A tale of two Hedwigs - Queer Film blog-a-thon

NOTE: this is my contribution to Damion's Queer Film Blog-a-thon. What are you waiting for, go check it out!

My name is Hedwig.

I was named after the main character from a novel published in the year 1900. "Van de koele meren des doods" by Frederik van Eeden. The title loosely translates as "Of the cool lakes of death", and the book is exactly as cheery as you would expect. The delicately nerved protagonist is a sensual creature who gets married to an impotent man and wonders about why "the mystery of marriage" is missing. She then runs off with a piano player, delivers a dead baby, and carries it in a basket with her to Paris where - if memory serves - a doctor makes her a morphine addict, after which she wanders the streets of Paris as a whore. In the end, she ends up a nun.

When I finally read the book at age 18, I hated, hated this Hedwig. Luckily for me, I found a namesake I could identify with a lot more around the same age. This one was a botched transsexual, a rocker from Berlin, with fabulous wigs and a thirst for vengeance. Someone who had no less of a tragic life, but who - unlike the turn of the century twat from the book - didn't just roll over and hope for the cool embrace of death, but instead fought with tooth and long, polished nail for justice and for love.
The movie, if you haven't guessed it by now, is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And I'll admit, I bought the DVD mostly out of vanity. If you're called Hedwig, you don't find a lot of namesakes, and I was curious enough to spare 10 euros. I couldn't have spent them better.

John Cameron Mitchell does so much so well in this movie that's it hard to know where to start. The music, and its very own mix of mythologies, the amazing central performance, the strange ending, the humor. But what I want to talk about in particular in connection with this blog-a-thon is how naturally and flexibly gender, gender-roles and sexuality are treated.

Hedwig herself is, of course, a wonderful mess. She's not transgendered in the sense that she's felt like a girl all her life: the operation is done out of love, both for her "sugar-daddy" and the country (and associated freedom) he represents. Her surgery is botched, leaving her with the "angry inch" of the title, and as a result she is the ultimate outsider: a piece of an impossible puzzle, futilely looking for another half that will fit. Her triumph is that she refuses to stop looking.

You can tell John Cameron Mitchell believes, or at least wants to believe, that there is indeed someone out there for everyone. To use an awful Dutch proverb, there's a lid for every jar. What Hedwig points us to is that in order to find that lid, we shouldn't be halted by convention, and if we should consider both men, women, and everything in between. This movie shows that in some way, everyone is somewhere in between. It's not for nothing that Hedwig's poor, abused boyfriend Yitzak is played (wonderfully) by a woman. And the reason Tommy Gnosis is a tragic figure rather than a true villain is that he cannot look beyond a simple angry inch to find love.

I've long had a fascination for gay culture. I'm still not entirely sure why, but I think I'm starting to figure it out. Queer culture is all about taking what makes you different, what makes you a "freak" in the eyes of some limited people, and making something great out of it. I might not be gay, but I understand what it's like to be different, even in a subtle way, from what's considered the norm. Hedwig, and many other queer films sure to be discussed today, take these feelings of unbelonging and turn them into art. In this particular case, the lesson to draw is clear: be whoever you are, and find love wherever you can.

I don't know about you. But I take comfort in that.


Joe Valdez said...

The story of your name christening is terrific! I felt sure "Hedwig" was just an alias you copped from whatever DVD you were watching at the time. I wish my parents were as literary minded as yours when I was born.

Without knowing your last name, I also think Hedwig a pretty bad ass name for a novelist.

cjKennedy said...

Interesting perspective on a fascinating musical, Hedwig.

If you haven't seen it, you might want to check out John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. It was one of my favorite little movies from 2006, but not very many people saw it.

In one respect it's about a bunch of lonely, messed-up strangers in New York from all different backgrounds sort of reaching out to one another.

That's the best way I can describe it which I know isn't very helpful. Anyway, it was good though I should warn you it was very sexually explicit.

The sex gives it a controversy factor, but really it reaches deeper than that and it struck an emotional cord for me.

It's not a perfect movie, but it was interesting and I think worth seeing to the open minded.

cjKennedy said...

Also, I forgot to mention it, but I love your last line :)

Hedwig said...

I still do need to see Shortbus...I've wanted to ever since I've heard of it, but it was only in theaters here for a week or two, and due to the explicitness I'd heard of, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go with my usual art house film buddy, aka. mom. As soon as I have time again, I'll rent it :-)

Oh, and yes, I watched the Big Lebowski again last Friday, and it is, and remains, a wonder.

cjKennedy said...

Hmmm...I left a comment here the other day but it didn't seem to go through. I swear that infernal 'word verification' thing hates me!

Anyway, I said something about how I wouldn't have been comfortable watching Shortbus with a parent. Americans are so much more prudish than Europeans though, so I'll be curious to hear what you think.

Also, I was just about to watch Lebowski as a part of my regular ritual of watching all the Coen movies in order. I tried to explain to someone on H-E the other day why the ending of Lebowski is great and he just wasn't getting it.

This was a part of a discussion about the ending of No Country which I will say no more about until you see it...soon!