Fri Jan 4, 2013, 12:35 PM
groovedaddy (6,172 posts)
The British Class Divide, on a Personal Scale
Life rushes by so fast, it flickers today and is gone tomorrow. In “56 Up” — the latest installment in Michael Apted’s remarkable documentary project that has followed a group of Britons since 1964, starting when they were 7 — entire lifetimes race by with a few edits. One minute, a boy is merrily bobbing along. The next, he is 56 years old, with a wife or an ex, a few children or none, a career, a job or just dim prospects. Rolls of fat girdle his middle and thicken his jowls. He has regrets, but their sting has usually softened, along with everything else.
In a lot of documentaries you might not care that much about this boy and what became of him. But if you have watched any of the previous episodes in Mr. Apted’s series, you will care, and deeply, partly because you watched that boy grow up, suffer and triumph in a project that began as a news gimmick and social experiment and turned into a plangent human drama. Conceived as a one-off for a current-affairs program on Granada Television, the first film, “Seven Up!,” was a 40-minute look at the lives of 14 children from different backgrounds. Britain was changing, or so went the conventional wisdom, with postwar affluence having led the working class to adapt middle-class attitudes and lifestyles.
In 1963, though, the sociologists John H. Goldthorpe and David Lockwood disputed this widely held “embourgeoisement thesis,” arguing that the erosion of social class had not been as great as believed. In its deeply personal fashion, the “Up” series went on to make much the same point by checking in with many of the same boys and girls, men and women, every seven years. Despite some dropouts, the group has remained surprisingly intact. For better and sometimes worse, and even with their complaints about the series, participants like Tony Walker, who wanted to be a jockey and found his place as a cabby, have become cyclical celebrities. For longtime viewers they have become something more, including mirrors.
It’s this mirroring that helps make the series so poignant. As in the earlier movies, Mr. Apted again folds in older material from the ages of 7, 14 and so on, to set the scene and jog memories. The abrupt juxtapositions of epochs can be jarring, unnerving or touching — sometimes all three — as bright-faced children bloom and sometimes fade within seconds. An analogous project in print or even still photographs wouldn’t be as powerful, because what gives the “Up” series its punch is not so much its longevity or the human spectacle it offers, but that these are moving images of touchingly vibrant lives at certain moments in time and space. The more you watch, the more the movies transform from mirrors into memory machines, ones that inevitably summon reflections of your own life.
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