Of Friendship, Faith, and Death: A Film Series for the Ages

Let your acquaintances be many,
but one in a thousand your confidant (Sirach).

I heard last month about the Academy Awards and the Big Flub. I suppose it would’ve been fun to witness it live instead of on YouTube, but not fun enough to regret skipping the broadcast altogether.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about Oscars night.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Not that I don’t love movies—I love movies. I’m just not interested in Hollywood’s self-absorbed celebrity culture, not to mention the posturing and pandering I recall from Oscar ceremonies gone by. Certainly it’s true that, overall, a comprehensive list of “Best Picture” winners is a pretty good guide for when you’re browsing at Family Video. But, boy, who needs the smarmy mess that typically accompanies the interminable yearly ceremony?

Besides, it’s hard to take its annual self-appraisal event seriously since so much of what Hollywood shoves our way is mediocre at best. If you’re like me, you naturally take into account how low the bar is set these days when somebody tells you that something is a “must see”—like the tepid Ben-Hur update last year, which was touted by some as solid entertainment (which it wasn’t). I might sound cynical, but it’s a cynicism widely shared, as Hollywood execs are painfully aware. Folks simply aren’t coughing up for movies like they used to, and the industry is desperate to fill seats—and the desperation shows.

Such were my cranky movie musings as I visited the public library the other day and glanced at their “Featured” rack of DVDs—a handy reference to what the librarians (presumably in the know) are watching. That’s where I saw 56 Upno kidding? Thanks, librarians! I grabbed it and mentally cleared my evening’s schedule. This, I knew, was cinematic art worth sacrificing time for, and I indeed stayed up way too late that night to take it in. Actually, it wasn’t even really a sacrifice—more of an honor.

upseries56 Up (2012) is the latest in Granada Television’s Up series which started way back in 1964. The first installment was Seven Up! which consisted of interviews with a group of English seven-year-olds from all over the U.K.’s socio-economic strata. Filmmaker Michael Apted has been involved in the project from the beginning, and he’s been revisiting the same group of children (with few exceptions) at seven year intervals ever since. Apted then weaves together meditative updates on each individual, contrasting where they’d come to in the present with where they’d been, where they’d hoped to be, and where they’re going.

It’s a series almost a half century in the making and it’s marvelous—especially for someone like me who has been following it (off and on) for decades. I first encountered it when I lived in New York City in 1985, and I chanced upon 28 Up at an art house in the Bowery or the Village—I can’t remember. What I do remember, however, was that I was mesmerized by the film, particularly since I was myself on the verge of turning 28, and the documentary’s layered developmental testimonials represented an arresting point and counterpoint that was all too familiar. The 28-year-old versions of the interviewees exhibited a cocksure overconfidence that uncomfortably mirrored my own, and I knew it to be a thin veneer over a fragile lack of direction and foundation.

Then I forgot about the series—my own life got busy and more complicated. No more Manhattan semi-Beohemianism for me, no more art houses; on to graduate school and a job, marriage and family life. In time, the “Up” series re-emerged on my radar and I connected with it again—probably 49 Up in 2005, when I was wrangling 7-year-olds of my own. Again, more reflective insight, more unsettling familiarity. Those late-fortyish adults were a lot like me, navigating the full flourishing of adult life with a lingering uncertainty that we’re missing something—that, somehow, other grown-ups are “figuring it out” better than we are.

And now here’s 56 Up, and I’ve happened upon it in my own 56th year—surprise! I fully share Kenneth Turan’s comment in the Los Angeles Times that viewing it is like a reunion with a friend. “Make that 13 old friends, together again for a documentary project the likes of which the world has never seen,” Turan writes. “It’s such a privilege to be able to watch as it continues to unfold.”

Among those 13, I was especially interested in catching up with Neil Hughes. More than any of the other Up regulars, the contours of Neil’s story, at least as revealed in the film series, resonate with my own—although I suppose you could say that I actually have little in common with him. He’s British, for one thing; I’m a Hoosier. Plus, he was truly homeless for a period of time, whereas I’ve only experienced living with the homeless as a Catholic do-gooder. Neil has remained single; I’m married and the father of seven. Neil landed in politics and public service. Me? I’m a nurse and a nursing instructor, with no political aspirations at all.

