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Hedwig's anomalous anatomy

by Brian Bromberger

Hedwig's anomalous anatomy

It's rare for a film to be prophetic, yet 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" serves as a precursor to today's gender nonbinary and fluidity of sexual roles issues, such that the movie seems more relevant now than when it first opened. "Hedwig" has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, which gives us the opportunity to appreciate how revolutionary this "post-punk neo-glam rock musical" really was, despite doing poorly at the box office. Based on the 1998 Off-Broadway stage cult hit, the film defies categorization, being archetypally queer both in its execution and its themes, exploding identity discourse with its mosaic use of punk anthems, music videos, animation, campy costumes/wigs, visual gags, interweaving drag queen irony with heartbreaking emotional realism. Writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell created an irreverent masterpiece. Only now can its dismantling of gender, how one discovers who one is by navigating between rigid sexual definitions, begin to be absorbed.

Using non-linear flashbacks primarily through songs, we revisit Hedwig's story as Hansel growing up in East Berlin (born the same year the Wall was constructed) as a girly boy in love with rock music (Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed) to the consternation of his mother, who forces him to listen to the radio in the oven. Ridiculed, he finds salvation in the form of an American soldier who agrees to marry him and take him to the U.S. if he consents to a sex-change operation ("to walk away, you gotta leave something behind"). The operation is botched, leaving an inch of manhood ("with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face"). Taking his mother's name, Hedwig relocates to a Kansas trailer park, where her sergeant abandons her for another guy, forcing her to become a prostitute (the "job called blow") on the nearby military base to survive. She falls in love with Tommy (Michael Pitt), a teenage fundamentalist Christian Army brat who wants to be a rock star. But Tommy discovers Hedwig's "anomaly" and rejects her. He pursues a solo career, having stolen the songs Hedwig wrote and becoming a huge success, Tommy Gnosis.

The musical opens with the ballad "The Origin of Love," sung by Hedwig in a stripper wig with a cape inscribed, "Yankee Go Home, With Me." Her view of love is that we're all bi-gendered people split down the middle by angry gods, as we seek our other half in self-discovery. Hedwig ("the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you") performs at dingy Bilgewater seafood chain restaurants with her East European band, The Angry Inch, including guitarist/boyfriend biker Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), yearning to be female, who will eventually break away to play a Puerto Rican drag queen in "Rent." In "the business of show," they shadow Tommy's tour, plotting with her manager (a wonderful Andrea Martin) to expose his treachery. Hedwig will eventually confront Tommy. Whether or not reconciliation is possible, she sings a song of solidarity with all the misfits of the world.

In the insightful supplement made for this edition featuring a 2019 conversation among cast and crew members, Shor observes how being rejected, and how one deals with it, is Hedwig's message. Ultimately we're all dissatisfied. How we cope with our discontent forms the core of our identity. The film is content to let Hedwig remain in a sexual limbo. Mitchell cleverly uses the Berlin Wall as a metaphor, initially representing Hedwig's unbreakability but later its fall. Hedwig never surrenders to self-pity, despite having no gender, no home, no career, all resulting from the brutality of the binary.

The trippy music composed by Stephen Trask, a combination of rock, pop, punk, folkabilly with a dash of Great American songbook, moves the narrative and provides resonance, especially the amusing "Wig in a Box," illustrating Hedwig's evolution to rock performer. Viewed almost two decades later, Hedwig is way ahead of her time. Kudos to Criterion for giving us this sardonic fairy tale of finding yourself regardless of the sacrifice.

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