I’ve never met John Cameron Mitchell, though I came close a couple times when he was in Asheville for the 2007 Asheville Film Festival. I’d hooked him up with a copy of Ken Russell’s TV film Song of Summer, and I sat behind him at the screening of The Savages—which filmmaker Don Mancini apprised me of after the fact. Even so, Mitchell’s been a part of my cinematic life ever since the Saturday afternoon in 2001 when I settled in to review his Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
I hadn’t really expected much. This was the beginning of the era when independent movies were just starting to have a kind of cookie-cutter look and feel. The indie tropes—the high-speed footage of car lights streaking through the night, the idea that an odd story made up for indifferent filmmaking, forced quirkiness, a disdain for filmmaking techniques—were beginning to be just as wearing as anything mainstream Hollywood was turning out.
So here was this movie, advertised as “an anatomically incorrect rock odyssey.” The trailer looked amusing in a brittle, camp manner, but nothing more. I’d never heard of Mitchell and knew nothing of the stage version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, though the very fact that the film was adapted from a play didn’t bode well. But 95 minutes later I knew this was the work of a new major filmmaker on the scene.
As writer, director and star of the film, Mitchell proved himself at every turn. Yes, he had one those “odd” stories—in fact, more odd than usual. The film follows the story of Hedwig (Mitchell), a transsexual (sort of) glam/punk rocker, who was born Hansel in East Germany and submitted to a sex change operation in order to marry a U.S. Army sergeant (Maurice Dean Wint) and go to America. Unfortunately, the operation didn’t go so well and left Hedwig with the angry inch of the title (which also becomes the name of her band). The bulk of the plot concerns Hedwig playing a series of totally inappropriate venues (the Bilgewater Restaurant chain) while following her former boyfriend, Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), across the country trying to prove that Tommy stole all her material.
The story is unusual and engaging enough, but Mitchell constantly demonstrates that he isn’t content just to film it—he is determined to truly make it into a wholly creative film. There’s nothing lazy or stage-bound about his approach. There’s a natural aptitude for film evidenced at nearly every turn. Mitchell never just records, he breathes cinematic life into it with style and panache. Nothing about filmmaking seems foreign to him—even when he’s engaged in scenes that could be called theatre pieces (theatre doesn’t have to mean stage-y).
The approach to the film is breathless and breathtaking. And he dares to take it to a conclusion that explodes in cinema to such a degree that it nearly crosses the line from narrative to abstraction. The final section of the film—coming right on the heels of a heartbreaking encounter between Hedwig and Tommy that provides closure—isn’t really like anything else in cinema. (The emotion it produces for me really only equates with the last bit of David Bowie’s song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”—an outpouring of emotion so strong that all you can do is sit there thinking, “Wow.”)
What is so striking about Mitchell’s accomplishment is that it’s a brilliant fusion of music (Stephen Trask’s songs are quite wonderful), bitchy comedy, characterization, humanity and a fresh outlook on it all. And yet Mitchell’s fresh outlook doesn’t exist in ignorance of the things—both musically and cinematically—that inform it, or the androgyny of the glam rock era that make it possible. And therein lies the strength of Hedwig‘s thematic quality.
At bottom, it’s not just a film about its story, nor is it strictly a gay film (though it’s certainly that). It’s a film about accepting your sexual identity—whatever it is—and working with what you’ve got, of coming to terms with yourself and with other people. In Hedwig’s own vision—of finding her/his other half—the film hides that message in one of the film’s animated sequences during the song, “Origin of Love,” when the words are written on the screen, “Deny me and be doomed.” This is at the center of the scene where Tommy learns the truth of Hedwig’s borderline sexual anatomy and what Tommy has to learn to come to terms with in their final encounter.
Though Hedwig was marketed on its campy comedic bitchiness and its songs, there’s a lot more to it than those aspects—a lot more. It’s a timeless work that it funny, moving, exciting and fulfilling. The only pity is that so far the only film Mitchell has since given us is the equally wonderful Shortbus (the “pornographic” content of which makes it perhaps a little less accessible). But, hey, two times at bat with two movies I’d call home runs is no small accomplishment.