Genre Index



Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2001. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. John Cameron Mitchel, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin.

I've mentioned this elsewhere, but it bears some elaboration: there are now two, count 'em, two movie industries. The industry most people are familiar with stocks the multiplexes with "entertainments." The other one, the one that seems to be getting the shaft from the instrumentality of the first industry, makes actual films from which people might actually get something more than a thrill ride. This is the "indie" sector, the sector that makes movies that some twenty-nine year old film executive with an MBA doesn't think have "mass appeal," movies that are ghettoized in "art houses" if they get released at all. Instead, the major movie studios have decided to pour all of their eggs into one or two baskets every summer and winter, customizing those eggs so that they offend no sensibilities except those of the film critic or film buff and hoping for an immediate recovery of negative cost. These very same executives have also decided that the ideal market demographic towards which they should aim their product is male and teenaged (this, of course, shows that film executives have no sense of history, since many of the biggest hits in Hollywood's history, from Gone With the Wind and Casablanca on through Titanic have skewed more toward an adult female audience...but that's another matter). The result of this, as we have seen during the last two or three (or ten) summers is a climate where bloated, big budget monstrosities crowd the small films out of the marketplace, where the selection of product for the end user--the movie audience, that is--is limited to between six and twelve movies, depending on the size of the market in which the audience happens to reside, and in which movies open big and lose half their audience the very next week. I'd like to talk about this last point for a minute:

The industry trade publications are pointing a lot of fingers at the steep drop off in box office in second and subsequent weeks of release for big studio films like Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes. The main culprit, according to pundits and executives, is steep competition in a crowded marketplace and a wider release of new product that enables more people to see the movie sooner. I submit that this is this not only untrue, but that the executives themselves know it. I theorize that the steep drop off is a result of the movies being crap. A good movie is going to get repeat business regardless of whatever else is in the marketplace. As evidence to support this proposition, I submit as Exhibit A, the box office performance of Star Wars, prior to George Lucas's revision and re-release of a couple of years ago. At its widest release in 1977 and 1978, Star Wars played on 800 screens. 800 screens is now considered to be a "limited" release. The end result of these business practices is that the choices audiences have at the movie theaters has dwindled in recent years and the ability of movies to build an audience through word of mouth had diminished. This is all to the advantage of the corporate overlords in charge of the film industry. If they can get a shitty movie with a big advertising blitz on 3300 screens, its opening weekend might, just might, pay for the movie and any further box office is gravy. This is, of course, a classic example of bait and switch executed on an unprecedented scale...

Inevitably, this is having an effect on audiences. It's hard, for instance, to think of a movie as a special event, meriting special behavior, when the product on the screen is as idiotic as the worst sitcom you can think of. Audiences behave like they are watching a movie at home even at the theater these days--and why not? The quality of entertainment isn't any better than what they get at home; hell, given the excellence of television product from The X-Files to The Sopranos, I would go so far as to say that the entertainment they are getting in the theater is actually WORSE. Clearly, a new filmgoing paradigm is needed, one built around a quality aesthetic experience rather than a "product." Fortunately, there ARE some dim rumblings out on the fringes.

Which brings me, to the ostensible subject of this piece, John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinemacafe. The Ragtag used to be a sort of floating crap game, an event that played on a screen erected in a local music bar. They were a film society, of sorts, dedicated to bringing in the sorts of movies that don't play at the multiplexes. A few years ago, they rented the space vacated by a used record store, set up a screen, obtained a liquor license, and hung out a shingle. It's not exactly the best auditorium you've ever sat in--hell, the chairs look to have been scrounged from garage sales and the accoustics are terrible--but, by golly if they don't attract a crowd. The venue regularly sells out, even on nights when the multiplexes are empty and they could profitably move to a larger space. What this venue represents is the new film underground, where adult filmgoers can go to see a movie (and have a beer or glass of wine while they're at it), free from crowds of teenagers and couples who couldn't get a baby-sitter (for whom, a special circle in hell has been reserved). The whole thing reminds me a little of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, in which bands of lone readers preserve books by committing them to memory--only, here the lone filmgoers are doing the same with movies. On this particular evening, the Ragtag folks had a pair of musicians warm up the audience with accordion and bass fiddle, which is a fine, fine alternative to the advertising slideshows that the multiplexes show (usually to the strains of the John Williams or Danny Elfman score of your choice).

And then the movie started.

