Comes Naturally #113 (August 24, 2001):
Hedwig's Angry Inch


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COMES NATURALLY #113
Spectator Magazine -- August 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 David Steinberg

HEDWIG'S ANGRY INCH

"Is the world ready for Hedwig?" reviewer Stephen Holden muses aloud in The New York Times, before joining the near-unanimous chorus of critical praise for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," John Cameron Mitchell's inspiring new film. The answer, I daresay is, "Yes, indeed."

After winning two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" was pre-released July 22 in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, and then put into limited distribution August 1 in 13 additional cities. Surprisingly, "Hedwig" is being adored by everyone from The New York Times to USA Today, from the BBC to Salon, from The Advocate to The Los Angeles Times -- which is unusual for a film that stands four square behind transgender liberation (indeed, transcendence beyond the notion of gender polarity itself), acceptance of prostitution as a matter-of-fact way to deal with hard times, and celebration of loving sexual relationships between adults and teens. Not to mention a host of other decidedly un-mainstream ideas about sex, sexual orientation, and gender.

By the time you read this, I suspect that "Hedwig" will be spreading its unique and marvelous mix of emotional integrity and surreal transcendence, of genuine heart and sexual politics, of playfulness and serious philosophy, deep into the overprotected folds of America's sacred Heartland. I think this is a film that's ready to do for drag and gender liberation what Madonna's book, Sex, did for s/m (this time, thankfully, without the pretentious superficiality), which is to shift a controversial, sex-related issue ripe in the nation's collective unconscious from countercultural fringe to mainstream acknowledgment.

"Hedwig" tells the story of Hansel, an androgynous boy in East Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall, who is wooed by a American G.I. who is smitten with him even when he turns out not to be the girl he first appears to be. To marry the American and escape across the Berlin Wall, Hansel agrees to what turns out to be a bungled, bootleg sex-change operation ("six inches forward, five inches back") that leaves him with the titular angry inch of pubic flesh that places him "in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom" -- outside the familiar systems of polarized opposites that this film dares us to leave behind as nothing more than retrograde.

Plopped in a funky Junction City, Kansas, trailer park, Hansel (now Hedwig) loses, in quick succession, her G.I., her job at the PX and, when she turns to prostitution to make ends meet, her gag reflex. She falls in love with Tommy, a born-again Christian teenage seeker whom she schools in sex, Gnostic philosophy, and the pure redemptive power of rock and roll. When, after much pleading from Hedwig, Tommy finally extends his sexual universe to include exploring the front of Hedwig's body, Tommy freaks out, steals her songs and becomes a famous rock star. As Tommy tours the top-of-the-line rock circuit, Hedwig trails after him with a surreal but emotionally impeccable shadow tour of her own, performing in full drag with her band, The Angry Inch, at second-rate seafood restaurants, oblivious (it would seem) to the absurd mix of glam transgendered rock and salad bars. Her plan is to somehow confront Tommy and force him to acknowledge his connection to her and to her music.

As incongruity is piled on incongruity, each successive absurdity is transformed from the ludicrous to the genuinely poignant by the power, creative brilliance, and simply honest emotion that Hedwig brings to each venue and each song. Where John Lennon sang "all you need is love," John Cameron Mitchell proclaims "all you need is unbridled creativity and the indomitable will to refuse to be boxed, labeled, and dismissed.

Performing in Miami Beach, Hedwig presses her sequined crotch into the faces of elderly yarmulked seafood diners who smile acceptingly as they go about the business of collecting their salads and finishing their meals. At the most marginalized stage of a women's music festival (a slap at the reactionary gender politics of the Michigan Women's Music Festival years ago), she invites the lone woman in the audience to sit next to her on stage while she sings the sad but determined story of her life, exchanging the failed magnitude of a rock performance for the warm intimacy of a woman-to-woman kitchen chat. Whether she is performing for middle-aged suburbanites, for an audience of one, or on top of a pile of discarded tires, nothing keeps Hedwig from pouring her full heart into the telling of each episode of her story and surviving each setback though the power of music, belief in self, and the magical possibilities of going outside the box of preconceived notions and definitions.

Call off your old tired ethics, "Hedwig" declares when it comes to any and all matters of sex, gender, or sexual orientation -- indeed, about life itself. By force of character, she (Hedwig), he (John Cameron Mitchell in his multiple roles of writer, director, star actor, and lead singer), and it (the film) call on all of us to substitute creative imagination for rote obedience, and the exuberance of being true to our unique natures for the numbing tedium of homogeneous conformity. Even the script itself calls on future actors and producers to draw outside the lines. "We encourage other [stage] productions to keep [a] sense of freedom by ad-libbing when appropriate," it implores. "[Feel free to] change the text to accommodate the environment. Just be witty, damn it!"

