We saw some old friends the other day: Tony, Jackie, Neil, Lynn and the rest. So what if I've never actually met them. I feel I know them.
If you've followed the "Seven Up" series over the years you know who I'm talking about. This is the every-seven-years documentary by Michael Apted following the lives of a group of British people who were originally filmed as schoolchildren in 1964.
I first heard about these movies in college when a favorite English teacher mentioned them in passing - I think trying to illustrate that we were all, in our early 20s, totally freaking out. She described how the individuals in the movies all got kind of crazy or angry or confused as they neared young adulthood, but by the next cycle they seemed back, in some sense, to the foundation personalities they displayed in early childhood. (All except for the semi-tragic Neil, which perhaps shows just how close the teen and early twenties years are to mental illness. Not to make light of mental illness, but at first it's easy to mistake his troubles for garden-variety late-teen angst.)
I chased these movies for a long time. In the most melodramatic sense, I suspected they held the secret of life (or at least the key to my confusing teens and 20s). Every time I went into an artsy video store I'd check the documentary section. I think I did find one of the movies once - maybe "28 Up" - but I was reluctant to jump in at the middle. I didn't know the series was still being made, so when "42 Up" came to U.S. theaters it was an exciting surprise - that was the first one I saw. Then when the series thus far was released on DVD several years ago we started at the beginning and watched them all in a rush, 42 years of lives on fast-forward.
It happens that with the lag of the U.S. release schedule, I'm exactly two cycles behind the project's participants, so in a sense I'm on the seven-year plan, too. While they're experiencing 49, I'm 35, and last time around was 28. It's spooky, as the film recaps key points in each person's life, when their timelines synch up with mine. It's comforting, seeing these commonalities, but a little unsettling, too, as though personal choice has much less to do with the paths our lives take than we'd like to think. The "49" film has an extra tinge of melancholy because for the first time, the participants have noticeably aged, like so many Velveteen Rabbits with their stuffing starting to sag and their fur rubbed a little thin.
One of the participants, John, says several times that while he can see how the project would interest people, he doesn't know that there's "any value" in it, a boggling comment to anyone who loves these movies. Those of us who've come to know John (or at least feel that we do - he and the others might contend that we only "know" Michael Apted's version of them) have come to expect him to make dismissive statements like these, but several of the others echo the sentiment as well. All I can think is that it's a defensive stance on their parts, that they could not bear to live their lives unselfconsciously without playing down the "value" of allowing them to be documented.