Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical about castration, a scary, taboo subject that, in his triple role as director, writer, and star, John Cameron Mitchell does his utmost to evade and repress. I suspect that Hedwig‘s popularity is dependent on the emotional disconnection between its production (first as a play, then as a film) and the anxiety at its root.
Originating as a cabaret performance, Hedwig settled in for a two-year run in a tiny theater on the edge of the meatpacking district, where its audience expanded beyond its gay core. Theater devotees came from all over to see Mitchell, an androgynous, pale-faced man who bears a striking resemblance to David Bowie circa Hunky Dory and sings like Bowie as well. Before their eyes, he transformed himself from Hansel, a wistful glam-rock fan living with his martinet mama in East Berlin, into Hedwig, an abandoned Kansas housewife, survivor of a botched sex change operation, and the bewigged, overdressed lead singer of the driving rock band Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What’s potentially provocative about the sex change is that the airheaded Hansel never expresses any desire to become a woman. Encouraged by his evil mom, he agrees to the operation because he believes that the only way he can escape to America is by becoming the wife of the American soldier who’s already his lover. In terms of desire and sexual identity, this is a mind-boggling and very un-p.c. premise.
Despite the problems inherent in translating a live, virtually one-person rock-opera to the screen, Mitchell’s charisma and the show’s popularity made Hedwig a hot property and a perfect fit for the portfolio of Killer Films, producer of Velvet Goldmine and Boys Don‘t Cry. In true indie spirit, Christine Vachon and her Killer partners gambled that Mitchell’s personal vision would outweigh his lack of film directorial experience. The risk paid off at Sundance, where Hedwig won the Audience Award and Mitchell took the prize for Best Director. Given that Sundancers are partial to stories of survival among people who are “different,” it’s not surprising that Hedwig was dear to their hearts. The directing prize was more mysterious, considering that Mitchell’s direction is distinguished only by its plodding pace and its refusal of visual and emotional variety. But the oddest aspect of Hedwig‘s Sundance reception is that neither in the press nor in the late-night chatter did one encounter more than a passing jocular reference to the “angry inch,” the “nub of flesh” left between Hedwig’s legs that makes her teenage boyfriend, Tommy Gnosis, go “E-ew, what’s that?” the first time he touches it.
By refusing to engage with Hedwig‘s not-so-plain and hardly simple castration fantasy, the audience is merely following Mitchell’s lead. In a summer where the screens are flooded with the relatively unsublimated oedipal traumas and longings of Spielberg and Singleton, Mitchell takes the opposite tack, erecting a wall of set decoration, costumes, hair, makeup, and pounding rock against the potential eruption of sexual anxiety. It’s this strategy (however unconscious), and not simply a lack of directing talent, that makes Hedwig so relentlessly assaultive, heavy-handed, and emotionally monochromatic. In this context, nuance is dangerously close to letting down one’s guard.
The repressed, or rather the anticipation of its return, accounts for the one brilliant image, which occurs during the climactic medley. Suddenly the lights are stripped of their garish fuchsia and purple gels, leaving the scruffy set, with its mural of the Titanic going under, washed in white light. Hedwig removes her wig. Is this finally when farce gives way to the frightening truth? No, it’s not. Mitchell blows it by plunging into Oprah-esque platitudes about how “you are the brightest star” and how the other half you’re looking for is already inside you. As Hedwig tiptoes down the theater alley, naked back to the camera, all I could think was what a cop-out not to show a full frontal.