If it were nothing more, "Hedwig" would succeed as a delightfully extravagant glam rock musical, heir to the tradition of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and (god help us) "Moulin Rouge." Stephen Trask's music and lyrics are joyous and powerful, the acting in the film is consistently top notch, and Mitchell's directorial touch turns every gag and gesture to gold that could easily turn disastrously leaden in the hands of a less attentive helmsman.

But "Hedwig" turns out to be much more than a rock-and-roll in the hay, and consequently much more moving and compelling than the likes of Rocky Horror or Moulin Rouge. In the end, all the marvelous visual and musical impact of "Hedwig" serves to drive home its message about the existential search for wholeness; about the importance of creative expression and individual fulfillment; about the way that emotional honesty can triumph over loneliness, greed, superficiality, and repression -- not to mention the possibility of returning rock music to its politically radical roots.

Joyously right-brained, "Hedwig" is nevertheless also an unabashed, undiluted philosophical treatise. Its most moving song, "The Origin of Love," transcribes nothing less imposing than Aristophanes' speech from Plato's "Symposium," in which he explains that there were originally three sexes, not two: "man, woman, and the union of the two," how an angry Zeus punished humans by splitting these unified beings in two with lightning bolts hurled from heaven, and how both love and sex are most fundamentally about trying to heal the primeval split we call gender, and become whole again. The Berlin Wall is held up again and again as an example of how disaster results when what should be a unified whole is divided in two. The biblical story of how God extracted Eve (the feminine principle) from the previously unified Adam traces the same theme to more familiar roots.

In fact we are, all of us, living in a world where polar opposites long familiar to us are dissolving everywhere we turn. The Cold War is over. Fluidity of sex, gender, and sexual orientation are confounding every attempt of divide-and-file culture to squeeze liquid personal expression back into the confines of clearly define, rectangular definitions. As the solidity of man, woman, East, West, good, evil morphs into something more like oceanic breathing, identity questions are, not surprisingly in the front of everyone's thoughts and fears. "We thought the [Berlin] wall would stand forever," says Angry Inch singer Yitzhak. "Now that it's gone, we don't know who we are any more."

How does a boisterous rock musical get away with treading such academic ground? Being wise enough to simultaneously take itself seriously and not take itself seriously at all definitely helps. And, once again, creative exuberance proves itself capable of the most extreme alchemy. To Mitchell, it's creativity and the willingness to cut new ground at every turn that matters most of all -- certainly more than what gender you are or who you choose as sexual partners. "So much of gay culture can be as boring as straight culture," he has said in interviews. "If you want to be a straight person, fine, but don't call yourself a rebel. If you're an outsider, try something that scares you."

"I want Hedwig to reach all kinds of people," Mitchell adds, "I want it to reach people like me when I was in my teens most of all. We have this great opportunity to bring [this message] to the strip malls where Hedwig could do some good."

There are films ("Being John Malkovitch" and "Run Lola Run" come immediately to mind) are wonderful simply because they are so deliciously and continuously innovative. "Hedwig" is one of those. Inventiveness pours out of the film like champagne after the cork's been popped. Whether it's the music, the sight gags, the make-up, the puns, the camera angles, or the animation, something marvelously new is constantly happening, taking you by surprise, taking you beyond the expected and the predictable into the simple exuberance of letting preconceived thinking just melt away. When you're in doubt, when something's just not feeling right, "Hedwig" says implicitly, the answer is to go beyond, beyond where you've been before, beyond how you've looked at things before. This is precisely what Mitchell, who had never done drag or rock before he began working on "Hedwig," has done himself in making first the Off-Broadway play of "Hedwig" that became such a hit, and now the film.

Hedwig's avowal of drag as one easily accessible way to go beyond presumed limits is both infectiously compelling. "On nights like this," Hedwig sings when she hits bottom, "when the world's a bit amiss, and the lights go down across the trailer park, I get down, I feel had, I feel on the verge of going mad. I put on some make-up, turn up the tape deck, pull the wig down from the shelf. Suddenly I'm this punk rock star of stage and screen, and I ain't ne ver turning back."

This may be just the time for a joyous, palatable, viewer-friendly vehicle like "Hedwig" to transport the notions of drag and even deeper gender bending and blending from the realm of the marginalized to the power of the cultural mainstream. People like Hedwig, the gender and sexual outlaws that society always wants to cast to the margins, are not in fact fringy outcasts for mainstream people to either tolerate or pity, but courageous individualists who deserve to be admired (perhaps even emulated) because they put the truth of who they know themselves to be ahead of societal or family approval, regardless of what says about who they will choose for sexual partners, or where they will land on an increasingly complicated gender map.

Thirty years ago, when there was a full-scale cultural revolution happening in the U.S. (despite current attempts by media to make it appear otherwise), the Jefferson Airplane called on their young listeners to "tear down the walls" of division and repression and become instead the best of themselves. Now, a generation later, "Hedwig" issues the same call. It's not the first, and it won't be the last, film to do so. But it's definitely one of the best to date.


[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at eronat@aol.com. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at eronat@aol.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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