don't become a walking time capsule
Tuesday, May 31 2005
Tonight Gretchen and I watched yet another of the "Up" series, a documentary project focusing on the lives of a dozen or so English men and women conducted through interviews every seven years, starting with when they were seven. We've been watching the "Ups" in series and tonight we saw 35 Up. Life trends are now fully apparent: our subjects have mostly had all the kids they're going to have and about half of their parents have already died. Their careers are more or less fixed where they were when we saw them at 28, and, with the exception of the members of the upper class, they've begun the slow process of accepting that they'll never fulfill the dreams of their youth.
Somehow more shocking than all of that is how rapidly everyone, particularly the women, have aged. By 21 they'd already become somewhat dumpy, but by 35 they'd passed fully into middle age housewife invisibility. A factor here is their unfortunate choice of hair style, which, once set in the late 70s, they maintained despite the advancement of fashion trends around them. The late 70s were not good years for women's hair. Think frosted. Think permed. Think visibly stiff. Think deep fried. There's something about a 35 year old woman sitting on a couch in 1992 with a hairdo leftover from 1978 that makes her look like she could possibly be in her fifties, particularly if she's 20 pounds overweight and wearing her favorite plaid housecoat complete with ruffled accents. If 35 Up is a fashion cautionary tale, them the moral is as follows: don't become a walking time capsule sealed the day you first got laid.
The most tragic character in all of the interviews is Neil, who was among the brightest and most imaginative of the seven year olds. By age 21 he'd dropped out of college and was living with a tabby cat in a London squat. It seemed like the sort of setback that people that age often have (I was occasionally homeless or living with my parents well into my late 20s). But when he was still homeless and jobless at age 28 it was clear that he was tragic figure, cut off from society and forced to cope in its margins. Good thing for him England has a safety net that can double as a hammock. Beyond what it has to say about the pratfalls of fashion, 35 Up tells us that once you hit your mid-20s, the chance of there being much of a change in your life is small.
Having now seen all of the existing "Ups" except 42 Up, I can tell you which one is the weakest: 21 Up. Something about the editing of that film made it into a bit of an excruciating bore. But seven years is a long time and by the time 28 Up was made, inspiration had returned to the production team. The "Up" series is unique in that the film editor can splice in scenes from every stage of a person's life to reflect both on how they've changed and how they've stayed the same. As a form of reality television, there's nothing anything like it. In the hands of inspired producers, the perspective available here has the potential to blow your mind.
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