Call for Book Reviewers and Bloggers

Film
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA

One Person Cannot Complete You

“Anyone can put that wig on”


John Cameron Mitchell’s new film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is his first, and he is its director, writer, and star. And yet, he hardly seems the egotistical sort who might pursue and then effectively manage such a remarkable undertaking. Though he seems huge on stage, in person he’s a small man, and soft-spoken to boot. But he’s full to the brim with energy. When you ask him a question, it’s like turning on a tap, from which a spate of information and cogitation comes pouring out. He’s a serious fellow, and considers what he says carefully, but he can also be wickedly funny when it comes to those in need of a bit of verbal flaying.


He’s quite happy to talk about Hedwig, which has won critical praise and prizes, including the Dramatic Audience and Dramatic Director’s Awards at Sundance, Best Feature Prizes at Berlin and the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, as well as the Audience Award at San Francisco’s International Film Festival. For all the gushing, however, Mitchell remains quite unflustered. Understandable, since he’s been living with this project for some seven years. Hedwig had its beginnings as a drag show in 1994, at New York City’s gay rock club Squeezebox, devised by Mitchell and his collaborator, composer Stephen Trask. Eventually, it transformed into an off-Broadway hit with a mighty cult following.


The film follows the travails—emotional and otherwise—of Hedwig Schmidt (Mitchell), born Hansel in East Germany, and survivor of a botched male-to-female sex change operation, which has left her with an “angry inch” of genitals. Now she’s traveling from one strip-mall seafood restaurant to another, as lead singer for a rock band called the Angry Inch. She yet carries a torch for the boy she considers her soulmate, her former babysitting charge, now a rock star called Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). The fact that he’s stolen all the songs they wrote together has made Hedwig more than a little resentful. And so, the story unfolds.



PopMatters:

Even before the film was a twinkle in your eye, the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch had developed a devoted following, the Hed-heads, who have been making online shrines and chat-sites, and seeing the live show again and again. Is that intimidating to have such a visible and enthusiastic group of fans?



John Cameron Mitchell:

You mean people who feel strongly about it? Not at all. As long as I can not have to manage it, I’m quite happy to see it go off without me. And in the film, we pay homage to that phenomenon. There wasn’t a term “Hed-heads,” we just sort of called it that, and we came up with those foam wigs that fans wear during Hedwig’s shows. I just like the fact that anyone can put that wig on, and that a lot of different kinds of people respond to it. The more diverse, the better, as far as I’m concerned.



PM:

Are you finding many different kinds of responses?



JCM:

Well, I probably don’t hear all the negative ones. But I know some people find it really moving, others enjoy it in the kind of Rocky Horror, “be free to be me” kind of way. And some people who’ve been damaged in some way find some comfort in it too, and realize through it that the myth of the origin of love is a pretty universal one. It doesn’t exclude anyone. And it’s maybe because of Hedwig’s specificity that it becomes universal, the way that your Aunt Maude is. You know, it’s like [saying], “There’s no one like my Aunt Maude,” and whether I want to hang out with her or not, I believe that she exists. And in this case, Hedwig is sharing her story the way that Aunt Maude might.



PM:

The Berlin Wall is an interesting “universal” but also “specific” emblem to bring into the narrative. What inspired that?



JCM:

My dad was the commander of the U.S. sector of Berlin, and it was a very specific position, part diplomat, part military commander, and he was given a giant house there, and I used to go visit him in this mansion and then go down to the punk gay bars in Kreuzberg [in the American sector], and also go across to the East. It was just a few visits, but they were very powerful. I also saw this film by Rosa Von Prauheim, a documentary [I Am My Own Woman, 1992] about this guy who lived as a woman through the Nazis and the Communists. That influenced me, being about this ultimate outsider. It was interesting showing the film in Berlin, because the political stuff came up more, and Hedwig in a way became a receptacle for the East, you know, seduced into the West and then fucked—that’s often how they feel, emasculated or de-activated. Six inches forward, five inches back. But to me, it was a very personal story. If those resonances come up, fine, but they’re not the point of it. It is Hedwig’s story, about what she does with the inch that she’s given in life, how she finds a way to think of herself as whole. And it’s hopefully an earned realization rather than a tacked on one, and she really has come through a lot, and has created, through circumstance and will, a person that’s new. She [begins thinking] of herself as neither man nor woman, or half a man, but she realizes that she’s both, by accident. And it’s better than being one. The way she got there is very painful.