Let me tell you, this is the reason we go to movies. Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a damned fine film, one which engages the audience in the theater in a way that video or DVD will never be able to match. It is the best experience I've had with a movie audience in a long, long time. But hanging over the whole proceding was the sure knowledge that, barring some kind of grass roots groundswell at awards time at the end of the year, Hedwig is going to be forgotten by a mass audience that probably barely knows it exists in the first place. There are two reasons for this: first: see my comments above concerning the insane marketing of movies these days. Hedwig is a movie that an executive at any major studio will regard as unsellable. They are wrong, but we'll come back to that. The second reason is the fact that Hedwig is, ostensibly, a gay movie, and while middle-America might be more accepting of homosexuality these days and might be titilated by the sight of two women kissing in a movie or on a television show, male homosexuality is still very much a taboo. It is a sad fact of life that if you show two men soul kissing in a film or on a television program, you will alienate a sizeable chunk of your potential audience (assuming, of course, you are not specifically targeting a gay audience). John Cameron Mitchell has delivered an impassioned, full blooded, rock and roll motherfucker of a movie to the overlords, a film so drunk on its gender confusion and its rage at a world that demands that we pick a side that it will terrify anyone who is even a little insecure about such things. I would love to have seen the expression on the faces of the executives at New Line Cinema when they opened the film can and watched the movie. They have a serious dilemma on their hands. The film is simply too good to ignore, but, "Holy cow, how do we sell this to an audience?" The answer, obvious to anyone who cares about the art of film, is simple: show it to them. Let the audience see the damned thing and it will generate business on its own. And who cares about the insecure teenaged boys in Peoria whose homosexual panic and lack of life experience conspire to wall them off from the aesthetic experience? They might come around once they are older. But, no, New Line is selling it to a "Gay" audience, which is short-sighted. Hedwig is a film for everyone. Really. It is.

Hedwig is a raw and bleeding film that never the less provides the kind of uplift one rarely sees in movies anymore. Since it is a musical and the songs are infectious--and since there isn't a Disney musical cartoon this year--Hedwig has a real chance at musical Oscars. More importantly, there are universals lurking beneath the lurid surface of Hedwig that should connect with any viewer that has even an inkling of self-awareness.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch follows the world tour of the band by the same name. Hedwig, the center of the movie, is a transexual whose sex change operation was botched--hence "The Angry Inch." The band is playing a series of Red Lobster-ish restaurants called "Bilgewater's" At each stop of the tour, Hedwig relates another incident in her sordid history. Over the course of the film, we are shown Hedwig's childhood in East Berlin, her marriage to Luther--her sugar daddy (literally) who insists he get a sex change in order to marry her, her subsequent abandonment in a trailer park in Kansas, and her "education" of Tommy Speck, a general's son who is consumed by classic rock and Jesus. Tommy falls for Hedwig, but can't accept the front of her. His star is on the rise. After he rejects Hedwig, Tommy builds a career as "Tommy Gnosis" on songs and a persona created by Hedwig. Hedwig is enraged by this, and her subsequent world tour of the Bilgewaters restaurants mirrors Tommy's stadium tour. Inevitably, Hedwig's band disintegrates from the tensions of the road and from Hedwig's obsession with Tommy. In New York, Hedwig finally has her confrontation with Tommy and in the process, gets her validation and manages some kind of integration of her conflicting selves. The film ends as Hedwig/Hansel, bereft of wigs and make-up, naked for the world, walks out into the city at night.

While Hedwig isn't exactly a cheerful movie, the music that tells most of the story strikes exactly the right tones while performing the minor miracle of transforming the film into an uplift. Songs like "Wicked Little Town" and "Wig in a Box" strike a bittersweet tone for the backstory, while "Tear Me Down," "Angry Inch" and "Exquisite Corpse" thrash with the anger of love reneged and the pain of regret. Couple the music with a veneer of absurdity and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor and you get a film that offers something for everyone: Tragedy, comedy, love. Adapting his own stage play, writer director Mitchell shoots the film with a documentary realism that disolves into a myriad of other styles in flashback, from animation to idealized romance to Sirkian melodrama. The film is endlessly watchable and includes a generous helping of small details to that provide almost subliminal counterpoints to the action (my favorite of these is the wallpaper that decorates the Bilgewater restaurants, depicting the sinking of the Titanic, followed closely by the "Menses Fair" which relegates The Angry Inch to a stage by the outhouses). The performances are generally very good--especially Miriam Shor as Ytzhakh, Hedwig's lover who secretly wants to BE her--but like the play on which it was based, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is basically a one . . .er . . . man show. Mitchell is the center of the movie and the film wouldn't work at all if he wasn't up to the task. His Hedwig is derived by turns from Marlene Dietrich and Iggy Pop, but is so scarred by life that she transcends either of them. There are intimate, unflinching, painfully close shots of Mitchell's face in which the pain of Hedwig's life is naked for the audience to see if they can bare to look. This is especially true in the scene where Tommy discovers Hedwig's anatomy. "What is that?" he asks. "It's what I have to work with," she replies. Mitchell gives a great performance.

In spite of the raw nerve that Hedwig rubs for most of its length, the film is enormously entertaining. Playful, even. Hedwig's running commentary on her life is wry and indomitable. The songs, especially the show-stopping "Wig In a Box," follow the audience away from the film. It may not be a perfect film--made on a mere $6 million, its budget sometimes shows through--but by golly if it isn't the most audacious, most entertaining film I've seen in the last three or four years.

I said a few paragraphs back that Hedwig is the type of experience that we go to movies for in the first place. We go to movies to laugh, to cry, to be energized, to have our sensibilities confronted and defined, and, yes, even to be entertained by the sheer spectacle of the world and of the imagination. Hedwig provides all of these. As such, its force will be unstoppable. It will resonate with viewers long after The Mummy Returns and Rush Hour 2 have been consigned to the back shelf at the video store. Of course, that back shelf is probably where all that stuff belongs anyway. Where else does one store indigestible, unsellable past its due date product?

But a bona fide revifying aesthetic experience?

Man, those are eternal.