Back in 2006, Liz and I discovered the "Up" series of documentaries. For those of you who may not have heard of them, it started as a film called "7 Up" wherein a British documentary team recorded little vignettes in the lives of 14 British children in 1964. Every 7 years, this same crew has revisited these children (now adults), checking in with them at the ages of 14, 21, 28, 35, etc...
These films are absolutely captivating. We introduced them to several of our friends, and we watched them together, right up until "49 Up" which was released in 2006. Seeing a group of strangers literally grow up before your eyes is a surreal experience, and in a bizarre way, you wind up invested in their lives in much the same way as you would an actual friend.
And that investment is a double-edged sword. The series presents a pretty unvarnished look at how the lives of the participants progress. Certainly, some of the kids, particularly those from upper-class families, have a reasonably smooth go of things. They go to good schools, get good jobs, build perfect-looking families, you know, the whole Game of Life winning package. But for others, it goes a lot less smoothly. You see the impacts of divorce, mental illness, failed ambitions, and the general malaise of post-Thatcher Britain. By and large, there is little social mobility among the group, with the UK's class system seeming to hold everyone firmly in place (with one awesome exception - you should watch the films for the details on that one).
But once you begin, you have to keep watching them. And at some point, it may occur to you that these intermittent check-ins with these people, each one seven years apart, aren't that different from some of the real-life interactions that you have with your own friends. Facebook has made the work of keeping in touch with long-distance friends a heck of a lot easier, but think about how long you go between face-to-face visits with friends who have moved away (or who you have moved away from). Weeks and months easily give way to years, and the "Up" documentaries' format, with 20-odd minute vignettes serving to provide an update on 7 years of elapsed lifetime, aren't that different from how many modern relationships are managed: A few beers on a weekend afternoon when you happen to be in town. Lunch or coffee when work happens to take you to the same conference. Maybe even an entire weekend at someone's destination wedding. Small slices of time, made all the more precious by the gaps that separate them.
So, you can imagine our excitement when the release of "56 Up" happily coincided with a wedding that was going to bring much of our old viewing crew back together for a weekend in DC. Once we saw how the timing aligned, it was a given that we would be setting aside a few hours to watch this latest installment at the E St. Theatre downtown.
However, that excitement gave way to a bit of nervousness as we got to the theatre. After all, 56 is an age at which it wouldn't be entirely inconceivable for someone to have died - and based upon the past few films there were definitely a few candidates for us to be worried about. And you do worry. Not about the wealthy ones - Their vignettes are pleasant, and happy, and without drama. It's the less-well-off cohort you worry about. The ones who seem like they might be living paycheck to paycheck, or maybe on the dole. The ones who have had past struggles laid bare in previous films. They're the ones you worry about.
Fortunately, all those worries were unfounded. Everyone is still alive and kicking, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that everyone in the film seemed to have achieve a near-equivalent level of happiness (or at least contentedness) by the age of 56, no matter what their circumstances. It was really uplifting to see so many different and divergent paths to happiness represented in the film, and by extension, the series, and I left the theatre in a really positive frame of mind.
Today, I turned 37. And while it's definitely an intimidatingly large number for me on some level, I'm happy to see that there are at least a few more decades of upward trajectory waiting for me out there somewhere.
Pass the tequila - let's get this party started.