March 6, 2003

Under the Radar

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The real measure of audience engagement with a character is not our feelings of love, hate, lust, or even (despite what that Greek dude thought) pity and terror. A character doesn’t have to be interesting or a film well made for us to experience those emotions; witness the theater shrieking at the stupid heroine walking back into the dark house in every horror movie ever made. That response is derived from an audience’s basic humanity and has little to do with the specific images on screen. No, the true measure of an engaging character is their ability to make us feel embarrassed on their behalf. When we squirm at the indignity they put themselves to, or wince at ill-advised drunken words, that is when we truly feel for them. The mark of a great director is when that response is manipulated so that the audience feels that embarrassment only when the character and the director want us to: when we respond out of identification and not out of preconceived views. John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a perfect example of that emotional conducting.

Hedwig (Mitchell) is a profoundly interesting and sympathetic character and easily wins the audience over. Hedwig is a great movie because Mitchell makes us forget that in real life quite a few people would feel vaguely embarrassed by and uncomfortable with Hedwig just because of who she is: the six foot plus East German recipient of a botched sex change operation left with nothing but that ‘angry inch’ and an appreciation for glam and punk. Admittedly, she does have killer abs. Hedwig is quite unhappy, but not because of who she is. Hedwig is, in fact, one of the most self-assured, together, funny and smart characters you’re ever likely to meet. Hedwig is unhappy because she is alone, and when we are embarrassed for her, it is not because of her, ahem, condition, but because of the lengths to which she will go to be with someone- no more than any of us may do or have done.

Hedwig (who began life as dreamer Hansel) received her unfortunate operation in order to accompany his American GI home to a mid west trailer park. Once there, she is quickly dumped for a bit of beefcake. After several misadventures, she meets and falls in love with Tommy(Michael Pitt), a callow, greasy teen with whom she tries to share her love of rock. Tommy promptly steals her songs and becomes an international sensation. As the film opens, Tommy tours stadiums, while Hedwig and her band follow along, playing the local seafood chain Bilgewater’s in every town he hits. It is a rare thing for any medium to take a minority character like Hedwig and not make them into a stereotype or spokesperson. In the case of sexual minorities like Hedwig, the character is stripped of all sexuality and made to be a fount of earthy common sense (the gay man as the new black woman). That doesn’t happen here. Hedwig has an agenda all her own. Hedwig ostensibly wants the royalties to her songs, but what she really wants is Tommy back. Hedwig, you see, is a musician and a romantic. Thereby hangs a plot and some of the best, most electrifying musical numbers ever committed to film.

The first two numbers, “Tear me Down” and “Origin of Love” tell us everything we need to know about Hedwig and the world she inhabits. The first finds Mitchell hiding his commentary on the nature of identity and the androgyne under a air-guitar worthy riff. The second, accompanied by Micthell’s touchingly vaulnerable, grotesque animation (think Gilliam’s work for Monty Python) cribs from Aristhopanes’s theory in the Symposium (people used to be connected to their soul mates, when the gods cut them apart love was born) to outline Hedwig’s mission. Hedwig’s gone looking for someone whose “pain, down in [their] soul / was the same, as the one down in mine.” She doesn’t find them. What she, and Micthell, uncover instead is the best understanding of the nature and power of music you’ll find outside of Nietzsche (and let’s face it, this is a lot more fun).

Some of the numbers are performed in Bilgewater’s and some take place in the far more interesting locale of Hedwig’s mind. The best of the former finds Mitchell playing perfectly on the audience’s engagement with Hedwig (see? that opening was going somewhere after all) to get away with the outrageous number “Angry Inch.” Hedwig delivers the explicit, aggressive, bitter song to the blue collar workers at Bilgewater’s, who are less than thrilled. The lyrics would normally find the audience cringing away is embarrassment. But by this point we are so under Hedwig’s spell that we side with her against the hecklers, allowing Mitchell to avoid alienating his real audience by having Hedwig alienate a fictional one.

The last song, which may occur in Hedwig’s mind but has immediate repercussions in reality, ties the film’s disparet threads together perfectly. Finally understanding that Tommy is no more her soulmate than an idiot teen could be and thoroughly sick of love, Hedwig comforts herself with music. “Midnight Radio” is an anthem looking for a stadium. You’ll find yourself reaching for your lighter and swaying along. The song’s really a prayer, as Hedwig invokes “Tina, Yoko, Aretha, Wynonna, and Nico, and Me.” Wrapped up in the love of her idols and their common soul, Hedwig strips off her clothes, wig, and elaborate makeup to go walking down the dark street, into the end of the story. There’s something magisterial in the image. The idea that you can save yourself with rock ‘n’ roll, or indeed, with art, is really pretty profound. It’s also deeply cool.

Archived article by Erica Stein