Absolutely fabulous

Liz Breslin revisits a hypercoloured Central Otago cinematic classic.

There might be 50 ways of saying fabulous, but at letterboxd.com someone called Robino gave the film of the same name two and a half stars and said, “they only said it 17 times.”

It’s streaming on TVNZ+ at the moment so I tried to keep a “fabulous” count while watching it, but I kept getting distracted. Distracted by trying to work out the precise film locations in the Ida Valley. Distracted by the hyperreal blue of the sky. Distracted because are those pan pipes on the soundtrack? And why? Distracted by how the heck this film isn’t better known locally, for all that it’s homegrown.

Before it was a film that internationally premiered at the Toronto Film Festival alongside two other New Zealand films you might have heard of  ̶  The World’s Fastest Indian and River Queen  ̶  50 Ways of Saying Fabulous was a 1995 book by Central Otago author Graeme Aitken who grew up in a little, small, so small place in the Maniototo called Paerau with big, big skies.

In the name of research, I decided to catch up with a proper local. I drove out to Paerau one day in 2023 with Patsy Inder, whose family have lived in the Maniototo area for six generations – she is of the fifth generation. As we waited for her four-wheel drive to get juiced up at the electric car charging station in Ranfurly, she greeted almost everyone who passed us by name. On the road out we saw a library that used to be run by the grandmother of an All Black rugby player. At Paerau, or Styx as it is sometimes called locally, Patsy pointed out Graeme Aitken’s family farm. She also showed me the dividing line between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the valley, the school, and the historic jail, said to have held more gold than people. On the way home we talked about the local book club’s latest read, Catherine Chidgey’s The Axemen’s Carnival, a rurally-set novel that includes a talking magpie, an A&P Show and some dreadful domestic abuse. We agree that stories hit differently when they’re from here and not about here. Almost back in Ranfurly, we passed the Catholic church that had grown up three internationally-renowned opera singers.

Sometimes it can seem like everyone knows everyone in rural places, and sometimes that knowing is friendly, like, if you’re trying to make a feature film in 35 days on a $2.8million dollar budget and you come to realise, like production designer Ken Turner, that “the power of a crate of beer is amazing around these parts.” The film is set in 1975, and in the early 2000s it was apparently easy enough to find houses from the 1930s and dress them up to the 1970s. Probably still is in some parts of these parts. The crew were stationed in Omakau and Ophir. With the majority of filming set to be done outside, and a bush-fire-related storyline dependent on drought-like conditions, the in-joke was that they were the only people in the area not praying for rain. It did rain. They had to un-green the landscape in post production, with some kind of redding filter, as well as bluing up the sky. 

Director Stewart Main called 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous a story of “loyalty and friendship and being true to yourself and finding your place in the world.” Oh yes, and it’s also queer. The neat way to describe it would be as a coming of age and coming out story. But the truth is it’s queer in the kind of explicit and bone-close realistic way that makes conservative lobbyists in organisations like Family First clutch their pearls and bibles or whatever it is they hold onto these days.

Graeme has said “there’s quite a bit of me in there.” Which reminds me of the poet Dominic Hoey’s lines: “i’m thinking i’m going to be on panels / where they’ll ask me to talk about all my brilliant ideas / ‘tell us Dominic, how did you come up with your main character?’ / ‘well you see it’s me . . . but i changed the name.’”

Billy Boy is the name of the main character in 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous. In the first few minutes of the film, we see him bike to the bus stop where he meets his cousin Lou, who gives him a cow tail to wear as a ponytail. She changes out of her dress and into shorts and t-shirt and they board the bus to school. Billy’s nemesis, Arch, is there to greet them. Arch is one of those super masculine rural sporty types who gets walloped by his dad. Sample dialogue, after Lou has tackled him during rugby one day: “I got a feel of her tits.”

On the bus, Arch calls Billy a poofter for wearing his cow tail. It’s this that gives the film its title. When pressed, Arch isn’t quite sure what a poofter is, other than people his dad says to watch out for who have “fifty ways of saying fabulous.” And so begins a film-long obsession for Billy, finding out what “acting the poof” entails.

Aunt Evey (played by Rima Te Wiata, who you might have seen as Bella in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) tells him a poofter is someone who prefers culture to cows, which seems a very good thing to Billy since he has no real interest in cows or farming or rugby until the very hunky farmhand Jamie turns up. At which point Billy decides he must fake-like all of these things immediately, because Jamie is hot like David Cassidy and this is very confusing.

