Hero’s guide to transformation
HAS there ever been an Australian film — or any film — quite like Tuesdays? This is the feature debut of Adelaide-based documentarymaker Sophie Hyde, and everything about it, from the boldness of its subjectmatter, the performances of its nonprofessional cast to the depth and intimacy of its emotional universe, is extraordinary. How it was made is no less remarkable than the film itself. Selected pages from Matthew Cormack’s screenplay were delivered to the actors a week before each segment was shot. Shooting took place on consecutive Tuesdays over a full year. Fragments, sequences, from every one of those days can be seen in the finished film. The result, well-received by overseas critics, won awards at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals. So is 52 Tuesdays nothing less than a wholly compelling and engrossing cinematic experience? Well, yes, I suppose so.
It is unusual for a film’s producers to offer advice to reviewers on the use of personal pronouns. Our grammar may occasionally fall short of the highest standards, but generally we know the difference between he and she. So I was somewhat taken aback to discover in my press-kit the following message from Del Herbert-Jane, one of the stars of 52 Tuesdays, which I quote in good faith: “It is requested that media use Del’s name in the first instance, otherwise the pronouns ‘they’, ‘ them’, ‘their.’ When referring to the character of James, it’s fine to say ‘Billie’s mother’, but please use ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ as pronouns.” I’ll try to remember. A document with further advice on gender-neutral pronouns and transgender terms was available for downloading, but so far I haven’t consulted it.
As you will have gathered, 52 Tuesdays is a film about gender transition — what we used to call a sex-change. It’s told from the point of Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a 16-year-old girl who learns that her mother plans to change her sex (sorry, his sex) over the course of a year. For Billie this proves a deeply unsettling experience. For much of the film she confronts the camera in close-up to pour out her feelings. Her tone, at first pugnacious and surly, gradually softens, and her outpourings are heartfelt and moving. But too often they slow down the action — or what little action there is. It’s always a good rule in fiction that characters should show us how they feel, rather than tell us. It makes for dramatic clarity and sharper characterisation, with fewer opportunities for preaching.
James’s gender transition will require hormone injections and surgery. And while her transition (sorry, his transition) is in progress, Billie will see her mother once a week. Tuesdays will be their one day for each other. The rest of the week she will spend with her father Tom (Beau Travis Williams), who takes a rather jaundiced view of the whole business, as most husbands probably would. Not the least of Billie’s problems is whether to address James as “dad”. She repeats the word over and over — “Dad, dad, dad, dad” — but somehow it doesn’t sound right. She wonders about her own sexuality, adorns her pretty face with toy beards and moustaches, and puzzles over the rubber penis that arrives one day for James in the mail. Sly touches of humour temper the solemnity.
A story told in snippets inevitably feels disjointed, despite the best efforts of Hyde and her cinematographer Brian Mason (who also edited the film) to get everything flowing smoothly. Nothing quite works out as planned. Waiting for signs of increased muscle mass and coarsening hair, James has a bad reaction to his testosterone injections, and has to abandon them. But his outward transition from womanliness to blokiness is nicely done (he starts shaving, as a title informs us, on December 6). HerbertJane’s performance is finely nuanced and understated, but 52 Tuesdays isn’t really James’s story. It’s about Billie’s progress to enlightenment, tolerance and understanding — and the audience is invited to share it. As Billie puts it, none too subtly: “If you can’t live with yourself, you shouldn’t be here.”
Hyde has given us an honest film about people confronting their true selves. Twenty years ago we would have called it quirky — quirkiness being the vogue with Australian filmmakers in the 1990s, when The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert broke new ground in the portrayal of gender stereotypes. In 2005 Hollywood gave us Transamerica, an odd film about a transsexual who wants to become a woman and goes in search of her son in prison. It was the feature debut of writerdirector Duncan Tucker. Hyde’s feature debut is powerful and touching, but I wondered about those repeated shots of cracking glaciers and splintering icecaps. Is 52 Tuesdays about global warming as well as gender tolerance and diversity? That would really be quirky. WATCHING The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I caught up with in a crowded multiplex over the Easter weekend, it occurred to me that this most ambitious of superhero franchises might actually work better as comedy. It may even be working as comedy already. After all, it’s based on the old Marvel Comic, and comics, by definition, were meant to be funny, even when the fate of the world was at stake. It’s the second Spider-Man film directed by Marc Webb and the fifth in the series.
Things get off to a funny start when Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) turns up at his highschool graduation ceremony with moments to spare, swinging down from on high in his Spidey suit to make a quick change of gear, don a mortarboard and collect his piece of paper from the dean. He has spent the first 15 minutes of the movie sorting out some mayhem involving a runaway truck in the streets of Manhattan. I remember something similar in the last film, and it’s still very funny. There’s also something irresistibly funny about American high-school graduation ceremonies, with their serried ranks of admiring parents and pompous rhetoric. Peter’s girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone) has just delivered the “valetudinarian” speech at her school, which feels as empty and platitudinous as the movie. I couldn’t help laughing.
There’s also something funny in the idea of Peter, a nerd if ever there was one, disguising himself as a superhero. He’s besotted with Gwen, who has had enough of his erratic behaviour and walks out on him. His new foe is Max (Jamie Foxx), who is transformed into an electrified monster with the aid of a tankful of electric eels — surely a comic masterstroke.
And the laughs pile up. Peter strolls across a busy street to greet his beloved while honking traffic swerves to avoid him. That was a staple in Buster Keaton comedies about 70 years ago. Another guy crosses a street carrying an enormous fish. A cop gets tangled in a spider-web. I liked the idea of Gwen winning a scholarship to Oxford while Peter pretends to be an Oxford professor. His chum Harry (Dane DeHaan) is the son of the founder of Oscorp, the sinister corporation that specialises in genetic experiments. Harry is a thorn in the side of Oscorp’s scheming board members, who are hatching a secret plan for a new super-weapon. What sort of management-speak can disguise their motives if their plans are uncovered? The answer: “Plausible deniability.” Hilarious. If only Barry O’Farrell had thought of it.
It goes without saying that Webb and his screenwriters deliver on the essentials — slambang action, computerised effects and lots of shots of Spidey jumping through windows and swinging from one tower block to another. But how long can the series last without running out of steam? The next film may need something completely different — a time-warp scenario, a zombie or a vampire in the bad guy role, a trip to outer space. Spidey could take a mighty leap and land on the moon.
That would be the last we hear of him, and a money-spinning Hollywood franchise would draw quietly to a close. That would really be funny. Amazing, in fact.
Left, Tilda Cobham-Hervey in 52 Tuesdays; below, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro