Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Directed: John Cameron Mitchell
Script: John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Trask
Hansel/Hedwig: John Cameron Mitchell
Yitzhak: Miriam Shor
Tommy Gnosis: Michael Pitt
Phyliss Stein: Andrea Martin
Hedwig's mother: Alberta Watson
Hansel (6 years old): Ben Mayer-Goodman
There are films that I like, and there are films that I love. There are
a fair few films that I loathe. There are very few films that I actually
RESPECT, that I watch and immediately want to watch again. Hedwig and
the Angry Inch is one of that rare breed. It is the work of a master,
and oddly, it is also a first film.
"Hedwig" is a drag queen/ transsexual of the rather vile and unkind
variety performing her own songs to uninterested crowds in seafood
restaurants in rural bumholes across the United States. She sings, and
in between numbers she tells the story of her life in interlocked
flashbacks. The two main lynchpins in her life are her mother, an
overwhelmingly unique East German housewife and sculptor who is her main
formative influence, and the latest "top of the pops" sensation Tommy
Gnosis. Hedwig hates Tommy Gnosis beyond even her own (genius level)
talent of language to express. Tommy Gnosis stole her songs and made
himself famous with them. Hedwig's songs are her life, and when Tommy
stole them he stole her life, leaving her adrift while the world
basically worships someone pretending to be her, in her stead.
Eventually Hedwig achieves closure with Tommy, but not before she
confronts herself, the nature of her talent and the logical conclusions
contained within her art and her personal philosophies.
Now, I will grant you that this film sounds odd, and I will admit that
it hardly sounds like a fun two hours of cinema watching experience.
Bluntly, from reading a plot synopsis, "Hedwig" sounds like two hours of
German expressionist art film making. Frankly, it sounds like the worst
sort of shit - and "dramatic" to boot. Perhaps the oddest thing about
this film is that it is as funny as a good Coen Brothers film, the
original music is (to my ear at least) magnificent and the last thing
the film could ever be accused of is being an arty wank. "Hedwig" IS
art, but it is art for people, not critics. If you think of a film about
a mad drag queen directed by the Coen brothers with music chosen by Bob
Fosse you will be approaching an understanding of the sort of brain
assault that the film delivers... with a kindly and helpful smile.
Simply, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is nothing short of magnificent.
That's a big statement, and perhaps I should elaborate. I said at the
beginning of this review that:
...there are films that I love. The Godfather and (oddly) Romy and
Michelle's High School Reunion and The Betrayed and The Good, the
Bad and the Ugly to name but a few. These films have a gestalt, they
say more and carry more weight than can really be explained. They have
quality (without doubt) but they also have a resonance. Years after
seeing them, you smile when their names are mentioned. You find yourself
thinking about them at the oddest times. They mean something.
...there are a very few films that I actually RESPECT, that I watch and
immediately want to watch again. These films TRY to have gestalt. They
try to stretch the medium of film and to make film do things that it has
not done before. They aim high and when they succeed ... well ... people call
them classics. For my money, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey,
Bob Fosse's All that Jazz and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now all
make the grade: they change the viewers perception of the world and
they do it without putting a step wrong.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a film that I think makes this last
grade. It aims high. It asks questions like "What IS love?", "What is
personality?", "What is the difference between men and women?", "How can
one live morally and well?", "What is happiness?", and "What is art?"
Films which raise any ONE of these questions are usually seen as being
"profound" and aiming far higher than say, Zoolander. The thing that I
still cannot get my head around is that as well as simply ASKING these
questions, Hedwig and the Angry Inch provides a great many of the
ANSWERS - simply, honourably and with humour...
...In a film about a mad East German Drag Queen.
My rating: 10/10
The above is for the people who aren't sure whether they want to see the
film and to whom (for whatever reason) my opinion on the subject seems
to matter. The following is for people who have already seen the film
and want to get deeper into the concepts contained in it.
A Play with Masks.
In the following, I have stuck to the male pronoun to refer to Hedwig.
The films implies that this is the correct form, and I mean no
disrespect or unpleasantness by it. I also hate typing inverted commas
and find that they can be even more offensive. Of course, there are a
shitload of inverted commas in the following but well, there are less
than there could have been.
"Division" as a concept is central to the film and to the main
character. The Berlin wall divides East/West Germany and functionally
the two sides of Hedwig's character. His mother is from the East, his
father from the West. Hedwig becomes his mother to catch his father.
He succeeds, but it is a pyrrhic victory. He becomes and achieves,
neither. But "personality" as he discovers, runs deeper than that.
Functionally, Hedwig follows the easy path and like everyone else,
discovers that there is no easy path.
