Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Today I watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, starring Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Maurice Dean Wint, Ben Mayer-Goodman, and others). I chose this film from three lists of  little-known gems of the cinema I'm going through at the moment. (For more on this topic, see my initial post on the subject, or use the "Movies I'm Watching" tab to the right.)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch might be called a philosophical rock opera--philosophical not in the sense of calm, thoughtful, and accepting in the face of adversity (although, come to think of it, there is indeed an element of the philosophical in that sense in the character of Hedwig), but philosophical in that the story draws on ideas from the history of philosophy in presenting its core theme of the duality of the human soul. According to the DVD box and what I've been able to find elsewhere, this was originally a theatrical production that evolved out of a long series of musical performances by director John Cameron Mitchell in the role of Hedwig, an East Berlin-born transexual glam rocker (Hedwig, not Mitchell) who has suffered a botched sex-change operation that leaves him without a penis or a working vagina--with an "angry inch" instead ("The Angry Inch" is also the name of his back-up band). He hilariously describes himself as having a "Barbie Doll crotch." Much of the story is propelled by the music of Mitchell's collaborator, composer Stephen Trask, and by animated sequences. These are interspersed with soliloquies spoken or half sung by Hedwig who is telling us his/her life story.

A version of the show eventually had a two-year Off-Broadway run. Having now seen the movie, I'm trying to imagine how the theater version might have been staged. The film has nothing of the feel of a filmed stage production. It's thoroughly cinematic.

There is some memorable imagery--notably the bemused spectators at the Bilgewater chain of restaurants that Hedwig's manager keeps booking the band into on the American portion of its "World Tour." The (very few) customers watching the androgynous Hedwig prance in flamboyant Farrah Fawcett-style blonde wigs don't know what to make of him. There is also quite a bit of good music in Hedwig. The score is interesting throughout, and Mitchell can sing. He can act as well. Mitchell's performance is witty and nuanced. Maurice Dean Wint has a small role, but he's wonderful as the salacious Sgt. Luther Robinson. Ben Mayer-Goodman, in the role of Hedwig as a young boy, is excellent as well--not to mention Miriam Shor, a woman, in the role of band member Yitzhak, a man. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems to want to make a statement. Hedwig starts life in Berlin, a divided city. Later, he reluctantly agrees to a sex-change operation so he can marry a GI who will take him to freedom in America (Hedwig wonders if his other half, his better half, is "on the other side"), but the operation goes awry and leaves him split like the city he lives in; he is neither man nor woman. Hedwig (having been abandoned by his GI husband in America) becomes obsessed with following the singing tour of  devoutly Christian "Tommy Gnossis," (originally one of Hedwig's own fans who becomes his protégé and lover; they write songs together) after Tommy has run away from their relationship, appalled to learn that Hedwig has a stub of a penis when finally their kisses and caresses progress to something more sexual. Tommy becomes a rock star, his fame based mostly on songs he stole from Hedwig--and his departure creates another pair of separated halves, for the implication is that Tommy and Hedwig are actually two faces of the same being. The entire film is permeated with a longing for achieving wholeness, a longing for the reconciliation of separated halves.

The opening song and animation recount Aristophanes' story about the original human form told in Plato's Symposium: Man, Aristophanes tells us, originally had four arms and four legs and a head with two faces--one facing front, the other facing back--and two sets of genitals similarly positioned. Primeval humans were the children of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. The children of the Sun were doubled men, the children of the Earth were doubled women, the children of the Moon were androgynes. Humans could look and walk forwards or backwards as they pleased and roll sideways at furious speeds when in a hurry or on the offensive. When some of these hot-headed creatures one day decided to attack the gods on Mt. Olympus, it became clear that something would have to be done. Some of the gods advocated annihilation, but others balked at losing tribute from humankind--particularly Zeus. Zeus's solution was to cut people in half with flung thunderbolts, which doubled our numbers but halved our powers and put us in our place. This rending of us into two, we are told, has left each of us eternally seeking our lost half, our soulmate. Incidentally, Aristophanes neatly explains heterosexuality and homosexuality along the way: The human androgynes naturally seek the opposite sex in looking for their lost soul mates. The men look for other men, the women for other women. Hedwig seems to believe that Tommy is his soul mate, and at the end of the movie they appear to merge into a whole again.
While I enjoyed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I'm not sure what the  film ultimately says about what it seems to be thinking most seriously about--the nature of our souls; the ending of the film is ambiguous. But perhaps that doesn't matter. The music, the compelling performance of the lead actor, and dynamic visuals keep the film entertaining--although Hedwig and the Angry Inch certainly does makes you think. Recommended. 

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