I can never remember if I've seen all the "Up" movies since 28 Up or if I missed 49 Up. I guess the important thing is that I feel like I've seen them all and I that I have an emotional investment in these characters. After all, in one way or another, they've been on my mind for twenty-eight years since I saw 28 Up in 1985 at the Cinema 7 theater in downtown Eugene.
When I watched 28 Up, back in 1985, I suppose I thought of myself as kind of a fourth-rate Anglophile. I had been to England twice, in 1975 and 1979, loved it, and was a graduate student in English literature, which I also loved.
So, in 1985, I listened to Jackie and Bruce and Suzi and Symon and Nick and Neil and Lynn and Sue and Paul and Nick and Tony and Andrew (John and Charles did not participate) being interviewed, I was mostly mindful of Margaret Thatcher.
28 Up had been released in 1984. Thatcher had been in power for about five years. I had it in my mind that, as I watched 28 Up, that the subjects of the movie seemed less British to me in their dress; they seemed more Americanized on the surface. I had it in my mind, back then, that the Reagan America was a model for Thatcher and that somehow it must all be going her way.
That meant that I experienced Neil, the homeless man wandering the north of England, as embodying the Thatcher wreckage. I remember thinking that she had indeed punched huge holes in the social safety net and that while Neil fell through, someone like Andrew, a solicitor, was doing splendidly in Thatcher's England.
I know now that my response in 1985 was shallow. I really didn't know how Thatcher's England was affecting these people in any learned way and it was silly for me to feel like the "England I loved" when I visited was giving way to American clothing styles.
So, a week ago today, I went to the Bijou Theater in Eugene and watched 56 Up.
As a fifty-nine year old, my response to the movie was much different.
I didn't really respond much to the surface changes in the characters, except their faces.
I loved how their faces had aged. Each of them had weathered (and were weathering) tumult of some sort: divorce, death in the family, infidelity, chronic illness, financial pain, criticism from the press, miscalculations about their lives, loneliness; in short, they had grown into becoming very unique individuals, but had also grown into becoming emblems of what is universal in the human experience.
Yes, in those faces one can still see the difference in social class and can still see that what was in the seven year old is in the adult.
But, at what I can only think of as the spiritual level, those differences faded away and these thirteen people had matured into something like a full expression of the benevolence that was always present in them.
This benevolence in each of the people moved me to weep.
Again and again, each person made it a point to say that what mattered most in their lives was love for others.
For Neil, it was love of friends and fellow worshipers; for John, it was not only love of family and friends, but devotion to charity work in Bulgaria; Tony's wife endured his stupid dalliances with other women, and now, less brash, more settled, Tony could see that what matter in life was not "birds" and "chasing skirts", but home, his wife, his children. Symon and his wife extended love to the outcast as foster parents; Bruce married late in life and after having been a teacher to the impoverished in England and India, he was now a father, devoted to his sons, as he had been devoted to his teaching projects when younger; Lynn and Jackie suffer, from illness and financial hardship, but their goodness, generosity, and devotion to family radiated in their stories.
Sue loves her partner and has taken up acting and is full of vitality. Yes, Andrew is wealthy, but it was his love for his wife and sons that shone most brightly. Did a man in his mid-fifties ever seem kinder, more benevolent than Paul, in his gentleness and warmth as he does handyman work at a retirement village and extends his kindness to those who live there?
Coming back to the Dales, pulling on his waders, animated Nick, softened him, put him back in touch with his origins, and I loved seeing him interviewed in England rather than the USA where he works. I loved also seeing how much kinder and mellowed Peter was. I was happy he returned to the project. The arrogant kid he was in his twenties has nearly melted away and the joy he expressed in talking about his band and what we saw when he played his music was invigorating. And, lastly, Suzi, who always expresses resistance to the Up project, has grown even more fully into her elegance. Almost all of the bitterness and sharpness of her younger self has worn away and she, like the others, is devoted to loving her family. It was a bonus to see how fondly she and Nick feel for one another. They've become great friends.
Watching this movie, having followed these thirteen people for twenty-eight years, makes it tempting to think about what I would talk about with Michael Apted at this stage of my life, were I part of an "Up" series.
But, I don't really need Michael Apted to talk about these things. The Deke and I talk about our lives all the time.
Neither one of us is very savvy when it comes to money and neither of us wants much from the world in that way.
What matters most to us is family, friends, and service through teaching (and for me at church). We have settled into our benevolence, into our appreciation for those we love: our kids, grandchildren, our siblings, my mother, our extended families, and for our friends. The bonds we have with family now have long history and somehow all that time that seems to have passed, really has not. It's all alive in the present when we are with those we love.
Experiencing the strength and the security of the past in the present is especially alive in my friendships, not only with my Kellogg friends, but with the longtime friends I teach with, some whom I've known for nearly thirty years, and with my Westminster Basement friends from Whitworth, whom I've known now for over thirty years.
Yes, we live in the present, but with friends and family, our shared history is a bedrock of strength and reservoir of goodwill, both of which invigorate each moment in the present we are together.
I saw the people in 56 Up drawing upon a similar strength, a similar goodwill, giving them the vitality that goodness and benevolence bring to life in a person.