Nevertheless, Neil routinely touches on themes of great interest to me—themes that the other participants tend to avoid. What’s more, his appearances in the series are always marked by poignancy and grace, and I find his reflections both articulate and quietly stirring.

Take religion, for instance. Mr. Hughes has consistently demonstrated that he is bothered by God—bothered enough to talk candidly about his doubts and religious reservations. I find that so refreshing, especially since many of his comments over the years have paralleled thoughts of my own. “In the Old Testament God is very unpredictable, and that’s how I see him in my life,” he said as a 28-year-old, “sometimes very benevolent, sometimes seemingly, needlessly unkind.”

At 56, however, Neil serves as a lay reader in the Anglican Church, leading worship, preaching, administering the sacraments. He’s come around enough with regards to formal religion to have taken on a formal officiating role, but he’s still bothered, he still voices his doubts. Speaking of his church work, Hughes states that it’s “not the sort of place where someone who wants to change society is best employed. I mean, I would’ve thought that was pretty obvious.” Nonetheless, my guess is that his ministry is making a bigger difference in the lives of those around him than he thinks—probably more than his work on the county council.

Still, I can appreciate his religious bewilderment as much as I do his desire to impact the world for good: they often go hand in hand. In some ways, I envy his relationship with God—the guilelessness, the frank complaints, the high expectations. Neil is like an Anglican version of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof, bickering with God, holding up his hands in exasperation—why can’t things be different? Neil’s is a Christianity that takes God seriously and avoids easy answers. It’s a dimension of what set him apart from his series colleagues; it makes him downright quirky—so be it! “In a world of hyperbole, duplicity, factual disfigurement, and spin,” writes Archbishop Chaput in the aptly titled Strangers in a Strange Land, “speaking plainly and living honestly in obedience to Jesus Christ is an abnormal behavior.”

Then there’s the reality of death, which grows in its looming inevitability as the Up series continues, but which is only lightly touched on by most of the participants. Neil, however, has no trouble tackling it head on. “I don’t want to live to be that old,” he says. “I think if I can reach something like 70 or 75, in reasonable health, that would be quite enough for me.” Again, I appreciate Mr. Hughes’ candor—the fact that he talks openly about what so many of us 50-somethings prefer to avoid—although I have serious misgivings as to what he might mean by “quite enough.” Were we real friends, I could probe his comment a bit further, maybe challenge him with regards to what appears to be a contradiction between his Christian allegiance and a seeming lack of hope and trust.

Yet, that’s just it, isn’t it—we’re not “real” friends, not even acquaintances. The relating is totally unilateral, and even Neil’s apparent transparency is truncated by the intermittent format. “For so many millions of people, I’m here wearing my heart on my sleeve,” Neil says of the Up series. “There were countless people writing me saying, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ Actually, from those letters, I would say none of them, not a single one of them, knew exactly how I was feeling.”

That makes sense, of course, and it’s no doubt true for the other Up participants as well. Still, there are lessons about friendship and relationships embedded in 56 Up that I found profoundly edifying. Regardless of background or current socioeconomic status, all 13 stressed the singular importance of investing more time in friends and family as they aged. Here, too, Neil’s contribution stands out. “Perhaps we’re most happy when we’re not aware of it, and enjoying a relaxed meal with some friends, just being with friends,” he says. “I can’t think of hardly anything better than walking across the fields and we just chat about the things we’re interested in and our aspirations. And I think that’s the noblest and in many ways the most satisfying of relationships you could possibly have.” Once again, Neil embodies and anticipates Archbishop Chaput:

Despite the strife of the world and their own flaws and failures, friends enjoy a foretaste of the peace and rest we’ll experience fully in heaven. Their communion together in Christian love mirrors that communion of the Trinity toward which their friendship leads them.

Preparations must already be under way for producing and assembling 63 Up—the target year of 2019 is right around the corner. I expect it will be, like the others in the series before it, an enlightening, satisfying viewing experience. Moreover, I’ll be glad to reconnect with the series regulars, like Neil. Their appearance in the series every seven years is truly a gift—almost like a jubilee cinematic retreat prompting viewers to clear the decks and take stock. This time around, I’ll chalk it up to providence that I stumbled upon 56 Up right before Lent. It has appropriately prompted me to introspection and action—to focus on my faith, to remember my death, and to authentically connect with real friends.


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