Loving the Alien

D.A. Pennebaker's Stardust Memories

JCM: He's a genius. I can't wait. I was very impressed, for Hedwig certainly, by the stage shtick: the costume changes, the mime, the moment during "Time" when Ronson jumps on top of David for his guitar solo . . .

DP: You know, all the hippie rockers were out in the States in their overalls. . . . It never occurred to anybody that it should look nice, you know? And suddenly David—I mean, everything about him said, "Here's something new."

JCM: Now, this whole thing in the Ziggy movie about it being Bowie's last show.

DP: [Bowie manager] Tony DeFries said to me, "You must not tell anybody. [David's] gonna make an announcement saying this is the last concert we're going to do"—meaning the last Ziggy Stardust concert. He had actually told Ronson, according to Visconti . . . and afterward all of the musicians were really upset and said, "How come you didn't tell us about this?" and so [David] kind of looks to Ronson, saying, "Well, you knew," and Ronson says, "I didn't know," 'cause he didn't want to appear to be the rat, so David had to take the weight pretty much himself.

JCM: But then they did shows after that . . .

DP: They didn't do Ziggy Stardust . . .

JCM: Well they did The 1980 Floor Show [a one-off variety program aired on NBC in 1974], which I just saw at the Museum of Television and Radio's Bowie retrospective—geek!—and it was the same band with the same makeup.

DP: Oh, well, David—he's kind of like Dylan; he doesn't like to get put into any . . .

JCM: . . . box . . .

DP: I mean, he wasn't going to find anyone else to do it . . .

JCM: I found people to play Hedwig.

DP: Did they?

JCM: Such a relief. Did you ever see [Dylan's] glam period?

DP: Well, I heard of the time he ran into Kiss and he said, "Why do you put the white paint all over your face?" And they said, "So the people in the way back of the stadium can see us." And the next day he painted his face white—which is very Dylan-esque.

JCM: Right, his Pierrot period. Whose work have you enjoyed lately?

DP: I saw the recent Kiarostami [ABC Africa] that I really loved.

JCM: [handing over a video of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence] Japanese interviewers always bring a present. This is my favorite film lately. It mixes a lot of documentary with re-enactment. [Makhmalbaf] actually stabbed a policeman in Iran during the days of the Shah, as an Islamic militant, and later when he became a famous filmmaker, a guy came up to him and said, "I'm the policeman you stabbed. I want to be in one of your films." Makhmalbaf said, "Let's make a film about what happened."

DP: Amazing. There was a film, The Target Shoots First. The guy [director Christopher Wilcha] goes out to get a job, and he didn't know anything about anything except Nirvana 'cause he loved Nirvana, so he went to the thing called Columbia House.

JCM: You mean, 10 records for a cent?

DP: That's right. It really rips off performers is what it does. None of them know who Nirvana is, and this kid seems to know, so they hire him and give him an office. So he brings his little camera to work with him and he makes this fantastic film. It's kind of Orwellian. But the thing that was marvelous is that he didn't know anything about filmmaking, so he wasn't trying to deal with fancy editing or trick shots.

When I first started, I was an asshole and I knew I came off that way. I just assumed that if you made a . . . good movie, you took it to a local theater and they would say, "Oh great, I'll play it." Well, when I did Don't Look Back, I couldn't get people to look at the second reel. All they saw was a raggedy-assed film, black-and-white, badly focused. But there was a guy who had a big string of porno houses, and he said, "That's exactly what I'm looking for—it looks like a porno film but it's not." He was trying to shut his porno business because his wife wanted to get into the country club. And he gave us this theater in San Francisco. It played about a year.

JCM: So why did you say you were an asshole?

DP: In that I didn't understand . . . it didn't bother me that I didn't understand how things worked, which is generally what assholes are, you know? They're happy to go in and kick the machine until it starts.

John Cameron Mitchell is the writer, director, and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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