PM:

What’s your thinking about the flexibility or even the usefulness of so-called identity categories?



JCM:

I certainly wanted Hedwig’s world to be one where identification and categories are fluid, changing, and confusing, as they are, really, in life. You know, coming out as a gay man, it was very much about finding my own identity and dealing with labeling. I quickly found that I didn’t really fit into “gay culture,” as identified by many gay people, and that it can be just as confining as straight culture, not least in the way that bisexual people are told that “they can’t make up their mind.” I mean, the variety of sexuality versus gender, as these can be quite mutually exclusive: even just in doing Hedwig, I’ve learned a lot about definitions. Most post-op transsexuals are straight! This was new to me, but now that I think about it, since there are more straight people, the percentage of people who feel gender dysphoria should be the same, more straight. And those people who never felt gay, change their sex, and find now that the only people who accept them are maybe a gay community, and they don’t feel gay, and have never gone through the same feelings that a gay kid might have. So, the way I tried to help the piece express some of that fluidity is to have a woman play Hedwig’s husband, the back-up singer [Yitzhak, played by Miriam Shor]. And she doesn’t play a transsexual; she plays a man who wants to dress as a woman, which some people find confusing. They wonder: what’s the point of that? There isn’t a point, except that it just happened that we needed a female back-up singer. It disorients people and allows you to enter a world, where Hedwig is disoriented too.


Hedwig compares herself to the Wall, being “between” things, you know, but she’s also a bridge. One of Stephen’s [Trask] lyrics is, “There’s not much difference between a bridge and a wall.” You can step on either, to cross, but they also divide. Hedwig can’t go into any of the social structures that exist for comfort, and she’s completely on her own, while also realizing that she doesn’t want to be alone. That’s why the myth of the origin of love is so important, because it tells me that there’s someone who can complete me. I remember seeing a stage version of Plato’s Symposium, and being really moved, because it was written by a man rather than a culture.


It’s Plato’s myth, not the culture’s, but everyone can relate to that myth. The heartbreak being, if you live in the real world, you know that one person cannot complete you, no matter how much you want it. And why do we want it? It brings up all these ideas about monogamy, sexuality, and gender, and the myth is great, because it includes every possible kind of attachment. But you never will, no matter how hard you hold onto someone, become one person. And is that useful to think about in the real world? Or, why do we need heaven? We’ll never know until it’s over. It’s like the yearning is more important than the possibility.



PM:

You’ve done some research, obviously: do you think these stories are a function of particular cultures or are they more innate?



JCM:

I think there is something innate. Obviously, there are differences, and cultures where people wouldn’t think one person is the only thing you need. But there are origin myths, and people are interested in where our needs come from, and in not being alone; that’s important in every culture. But this is a particularly Western myth, and Plato is the beginning of Western culture, really. And Socrates is a character in Plato’s Symposium, basically a horny old man, which is kind of funny. The myth was picked up by the gnostic Christians, who were really into this idea of the doppleganger and the “other half,” being someone or something that has information you don’t have. It’s not necessary that you need to be with that someone forever, but it’s necessary that Hedwig meets Tommy. Just because he’s her other half doesn’t mean that they’re going to be together forever, nor should they be, but they need to meet. And it was necessary that she knew everyone in her life, to get to where she does: she’s the sum of everyone she meets, rather than the idea that they took a piece. Tommy’s view of Genesis kind of echoes mine, when I first heard it as a kid. I was like, “Why is God so upset that you wanted to know something, or eat of the apple? Why is that a bad thing?” I never understood that. It never made sense. So, you disobeyed him, but that rule should have been disobeyed. In the gnostic tradition, Eve is connected to Jesus, as the knowledge-giver, and the creator god is not the overarching god, but an evil force, which is why the world itself is flawed. And the overarching force was an androgynous force, and Jesus and Eve are manifestations of that. And this idea of Adam and Eve being together and separating—the separating was the problem.



