Rob Edelman: Growing Up, Growing Older

Jul 8, 2013

HOOP DREAMS, which dates from 1994, is an extraordinary documentary which covers four years in the lives of its subjects, a pair of inner-city Chicago youngsters who yearn for stardom on the hardwood. Well, a new-to-DVD documentary, titled 56 UP, is the latest in a series of films which, in their totality, cover 49 years in the lives of their subjects. They are a group of British youngsters from various classes and backgrounds who first were filmed as seven years olds in 1964. Every seven years, the cameras have been turned back on and they have been revisited and filmed yet again. A bit of simple math tells us that 56 UP is the eighth installment in the series.

The newly-filmed footage found in 56 UP is contrasted to images of each individual across the years, and it is nothing short of spellbinding to watch these men and women literally age before our eyes. But there is so much to be gleaned from this contrast that transcends mere physical appearance. In the early footage, the questions to each interviewee are: What do you want out of life? What are your dreams? What are your hopes? But now, when they are older, the questions are: Have you gotten what you’ve wanted? Have you achieved your youthful ambitions? Also, as they’ve gone through life, how much have they had to compromise? How do they feel about their past, and the choices they’ve made in their lives?

The series charts how views and feelings change. For example, at 21, one of the female interviewees declares, “I don’t like babies.” Then, at age 28, we see her with two sons. At 35, she has two sons and a daughter.

Each episode also reflects its time period. So what makes 56 UP relevant to the present is that it offers a strong sense of how the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession impacted on the average working person in England. And also, the participants now are well into middle age, and so they are queried as to their sentiments regarding aging and dealing with the inevitability of infirmity.

There are still more issues that are addressed here. For example, how do the subjects feel about being filmed and recorded? How do they feel about the “tiny little snippets” that are taken from their interviews and end up in the film? Do they feel they are being fairly represented? In their totality, the series also mirrors the British class system. Those who are born into wealth pretty much stay wealthy and, for the most part, those who are born into the working class stay in the working class. It’s a familiar story.

However, even though the series deals with specific individuals in a specific country, it is oh so easy for each viewer to personalize what happens onscreen. Each viewer easily can see him or herself in the films, and each viewer can ask: What if I had been part of this series? How would I feel about the changes in my appearance, and my attitudes? As a middle-aged person, would I be laughing and shaking my head as I see myself in my teens or twenties? Would I feel satisfied with my life? Or would I be disappointed?

But time passes. Life goes on. And in 56 UP, you can see all those who were seven-year-olds back in 1964 and, low and behold, many of them now are grandparents.

Yes indeed, given the time period it covers in the lives of its subjects, 56 UP is a special and unique film.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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