One thing the film does so well is expose the mess and the shame of growing up gay, contrasting the homosocial stuff (Pride of the South and all that) to Billy’s secrecy and disgust at his own thoughts and actions. In the hypercoloured (thanks to a post-production grant) world they live in, it’s absolutely fine when Arch and some of the other attendees at Lou’s birthday party get Billy to ambush Roy, who is the new boy at school and also a “freak” from the big city of Dunedin, and sit on him so they can downtrou him. And it’s fine when Lou says she would rather have had a feel of Roy’s cock than the dumb picture he drew her. But it’s definitely not fine for Billy and Roy to fancy each other and they both know it. They meet in secret down at the old disused jail by the river for mutual masturbation sessions. Roy: “It’s OK as long as it’s in the dark.” “Will it help me lose weight?” asks Billy, who has had ‘Fats’ added to the names used against him in an incident of birthday cake shaming.

Anyway, Jamie gets a hot girlfriend, and Lou gets mad because even though she loves him thinking she’s a boy and she literally binds her chest and dies of embarrassment when her mum takes her bra shopping, she also wants him to notice her. Everyone is really, really, really mean to each other and also there’s a rugby game where Billy wins by stuffing the ball up his shirt which was not illegal in 1975. (It didn’t happen that way in the book, but in the film version this sequence got around some issues that the actor Andrew Patterson, who played Billy, was having with his knees.) There are lots of things that don’t happen in the film that happen in the book, which is partly always the way with books and films, but it’s interesting in this case how the book feels like it’s from the place and the people, while the film is very much about it.

At the end, Roy, the freak from Dunedin, runs around with a gun shooting it into the dark FOR LOVE OF BILLY WHICH WE KNOW BECAUSE HE DROPS BILLY’S RED PONYTAIL RIBBON FROM THE COW TAIL AND JAMIE HAS TO LEAVE BECAUSE HIS GIRLFRIEND IS A MEAN SLUT AND BILLY RIPS DOWN HIS DAVID CASSIDY POSTERS AND EVERYONE IS VERY SAD. Except then they get happy again because they’re just kids playing their just kids games in the most beautiful landscapes. The end.

All this is probably why 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous gets reviews like this one from claviclepatella on Nov 28 2023:

So strange, feels very surreal especially with all the Kiwi accents. Super entertaining then super uncomfortable then ridiculously uncomfortable then super hilarious on repeat. I’m sure this was very progressive for what it was but I’m not sure it still holds up as being incredible. And the ridiculous music!!!! Almost psychological horror could be playing out and it sounds like an ad for Morning Breeze air freshener. But i LOVED how dynamic the camera was, they went uber liberal on the zooms.

– Two and a half stars

The film was shot on 35mm, but cinematographer Simon Raby wanted to give it a “Super 8 home movie feel”. I think that’s what claviclepatella meant about “uber liberal on the zooms”. And Kirsty Cameron, the costume designer, came up with a tonal palette that you might not find on a colour wheel: janola. For that constantly fading bleachy look. Which is, well, fabulous.

The film opened in Aotearoa to audiences in Wānaka and Arrowtown, grossing $8000 over three weeks. It ran round the international queer film circuit with variable successes and the U.S. film rights were sold at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005, where it was called “a magnificent work of art whose cinematic narration humanizes the feelings and experiences of many who often are treated as alienated others.” The queers, pearl-clutchers, they meant the queers. Or maybe they mean the rural folk, since Stewart said, “coming from the city you have this notion of country people as rednecks and very conservative. But the experience of moving into a small rural community and being embraced by it totally changed my prejudices about country people. I think they appreciated having a film made about country life in NZ.” I think those “country people” probably also appreciated and enjoyed getting to watch two of their own in starring roles in the film. Wānaka local Harriet Beattie was cast in the role of Lou and Queenstown’s Georgia McNeill played younger sister Babe. The local kids turned up aplenty as extras for the birthday party and the rugby scenes, too.

Throughout the story, Babe trails behind Lou and Billy as they play their favourite fantasy games, especially the one where they gender-swap the characters in Lost in Space (a 1960s American TV show that was like Swiss Family Robinson, but in space) and Brad (Lou) has to rescue Lana (Billy) pretty much constantly. “The air’s too thin on this planet, Lana. It’s time to go home.”

Liz Breslin