Hedwig, divided, must find the bedrock of his personality. He finds
comfort in the works of Plato. He writes his life story as songs. He
incorporates Plato's philosophy into his songs. Simultaneously he
rejects his reality as a broken "intersexual" person and adopts the
outward personality of an angry drag queen/transsexual. He does not
"fit" as a person, so he finds himself a label and tries to make himself
fit this label. His new identity gives him courage. He is half
successful. Of course, he is only being true to half of himself. In
being "neither" he is both male and female.
His songs (his spirit) succeed. His "self", his mask, fails to make him
happy. He becomes the archetypical misunderstood artist whose works are
understood, but who is unhappy and alone.
The "mask" (falsehood) gives him the courage to compose and sing the
truth. The truth succeeds and the mask fails. The mask creates pain and
attracts misfortune. In other words, the symbolic division transects
Hedwig from within as well.
Tommy Gnosis sexually rejects Hedwig. The mask has failed in the face of
"reality." Truth triumphs over falsehood again. Hedwig loves Tommy and
gives him two things: the truth of the songs and a mask of his own to
hide behind. (A scene of simple magnificence) Tommy accepts the mask as
a falsehood, and in accepting falsehood finds his voice, steals the
songs and leaves. Hedwig gives, as a woman, and is stolen from. Again.
Tommy's sin is narcissism; Hedwig's "failure" is love.
Tommy gets a new name when he gets his mask. His new name is Tommy
Gnosis, which as Hedwig explains means "knowledge" (from the Greek) Here
the symbolism is clear again. Tommy "knows" as in "he has learnt the
songs" and he knows Hedwig's secret; and inside his new mask he can
PRETEND the songs, but he lacks the spirit that created them. The
essential essence of Hedwig is ... non transmittable.
Tommy's mask is simple. It is the symbol of Christ painted on his
forehead. He now carries the simple masculine symbol of Christian
religion. He now functionally stands for all that is both good and bad
in Western male society and both good and bad in his own character. Of
course his new mask allows him - requires him - to steal from Hedwig.
He is a false prophet. (Profit:)
One can also see Tommy's mask in another way at the same time. During
the Plague years in London in the 1660's the doors of infected houses
were marked with a cross. The houses were quarantined. Tommy's symbol can
be seen as a "plague mark" in that functionally Hedwig "infects" Tommy:
making him carry her baggage out into the world for her. (And no, dear
reader, this has nothing to do with H.I.V.)
Tommy is rewarded with fame and money and his falsehood eventually
breaks him. Functionally his mask takes him through "sin" to redemption.
Eventually Tommy recants and is accepted back by Hedwig. In other words,
truth triumphs. When last seen his star is waning. Now Hedwig must deal
with his own falsehood. He drops his mask, and presents himself naked to
the crowd. His voice is now stronger, even more powerful. He unites both
sides of himself and succeeds. His talent becomes incandescent.
MASKS. Hedwig's mask is that of an angry woman. Hedwig is not an angry
woman, but her mask FORCES her into the role of the put upon, the giver,
the loved and left. Tommy's mask forces him into becoming a "rock
messiah" and transecting his own path from nothingness through
messiahdom to ultimate cruxifiction by the media. A cruxifiction that
Hedwig has set him up for. Hedwig's idol has always had feet of clay.
If rock stars are gods (as they seem to think they are) Hedwig becomes
a god. As Hedwig grew, his power was filtered through his mask, but now it is
focussed and undimmed. As his first action, this Hedwig "god" gives
his old mask to the one person in his entourage who loves him
selflessly. This person (a true transsexual) achieves beauty, achieves
the same focus that Hedwig has. On one person a mask is a lie, on
another it is the truth. Both sides of a personality can unite in either
way, but a divided (false) person is hardly a person at all.
This is ONE string, in a multi-stringed film.
Hopefully, I have given you something to think about.
If you like this film as much as I do, one day we may see each other in
the street and nod, quietly as acquaintances or friends do, without
really knowing why.
Hedwig is not a transsexual.
Alright, not a "true" transsexual in the common usage of the term.
Hedwig as a child (Hansel) shows no sign of transgenderism. Hedwig
adopts transgenderism as a rational act within a pre-existing power
structure. Hedwig's sexuality issues are more a symbol of being adrift
than of being either one sex or the other, as a close examination of the
childhood scenes in the film will attest. The only true transsexual in
the film is Yitzhak, who achieves oneness though abandoning maleness, an
act which does not work for Hedwig.
Was Hedwig "molested" by his dear old dad?
For my money, no. The bodies do not touch, they mirror. Hedwig's mother
uses what she thinks she sees as a reason for ejecting Hedwig's dad.
In the following scene Hedwig and his mother sleep in the same bed.
Their bums touch. The symbology is that Hedwig's mother has won a power
struggle. This is borne out by the mothers behaviour later in the film.
If I am wrong, and the idea was that Hedwig's dad HAS bonked him, the
act was non-traumatic, as the peace of the scene (prior to Mum's
arrival) will attest. All in all, I think not.
(C)opyright Alex Rieneck, 2001.