Friday, April 22, 2011

Spotlight On: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

'One day, in the late mid 80's, i was in my early late 20's, i had just been dismissed from university after delivering a brilliant lecture on the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll entitled: You, Kant. Always Get What You Want. At 26, my academic career was over, I had never kissed a boy, and I was still sleeping with mom...'

I was completely in love with this film since I saw it when i was 16-ish when it first came out, to now, and think I'll always be. Unlike most films I was obsessed with at 16 and have since developed a more intellectual taste (Aronofsky, Tarantino, the wrong Scorsese) this film has always been in my file of absolute adoration (as trite as that sounds). Director John Cameron Mitchell first made this musical opus into a rock-opera that appeared in tiny off off off-broadway theaters that started with an audience of about 40 or so people and grew to be a bionafied cult hit in New York City. This gave him confidence to adapt his unique vision into a film. Sure, rock operas had gasped their last breath early in the 80's after the fiasco that was the film adaptation of Hair (1980) and as Rob Marshall expressed fear about  the following year, that no one was buying the idea of people randomly breaking into song, when he tackled the adaptation of Chicago (2002) for the screen, but this did not deter the petite, soft-spoken genius from San Antonio, Texas.
He created the character of Hedwig Schmidt, which he played himself, from spending nights assimilating himself into the vibrant gay scene in Manhattan's West Village (Christopher St. to be exact). He envisioned a character from East Berlin who's love for rock and roll propels him to write American music, and his love for a man gets him to the states, the only catch being he had to submit to a back-alley sex change operation which left him with neither man nor lady parts, but a small piece of flesh about an angry inch long. He forms a band and travels mid-level themed restaurants and cafe's performing his adversity-inspired songs, bitter about the break up between him and his one time muse Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who not only broke his heart, but stole his material, subsequently becoming immensely successful because of it.
Hedwig sees himself as female even though he has neither identification biologically. His snide sarcasm and witty cynicism drives the comedic art in this tragicomedy-musical-rock opera-bio-opus. There is little plot, but instead a visionary look into the tribulations of a beautiful and poignant story of a person who is very much an original, accented by primitive yet lyrical illustrations.
an illustration during the 'Origin of Love' number reminds the idea Plato wrote about regarding all of us being two halves of a whole searching tirelessly all of our lives for the other half to complete us. 
John Cameron Mitchell's arc as a filmmaker is sadly overshadowed by other independents who are wrongly percieved as 'visionary' and 'genius' because his work is largely cult. Hedwig was for a time performed Rocky Horror Picture Show style with a shadow cast at midnight on Saturday's at the IFC Center on 6th Avenue (quick shout out to my SVA comrade Ian who was in one of the shadow casts back when I saw it in 2005).
The aesthetic look of Hedwig is very original in its own right as to not fall into that trap of 'drag films' that were popularized by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, TransAmerica, and Too Wong Foo...It is a film with universal themes, and represents them through music. Hedwig Schmidt is not just a film that we see so that we can marvel at how well actors we know as men perform as women, that would dictate farce. Hedwig is not this in the least. Humorous and tragic, it is a masterpiece among a veritable sea of farcical mediocrity.
Perhaps it is because it was made by a gay man rather than a straight man doing research on gay men. And for all it's sincerity, it might be the most heartbreaking account of sexual ineptitude caused by a botched surgery in an effort to please his lover and subsequent loss of self that leads to a redemption in discovering owns complete uniqueness.
JC-M's follow-up to Hedwig was the un-simulated sex fatwa titled Shortbus (2006) which explored these themes in a much more literal sense, and somehow mastered integrating the graphic with the romantic for film. The idea that people categorize his films are 'cult' or 'gay' is incorrect, because his particular style of storytelling functions on universal narrative and visual principles which work as visionary interpretations of sexuality, humanity, and struggle. I made everyone I know watch it when it first came out, and now I'm telling those of you who haven't seen it, please do. If nothing else, you'll fall absolutely in love with the music. The soundtrack (all original and written by John Cameron Mitchell) is incredible and holds its own with those of the genre's greats like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. I felt the number 'Wig in a Box' about half way through the film was speaking directly to me (again, i apologize for being trite) but in the case of this film, I can't help it. When JC-M came to introduce the film at the IFC, my excited 21-year-old self almost hyperventilated from knowing i was in the presence of a real cinema genius.

This is one of my favorite numbers from the film. the poignant and tragic 'Origin of Love'.

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