PM:

How was the shift to film, from the play?



JCM:

It was just more intense, more people, the cinematographer [Frank G. DeMarco] and the editor [Andrew Marcus] were really the co-directors. It would have been impossible without one of us. And because they had lived in the Hedwig world for a long time, had seen the show a lot, we all knew the ground rules and assumptions, so we could just add to them rather than scrap stuff. There are more layers. So by the time the film comes out, all seven years of development will be in it. A lot of films don’t have that kind of luxury. So there are some in-jokes that you’ll only know if you see the play, and they all feed each other, so it makes it a satisfying experience for people when they come back.



PM:

I’ve read that you have lots of other material that you’re looking forward to putting on the DVD version.



JCM:

When I was writing the screenplay, I was bored with Hedwig, so I wrote scenes for the band and manager, and shot some of it, and realized that it was too much. But it will be in the DVD [laughs]. We were editing for the DVD at the same time that we were editing for the theatrical release. It was crazy.



PM:

The film includes some aspects of celebrity culture and tabloidism.



JCM:

True, but you know, there’s some positive elements of Jerry Springer. Even though it’s not digested or thought about, it does bring up everything. It demystifies the variety of the human condition, and it’s like, anything goes, which I think is actually really good. And it’s concurrent with the internet, in that any information is accessible if you really want to find it, which has its pitfalls, but generally, I think it’s a good thing, especially for kids who feel like a freak. It ameliorates isolation. I bet there’s been a lot of gay kids and deaf kids who didn’t take to that bottle or put their head in an oven because of it. The tabloid stuff obviously panders to fears too, but also to sentiment: “She gave birth to 1500 children!” There are good things too, but it still panders to our basest instincts, which kind of freaks me out: it seems a little pornographic. But I can say that most of Hollywood does the same thing, in a way that’s about as subtle as a bus in the head. I guess I still have hope that people will pick and choose what’s useful to them, and apply it. Some will always choose a destructive path, but most people choose a constructive and harmonic path. And what is it about gossip that’s interesting? Usually people are hiding something, that makes it interesting. If Kevin Spacey is gay, it’s only interesting because he hides it. Most people could [care less], really, apart from a couple of freaks who have their own feelings they’re trying to suppress. I find it fascinating. I want to see if a prostitute accuses Tom Cruise. I love it. Because it ultimately is a corrective, for hubris and obfuscation. It’s hilarious. So if someone is actually going to lie, there’s always going to be someone who uncovers the lie, maybe in a very negative way. But you made your bed, too.



PM:

On some level it seems anachronistic, too. You can have a career and be gay now.



JCM:

Except that these people would have a different career if they were out, maybe it would be based on their talent rather than their image. It might be a longer one too. I think they’d be happier.



PM:

Thinking about images, how did you decide to incorporate rock into the project, given how straight rock can seem?



JCM:

Stephen and I have always been big rock fans, and found it being ignored in gay communities. Part of the reason we did it was to shake it up. Plus we were developing it at the time when the first gay rock club opened, Squeezebox. But it was also getting back to roots: androgyny is traditional in rock, or blues people even. From Little Richard through the British androgynes, Mick and Elton and Bowie, through to now, there’s always been that tradition. Scott Wieland is a Hedwig fan, and our makeup guy, Mike Potter, gave him a Hedwig makeover during a concert at Jones Beach. And these teenage faces just dropped.



PM:

I actually saw him in the wig on MTV2 last week.



JCM:

It’s natural, it’s only natural.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
Win a 15-CD Pack of Brazilian Music CDs from Six Degrees Records! in PopMatters Contests on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.