Charlie Gillett, 1942-2010 « PREV | NEXT »: Re-Matissed in Chicago

March 19, 2010

Hedwig and the Lost Decade

One of the increasingly infrequent events in the life of a critic who's been around for a while is having his socks knocked off. I'm not talking about a superb performance at the Metropolitan Opera, or a jolting new interpretation of a classic (e.g., David Cromer's de-sentimentalized little-theater production of Our Town), but, well, a whole that's joyfully different. Now, I operate professionally in the art world, where the specter of future history (i.e., the legend of Vincent van Gogh selling only two pictures during his lifetime telling us that a] only posterity can accurately judge, and b] whoever's hot this month, or even this season, is beside the point) hangs heavily over exhibitions and reviews. My socks haven't suddenly departed my tootsies on a round of the galleries in quite a while. Any instantaneous loss of hosiery is much more likely to occur in a precinct of the arts outside my immediate expertise.

Enter Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

I've not been a Netflixer because I simply don't have the time. But our daughter gave my wife and me a subscription and, my wife being the furthest thing from a moviegoer (she prefers reading about the ancient Greeks and going to an occasional play), it fell to me to round up some selections for the queue. If we're going to watch together, the film has to be something other than The Bourne Ultimatum (the first thing I ordered and enjoyed by myself) or, as Laurie puts it, "another one of your English downers." So I called my son, a musician in L.A., and he recommended The Lives of Others (very good), Little Children (sent back unseen), and Hedwig. I could hear a little shakiness in Paul's voice about the last one; he was afraid I'd think it was a pile of glam-rock crap and sort of sold it to me, insincerely, as camp.

Now, I'd heard a little about Hedwig, first as a downtown stage musical that was talked about in the arts & entertainment quarters of Newsweek when I was still there, and then as a movie, where it got some brief, favorable mentions by the magazine's astute film critic, David Ansen--in whose debt I forever remain for telling me to go see a Chinese movie called Yi-Yi. But "transsexual" and "rock music" were about all I knew about Hedwig when, all alone for the test run, I slipped it into the DVD player.

The thrill of discovery is greater the less you know in advance. (Happening upon Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry's big, stunning 1905 painting, Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina in the Hungarian National Gallery was, for example, more breathtaking for me than seeing Veláquez's Las Meninas for the first time because no art history class had ever told me how great the Csontváry was going to be.) I didn't know who John Cameron Mitchell was, I never watched Dawson's Creek, so I didn't know the kid who played Tommy Gnosis. The only actor in the film I'd ever seen was Andrea Martin, long ago on SCTV. (There's a whole dissertation to be written--several probably have been--on the problem of perceiving the person on the screen as both a star, e.g., Meryl Streep or George Clooney, and the character he or she is playing. One of the pleasures of The Lives of Others was not recognizing a soul in it.) And I'd seen only bits and pieces of what I take to be the highly overrated Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Finally as prep (or the fortuitous lack of it), there's the fact I was ten years late to Hedwig. For a "cultural journalist," as my wonderful late colleague, Jack Kroll, used to call us, stumbling across a work of art--and Hedwig is a work of art--way after the fact is a delicious luxury. It's better in a way, than finding it far ahead of the curve, because then you're itching to see the commotion it causes when the proles are finally let in on the secret (and, if you've talked it up along the way, the corrupt satisfaction of being regarded as prescient).

Primary among the jewels that constitute Hedwig is John Cameron Mitchell's overwhelming talent; he wrote it (albeit not the music or its lyrics), directed it, and inhabits--not merely acts--the eponymous lead. "I was with him from the first frame," is what I told my son. Second, the dialogue is both real and poetic. (Everybody else's favorite line seems to be the plot-crucial, "It's what I have to work with" but I, being a formalist, am somehow hooked on "It's a carwash, ladies and gentlemen." [You gotta be there.]) Third, the music, which may not be the most radical rock, moves the movie forward better than any of those alleged showstoppers on Broadway propel their vehicles. Fourth, Hedwig is so brilliantly shot it not only justifies the film's overdesign, but makes it absolutely essential. And fifth, none of this "first, second, third" list-making is really relevant because Hedwig is such a gloriously integrated whole. All right, the reconciliation/relinquishing finale with Tommy Gnosis goes on too long and it's unclear--at least to me--whether in the final shot Hedwig has at last found his/her genuine self, or is dead. (Nobody notices when naked Hedwig reaches the street from the alley.) But that and a few other glitches are a tiny price to pay for the experience of, as I said, a work of art.

I'd mentioned as little as possible to Laurie about the movie other than (having helped her, the previous night, bubble-wrap of a bunch of her paintings for eventual shipment for a show later this year), "C'mon, just give me back an hour and a half and watch it with me." When the credits rolled at the end, she just quietly said, "Great." Later, she sent a YouTube link of the song "The Origin of Love" to a conservative political philosopher friend of hers who is academically famous for his books on Plato. I, in tears (not at the plot, but at Hedwig's still proving to be such good art), collected myself enough to say that it was going right into my top ten favorites (not "best"--I'm not a film critic--just favorites). If you're curious, they are, in rough order: 1. Shoot the Piano Player, 2. The Big Sleep, 3. The Wizard of Oz, 4. My Darling Clementine, 5. Bad Day at Black Rock, 6. Things to Come, 7. Last Year at Marienbad, 8. Kashemuga, Shadow Warrior, 9. 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 10. (with a bullet) Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The temptation will be great among some, I realize, to instruct me as to all my lapses, gaffes and black holes of knowledge regarding rock music and movies. In pre-emptive defense, I can only plaintively quote Hedwig (from imperfect memory--I've yet to see the movie for an inevitable third time): "There's no need for that, really no need at all."

March 19, 2010 9:22 AM | | Comments (2)


I do love "Hedwig"-the-movie, but I REALLY loved "Hedwig"-the-stage-musical--mostly because it got so much out of, uh, what it had to work with. (It actually "took place" in the tiny West Village theater where it was staged, across the river from the stadium where Tommy Gnosis was playing: a beautiful conceit, I thought.)

We're all so accustomed to being more than up-to-the-minute with art. We see it / read it / hear it before the general public does, and then we relegate it to the past. But most art is made to live longer than that. It's kind of delicious when we step outside our own spheres and encounter something that's been around a while.

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