociferously the upper classniks.

It’s surprisingly engrossing, and not especially predictable. There are problems with watching it all at once (you see certain key quotes from the first encounter with the children over and over until you are ready to run over little Paul with a spinach truck if he tells the one about his future wife cooking him greens one more time) but those are not problems that will face most viewers who do not share my malady.

Without being specific enough to count as spoilers, the upper class kids look like they’re going to turn into monsters for an episode or two, but then don’t. One of them leaves the series after he’s 21, and in fact sued the creators for even using his photo, which of course makes me curious how he turned out. He seemed thoughtful and became a documentary producer at the BBC, and it would have seemed like he’d be interested in the whole thing, though apparently these things are famous enough that the subjects get bothered in public. Still…

The thing about it that was strangest for me was that somehow I developed an emotional expectation divorced from my actual ability to add that when I got to the most recent one, they’d all be my age. Well, I wasn’t born in 1957, so as our friend Math tells us, they leapfrogged me sometime on Saturday evening. Engage oceanic mortality dread! Come to find out (hi again, Math!) that 56 Up comes out this year, in May. They will be, as you have divined, 56, closer to my parents’ age than to me.

There are frustrating moments when it does seem that the only story ever lived out by mankind is that of getting married and having kids or failing to do so. In this way, it is no better than Friends or Sex & the City. This one complaint notwithstanding, the series takes great and humane interest in the uncountable triumphs and disasters, large and small, that pile up over time.

Here’s a paragraph with some spoilers, but I’ll make it the last one so you can skip if you’re going to watch these, and yeah, I suppose I recommend them. I’m curious of course to watch the one main cliffhanger, the story of Neil, who appears in the first film as a funny, unusual kid and who steadily goes off the rails as the years go by, though never entirely. He’s maybe bipolar, certainly something pretty serious, to which vague allusions are made. It’s wrenching to know of him, and to know that he’s a real person, though he lives in a country with a real social safety net and seems to do ok (and lives in some beautiful places.) But I’m also on tenterhooks to know whether Suzy, the rich girl, miserable at 21 and from then on out apparently happy and basically sympathetic, will come back. She hinted she wouldn’t. Maybe most of all I want to know about Neil, early on an awkward country kid who apparently by force of will becomes rather charismatic and very successful. Well and of course I can’t help but wonder about Nick, the would-be jockey, though at some point he betrays some rather revolting politics. I can’t help but wonder about the little guy.

[I wonder if I’ve checked “death” as a category on everything I’ve ever posted.]

9 responses to “Up”

  1. AWB says:

    I still hold that “You watch too much ‘The Hills'” looks just fine in print.

    I can’t imagine watching all of these in a row. I can’t remember how far apart I’ve seen the ones I’ve seen, but someday I suspect I’ll want to review them all. Neil the Something Is Wrong With Him kid is of course my favorite, and I love that he ends up on that windswept island where he seems relatively fine. Those rich dickwad children sure did grow up to be thoughtful and charming and regretful about having been such precious little dickwads when they were younger. I found that aspect very moving. You can see they’re still the same people, but with perspective and self-knowledge.

    I wonder if part of that self-knowledge comes from watching yourself in a documentary. It seems to be rather painful to all of them to see themselves as young people, but every seven years they get a chance to say, hey, that’s not how I want to feel that I am.

  2. FPS says:

    To encourage self-knowledge in ourselves, we had better immediately start making a documentary! Whatsit Up!

    I had the same sense about Neil in the Shetlands, that he wasn’t exactly the poster boy for happiness but was doing much better than people I see every day.

    The The Hills comment was solely included to (hopefully) make you laugh.

  3. AWB says:

    Oh it did.

    Whatsit Up! I love it! In a certain sense, I suppose the rabid self-documentation I’ve been doing for eight years while blogging has to count for something. It’s not as good as having some asshole stand in front of you and tape you answering stupid questions and having to watch that tape, but it has encouraged some self-reflection, anyhow. I really wasn’t very comfortable admitting that I am myself back when I started. Part of that growth is just normal 20s stuff, but I have to credit writing obsessive self-analysis with something.

  4. FPS says:

    I started to say, blogging is already sort of an up documentary but, yes, different. Much more constant and real-time and minutely focused.

    I guess one can go back to things one wrote about seven years ago and see how they sound, and sometime I do. I was navelblogging on LJ seven years ago and longer. I haven’t looked recently, but I suspect the stuff from 2005 would look lonely, lacking in confidence, but a little less hardened by city life. But at least I didn’t go on about reading The Financial Times.

  5. Thorn says:

    As I type this, I’m watching 35 Up, meaning I’ve just been leaped. I feel very much that my life went off the rails and that the people who knew me 14 years ago would be unsurprised about where I’ve ended up, but 7 years ago is very much a different story. It’s made me think about the person I’ve become. I think most previous mes would be more satisfied about it than not.

    And spoilerwise, you mean even the churchy one never comes out? I was hoping there’d be somebody somewhere.

  6. FPS says:

    Oh. My. God. The churchy one breaks the needle on my gaydar.

  7. Thorn says:

    Right after I typed that he was totally all, “Oh, I’ve had affairs with people, and they….” which whatever, straight people just use gendered pronouns, dude, not always, always plural and mysteriously unspecific ones. I’m also sorry that Nick’s wife isn’t talking anymore from Wisconsin, as I thought she made tons of sense and liked hearing her perspective at 28.

  8. swells says:

    Oh I have to go back to these now. I think they’re all on my Netflix queue for the day that I can convince the hubbs that it’s worth starting at the beginning (since I’ve only seen, I think, the first two and have always been curious). And yes, I’m not ready for them to leapfrog me either. Pre-reality TV that actually follows through and doesn’t (I presume) script its plots and stir the shit on purpose? I’m so ready for that.

  9. FPS says:

    Swells, if it helps you sell it, you can skip the first one, as they repeat it in its entirety in the second one, and then you could practically skip the second one as there are so, so many snippets of it and the first one in the third one. Really, I think one might as well start at 21 Up, except there’s less of a sense of having done something like reading A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or something.