Monday, 17 February 2014

Gender travel


Confession time. One of my favourite films is Somewhere in Time. If the title’s unfamiliar, it’s a schlocky romantic drama from the late 1970s about a young playwright who checks into a hotel, falls in love with a photo of an actress who stayed there seventy years before and determines to travel back in time to meet her. What some (not me, obviously) would dismissively call a ‘women’s film’. The casting is hardly A-list. We feel a lot more sympathetic now to the late Christopher Reeve, knowing that he ended up quadriplegic after a riding accident; back then he was just the cartoon hero from Superman delivering another two-dimensional performance, with support from the equally bland Jane Seymour as the love of his life, Elise McKenna. 

Curiously, none of this bothers me too much. What saves the film is a sumptuous romantic score by the great John Barry, and a fabulous conceit at the heart of the plot. How will our hero travel back in time? Thankfully, not by technical wizardry. In the novel from which the screenplay derives, author Richard Matheson expatiates at some length on the theories of JW Dunne (An Experiment with Time) and JB Priestley (Man and Time) concerning the Fourth Dimension. The film, however, needs a snappier dramatic coup: Reeve drops in on his old physics professor, who speculates how it might be possible to hypnotise yourself into the past.  Our hero kits himself out in period suiting from a fancydress hire, buys some old money from a coin dealer, reclines on his hotel bed and, having banished all evidences of the modern world, wills himself into the same hotel room on a specified date in the past. The décor from the hotel room in 1912 flickers into view for a few seconds, then disappears again. After several frustrating tries, he achieves temporal stability and lands firmly in the past, ready to woo the lovely Elise.

Temporary ‘transition’ powered by thought alone. The idea appeals. In fact, I find the film altogether suggestive of (trans)gender tourism. The hero’s efforts to focus on the past in order to meet his loved one are like mine to cross over to meet my female other; just so, by crossdressing, by channeling the mind, by applying heat and touch, I become her for seconds or minutes. I’ve tried using Barry’s ‘transition’ music from the soundtrack as accompaniment to my own gender travels, but find it less apt for the purpose than the film’s soaring title theme.

So have I really landed in the equivalent of the past?