Things You Realize While Watching 56 Up
On our second try last week, we got in to see 56 Up, the latest installment in the series that might be my favorite thing ever produced by the film industry, at the IFC Center on Sixth Avenue. That the film is only playing in one NYC theater, with only one screening nightly, suggests either severe oversight or unknown logistical barriers, seeing that it sold out on both a Saturday and Tuesday night.
The original goal of the films was to demonstrate that in England, the lot one is born into is and remains the lot open to that person. The filmmakers chose 14 children from all walks of English life and profiled them, then profiled them again and again, every seven years. In 2012, they were 56 years old.
The class designations stick to this day. But something happens as you watch: You find yourself unable to see exactly why that matters. Where you should feel indignant for the ones that were not afforded the same opportunities in life as those in the upper classes, you instead feel a good-natured warmth toward the happiness that so many of them, including the less well off, have by their fifties seem to have found. Richer doesn’t mean happier. Poorer doesn’t mean desperate.
Watching the marriages in 56 Up develop over so many years and decades, you understand that all conceptions of marriage presented to you, by Hollywood, by conventional wisdom, by the New York Times Styles section and by Atlantic cover stories, stick to a conventional wisdom that upon careful inspection falls apart completely. Director Michael Apted asks one couple after another if, after so many years together, the chemistry is still there, and the answer is invariably yes. Some of them are second marriages, yes, but none of them are any longer new marriages. And yet so many of them are happy ones.
The other thing that happens as you watch: You realize you are watching people on film who are reluctant to be there. And you realize that despite reality television and Facebook and tweeting every detail, most people still want to be left to live their lives, offline, off-screen. Privacy still exists. Whether that will remain so for the grandchildren of the Up series’ stars remains to be seen, but the sense is that underneath the all-encompassing glare of the fame whores, who by definition steal all the attention, the larger swath of the population is getting along just like they always have.