52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, Australia, 2013)

Australian Cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

This is a brief blog post about 52 Tuesdays, which I am introducing this evening (18 August 2015) at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London.

The film tells the story of Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a gamine sixteen-year old who arrives home one day to find that her mum, Jane (Del Herbert-Jane), is about to undergo the process of gender reassignment, and to become a man, James.

Initially seeming to take the news in her stride, Billie moves in with her father, Tom (Beau Travis Williams), since Jane/James decides that he needs space in order for to concentrate on the sex change. She will see James every Tuesday. And so the film follows the story of Billie and her family over the course of a year, hence the film’s title.

However, as the year wears on, Billie, James and Tom all seem to experience various issues. For example, James’ testosterone treatment does not work as intended, and he suffers from various side effects of his treatment. Tom, meanwhile, falls from his motorbike (not for the first time).

Finally, Billie ends up playing truant at school as she falls in with Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), two students with whom she begins to experiment sexually – initially in a backstage room near her school’s theatre, and then in a space looked after by Billie’s queer father-of-one uncle, Harry (Mario Späte), a freewheeling libertine who lives with James and who seems to be in a rock band.

Not only does Billie push the boundaries of her relationship with her friends and family, then, but she also begins quite compulsively to record many of her sexual encounters with Josh and Jasmine – something that eventually is discovered by their parents, and which might fall foul of the law since the participants in the sex tapes are underage.

Billie’s motivation for recording her experiences are not necessarily narcissistic, though. That is, while there are elements of (well captured and certainly well performed) teenage navel-gazing in her footage, especially in her to-camera video diary confessions, there are two other reasons as to why this is happening.

Firstly, as Billie explains, she is no different from James, who similarly is recording his own transition from woman to man for the sake of posterity. That is, the act of recording is a bid to help one to understand the changes that one experiences and also perhaps to record for posterity a life that is otherwise all too fleeting.

Secondly, though, Billie might be recording herself in a bid to make sense of the world more generally. As the film flips from Tuesday to Tuesday, we regularly see television news footage of what at the time of the film’s making were current affairs: for example, the indictment of Julian Assange, footage from the civil war in Syria and the sinking of the Costa Concordia.

It is not that these clips ground the film in some specific political reality. On the contrary, the footage flashes past us with the effect that it is often hard to recognise what is going on. In other words, the world is a confusing and constantly changing place – and it is easy to feel lost therein.

More than this: one of the reasons why the world is so confusing is because it is so highly mediated; we are bombarded by images from all over the world, and the images themselves do not make that much sense unless we construct a narrative out of them, for example by adding a voice over in order to explain the images away.

That is, our confusion regarding the world is partially increased by information overload and by the technologies that humans have in principle created not only to bring order to that world but also precisely to help us make sense of it.

What do we make of Billie’s (and James’) almost pathological desire to record her/their experiences? Well, as mentioned, it is in part in order to make sense of their lives as they struggle to understand who they are.

But in particular, it is also about struggling who one is in terms of desire: what one wants. And what is interesting here, then, is the fact that the technology itself becomes the object of our desires.

Steven Soderbergh saw this at the start of his career and at the dawn of the age of the digital camera, now exploded into the world of mobile phones and other recording devices, when he made sex, lies, and videotape (USA, 1989).

It is not so much the other person that we desire as a complex mix of the other and the technology itself. And given how strange this must be for a human – to realise that their sexuality extends beyond the human and into the technological realm – little wonder it is that humans feel compelled to record what happens.

That is, the technology produces the desire while at the same time offering the hope for an explanation of that desire. If I might proffer a controversial claim, the technology becomes like therapy: it clarifies the problems that it claims to solve in order to extend our own relationship with that very technology.

It is, in other words, as if the technology were alive – and as if it were acting like a parasite with us in order to assure its own existence. It is likely a logical consequence of the camera on the mobile phone, in conjunction with WhatsApp and SnapChat, that teenage images and videos of genitalia are almost certainly rife across most schools in the (Western) world.

The world is confusing. But more than that, the narratives that we used to use to make sense of the world are no longer tenable as technology allows for gender reassignment, as it allows for auto-recording, and as it allows for us permanently to be experimenting with who we are, removing a sense of stability from the world and replacing it with fragmentation and becoming.

What is true of the world that 52 Tuesdays depicts is true also of how it depicts it. This is not simply a case of the mix of media that we see – home videos, video messages, Skype conversations, video diaries, ‘normal’ footage – and the use of the footage from the news.

It is also true of the way that the film shows us only what happens on Tuesdays. Interestingly, director Sophie Hyde and her crew also only shot the film on Tuesdays over the course of a year. As a result, the film itself has a fragmented feel, in which it is hard for us as viewers to construct a narrative – certainly more hard than it is most easy-to-follow films.

And yet, this fragmentation is a powerful tool for putting us the in the shoes of Billie and James, for we end up, like them, trying to make sense of what it is that we see.

Time rushes by, but time also can drag. As there is no fixed gender in the film (Billie is a boy’s name, Harry is effeminate, James obviously is changing sex), so there is no fixed rhythm to the film either, as it jerks then slows. The fragmentation of the world is not just spatial, it is also temporal/rhythmic.

While Tuesday is a typically masculine day (mardi, then French word for Tuesday, is named after the Roman god of war, Mars; the English name is also after the Norse god of war, Tiw), it is also a day on which we celebrate the carnival of gender reassignment, mardi gras.

And yet, while carnival sees the typical roles that we normally play reversed – men become women, the poor become rich – this is a controlled festival that ultimately helps to maintain the status quo.

What is perhaps interesting at the last, then, is that as carnival has within it a strong conservative streak, so, too, does 52 Tuesdays. For, ultimately after Jasmine and Josh fall by the wayside (before a final reconciliation), family does come through as a final lens through which to make sense of the world.

What is pleasurable about 52 Tuesdays is the fact that there is little to no sensationalising of Jane/James’ transition – perhaps in part as a result of Herbert-Jane’s remarkable performance and his own gender non-conformity in real life.

But also Cobham-Hervey’s central performance as Billie is especially affecting. At times archly scripted, nonetheless, 52 Tuesdays also captures the arch thinking to which adolescents sometimes can be prone.

An experimental feature that is engaged precisely with experimentation in relation to the sense-making process of narrative, 52 Tuesdays is a mature film, even if sometimes about immaturity – and if one were interested in a double bill, it would make a nice companion piece to Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015).

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