Something Beautiful and New

John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an amazingly great motion picture. If you haven't seen it (and you probably haven't), do yourself a favor and go buy the DVD right now. If you have the slightest morsel of taste and discernment within you, I can guarantee this is a movie you will love. There are good movies released now and again—great ones rarely (increasingly rarely, it seems to me)—but it is a very rare thing indeed that a genuinely amazing movie like Hedwig comes along. Hedwig will rock the socks right off of you.

The fact that you almost certainly haven't seen Hedwig is a truly damning indictment of the sorry state of pop culture. Hedwig arrived amid such raves from the critics that there was serious talk that despite the film's scandalous subject matter, it had a real shot at making its way out of the art houses and into suburban multiplexes across the nation. Obviously, this did not happen. Hedwig ended up being a dismal commercial failure even by art-house standards, and many months after its release, the film had yet to recoup its paltry $6 million budget. Its incredible songs (for Hedwig is a musical) aren't played on the radio, while the heavily processed bleatings of Britney Spears are interminably. The film was shut out at the Oscars, while its gifted cast has since gone on to gigs in dreadful sitcoms such as Inside Schwartzand Sandra Bullock movies such as Murder by Numbers. When this sort of thing is allowed to happen, we are forced to conclude that ours is a godless cosmos.

It would be depressing enough if America had been offered this treasure and everybody had simply ignored it because they were too busy rotting their brains away watching the latest installment of Survivor; after all, America has been rather consistently ignoring great filmmakers since Welles killed his young career with the best box-office bomb ever, Citizen Kane. But most of the really good pictures that never find an audience do so without the kind of deafening critical buzz that accompanied Hedwig. Even if Auntie Mildred wanted nothing to do with Hedwig, one would have imagined that the urban tastemakers would have at least embraced it, making it a Crumb– or Il Postino-sized art house phenomenon. But no, even the goateed masses stayed away in shivering, frightened droves.

And what was it about Hedwig that scared off even those who should have been cool enough to seek it out? Well, the thing is that Hedwig is sort of a gay movie. I say sort of gay because Hedwig's (and Hedwig's) sexual situation is so complex that legitimate arguments could be made that the film's hero is a heroine, or vice versa, or some exotic blending of the two. And when such a person kisses another person who appears to be a butch lesbian with a beard (but who could actually be a man, we never really find out), is this a gay kiss or a straight kiss or what the hell? The one thing we can all agree on is that this is one freaky-ass kiss, and for all our fascination with the toothless drag queens on Springer and its ilk, America is still profoundly troubled by the sexually freaky when they're not being presented as objects for our collective amused contempt.

Hedwig's plot, stripped to its essence: Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) begins life as a “little slip of a girly boy” named Hansel, a would-be rock superstar trapped in Soviet-era East Berlin. Hansel's chances of getting out of East Germany appear slim until the day he meets an American soldier (Maurice Dean Wint) who offers to marry our hero and thus grant him passage to America. Unfortunately, to marry the GI, Hansel must first undergo a medical exam and pass as a woman. Hansel has a back-alley sex-change operation performed by a leering podiatrist; the procedure is horribly botched, and Hansel emerges as Hedwig, a tragic figure whose genitals—well, the title pretty much says it all. Anyhow, they wed and make it to the New World, but then soldier man splits on the very day the Berlin wall comes tumbling down, and a devastated Hedwig is left to take up with Tommy (Michael Pitt), a wide-eyed, Dungeons and Dragons-worshiping, hardcore Christian teen. From there, things get complicated. The film's characters are so compelling that you hardly have to be gay to get swept up in the story line (and I say this as somebody who likes the ladies). Trust me when I say that it's all much less gross and scary than it sounds, although when it is gross and scary, it is marvelously so. So the picture was rejected by the masses and the hipsters, but at least the gays found it, right? Oh, ho, not so fast there, Junior! America's gay mainstream, caught up in such fare as Queer As Folk, Will and Grace and Sex and the City, greeted Hedwig with the same mix of disgust and indifference as everybody else. The film didn't even find an enthusiastic audience among the transgendered population, many of whom apparently objected to the film's depiction of a sex change gone wrong (I'm sorry, folks, but get your johnson snipped off in a sleazy Berlin podiatrist's office, and something tells me it probably won't turn out the way you'd hoped). Hedwig, something beautiful and new, was doomed by the killer combo of America's homophobia and philistinism. It is to weep. But there is one last twist to Hedwig's tale, and it's a twist nearly as strange as anything in the film; for now, more than a year after the picture came and went in a blaze of obscurity, it has begun to spawn a Rocky Horror-style cult across the nation, with people showing up at midnight screenings dressed like the characters and reciting the dialogue and all that. If you think I think this is terrific news, well, you got another think coming. Yes, the film is at last finding an audience, but at what cost? Personally, I've always preferred Rocky Horror without the whole noisy circus that has sprung up around it; the first time I saw the film, in a theater packed with fans in lingerie and fright wigs, I found myself straining forward, trying to catch what the film's characters were saying, vainly hoping to make out the songs amid the din. Whether I enjoy the Rocky Horror sideshow or not, I'm not grievously offended by it. People are having a great time, and I won't begrudge them that. But it's one thing if people are shouting at a movie like Rocky Horror and shooting it with squirt guns and pelting it with damp toilet paper, for while Rocky Horror is a very lovable little mongrel in its own right, it really doesn't stand up to the harsh light of critical inquiry. The plot is almost non-existent, there are long dead patches, and while some of the songs do rock the house, others leave the house quite un-rocked. If you actually sit down and watch the film without a screaming audience, you will probably get bored before the end. So while Hedwig is being touted in some quarters as the new Rocky Horror, it's really anything but. Hedwig is a noisy and fun picture, packed with the foot-stomping glam and punk tunes of genius composer Stephen Trask, but it is not a Rocky Horror-style goof; beneath the glitter, Hedwig is a melancholy, thoughtful film that benefits from keen attention and can only suffer cruelly when subjected to an audience primed for a camp bacchanalia. On the other hand, goodness knows Rocky Horror has brought together thousands of lonesome little rock N roll misfits across the globe; the film has forged many friendships that survived beyond the theater, friendships between people who needed friends very badly. Even if Hedwig's greatness is doomed to be obscured amid a Rocky Horror-style sideshow, if it brings the freaks together, it's all for the good. And who knows? Now and again, somebody in the dark may strain forward, wondering what's actually going on in the film. When they're ready for it, Hedwig will still be there, waiting to be discovered as the sweetly scandalous little masterpiece that it is. Hedwig and the Anrgy Inch will be accompanied by the live Crypto Homo Rockers show at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 438-5435. Fri., midnight. $8.50.

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