I have always had a certain sympathy for films about the drag world (I’ll just mention Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Crying Game; if the IMDb had a better search engine, I would name a few more). Proust realized that ”gay love” cannot be appreciated on its own terms by the heterosexual public, but there is an authentic passion in the drag scene that one must respect; its very theatricality is the deepest sign of its authenticity. These are not boys who call themselves “she” to get in the girls’ showers and/or on their soccer team.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
John Cameron Mitchell, who had acted in a number of TV series before turning to directing, made a splash with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he had originally composed in 1998 as an off-Broadway rock musical, playing the title role in both versions. This composition, with its punk-rock score, is the grand opera of drag-queen passion; Hedwig’s theatrical rage provides an unforgettable esthetic archetype.
The “angry inch” that supplied the name of Hedwig’s band, in case you haven’t heard, is the remainder of a penis that Hedwig, originally Hansel, a boy from East Germany, tried to have removed to convert him into a woman in order to marry his GI lover. The operation failed, as did the marriage. The symbolism, daring in its crudity, is rightfully in the title and at the center of the story; a drag queen is not a man-turned-into-a-woman but a man-wanting-to-and-knowing-he-can’t-be-a-woman, and without the “angry inch” as the failed residue of this desire, the paradoxical passion would be aufgehoben, and the story without a point.
Nonetheless, simply as a narrative, Hedwig is not altogether successful. The overcharged plot-line has Hedwig following, across various American venues, his younger ex-lover Tommy, who has become a major rock star by stealing Hedwig’s songs. The story ends in a complex epiphany in which Hedwig and Tommy reunite, then separate reconciled. In the final sequence, Hedwig hands his wig and female accoutrements to his long-suffering European “husband” and sings a song of universal reconciliation; then Tommy appears in a fantasy-animation sequence as an Androgyne-“other half” created from himself. Finally, all passion spent, Hedwig exits the theater into the street, stark naked.
It is the musical-operatic context that allows us to accept this transcendental ending, which shows Hedwig to be something other than a self-contained cinematic narration. Given the paradoxically infinite nature of the hero/heroine’s desire, neither a comic nor a tragic ending would have been possible.
Cameron’s second directing effort demonstrates his admirable willingness to follow his intuition wherever it leads. This is a trait that one must respect in modern artists; it at times leads them astray, but it is the sine qua non of their ability to produce true masterpieces. I would mention in this regard the writers Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose works I described some time ago as “The Last French Novels” (Romanic Review 83, 4; Nov. 1992: 501-16)—a judgment that the intervening years have given me little cause to modify—and film-makers like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Lars van Trier (Dogsville, Melancholia) and Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail).
Shortbus is the one film I know of that displays repeated and prolonged graphic images of acts hetero-, homo-, and auto-sexual, while being utterly without pornographic effect. It is also, unfortunately, both a bit dull and, although endearing, ultimately rather silly. I include it here as part of what I see as a genuine dialectic. If Hedwig was so to speak too much for a worldly plot, attempting to find an impossible synthesis between desire and fulfillment in a domain where no real mediation is possible—the frequent references to the Platonic myth of the Androgyne indicate its mythic transhumanity—in Shortbus, Cameron appears to avenge himself on the transcendental element of sexuality by treating “recreational” sex with deadpan irony as an everyday entertainment. Indeed, if he had deliberately accentuated the banality instead of simply letting it emerge as a natural effect, the film could be taken as a satire on self-help therapy groups.
The Shortbus itself, a cabaret in which the various sexual activities take place to a musical accompaniment far less absorbing than that of either Hedwig or the final film of this series, is explicitly named in contrast to the “long” school bus, but one imagines there may be some other connotation hidden from the non-initiated. Sofia, the chief heroine, is a Chinese-American woman who is shown at the beginning of the film having passionate sex with her husband, but who (as we learn shortly after) has never reached orgasm. The irony is that in her professional life, she is a marriage/partnership counselor. The case of hers that we follow in the film presents the main male protagonists, a homosexual couple, both with the same name (James and “Jamie”); their love for each other is not in question, but one of them feels the need to break the symmetry by adding a third member to their couple. His partner only mildly objects, and so a third is found, and the tripling demonstrated for us in expectedly explicit fashion.
As for our heroine, after engaging in psychological but unphysical intimacy with a depressive dominatrix—the most authentic human relationship in the film—she finally experiences orgasm. But this takes place not with her husband or any other person, but solo on a surrealistically illuminated park bench. Its diegetic and stylistic removal from the banal sexual realism of the Shortbus, in contrast with the straightforward resolution of the problem of the gay duo-threesome, would seem to demonstrate that, as in Hedwig, the emotional crux of Shortbus cannot be resolved within the film’s established esthetic framework. But here it all takes place, as they say, as farce rather than as tragedy. Whereas the passionate energy of Hedwig made its very non-resolution all but appear to provide the criterion for a new esthetic form of its own, here the resolution, like the problem itself, is more or less of a joke.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
I will not comment in detail on Mitchell’s third film. It is separate from what I see as a three-film series; judged by this film alone, Mitchell would come off as a sensitive but not particularly original director.
This story of a couple who loses their four-year-old son in an accident and spends years trying and never quite succeeding to get over it is more a case study of contemporary narcissism than a genuine tragedy—although it is unclear whether this perspective is at all implicit in the film itself. Losing a child is terrible; but they are still young, why not try to have another one? (I wouldn’t dare to ask why they couldn’t have more than one.) One wants to tell the couple to get out of the movie and get a life. Cameron clearly identified with this loss and dealt with it sensitively, but I don’t consider Rabbit Hole a significant element of his oeuvre.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
What inspired this Chronicle in the first place is this most recent of Cameron’s films; it was the first that I watched, although I had certainly heard about Hedwig.
The title makes little sense; it makes more if you read the 2007 sci-fi story by Neil Gaiman on which it is based. A mere 5000 words long, this minimalist tale contains the skeletal premise, but not the body, of Mitchell’s film. The alien nature of the girls at the party attended by the two rockers Enn (Henry), the shy first-person protagonist, and Vic, the ladies’ man, is not known in advance, but emerges subtly through the dialog. Above all, the romance that makes Mitchell’s film so endearing is barely implicit in the story, where Enn talks to several alien girls and never gets beyond a kiss and a recital of poetry in an unknown language before he is dragged off by Vic, panicked by an unsettling, inarticulable revelation experienced on attempting to make love to the beautiful alien Stella.
As we learn, the ironic point of the title is that Vic is effective at seduction precisely because he talks and pretends to listen to girls without hearing them; whence his utter unpreparedness for his final discovery. It is rather through the introverted Enn, who listens to what the girls have to say, that the reader comes to discover their alien, poetic nature.
This little story is a masterpiece of concision and what rhetoricians call litotes, but not the obvious basis for a movie, not to speak of a quasi-musical. Yet one can understand its attraction for Mitchell, given the desire he reveals in Hedwig for a sex-transcending representation of love.
Gaiman’s story ends when the terrified Vic drags Enn out of the party. But in the film, when Enn stands in the street, not following behind Vic as in the story, Zan comes out after him, a rebel from the conformity of her Colony, and Mitchell’s film, now released from its textual bondage, follows its own course.
The aliens touring the Earth have a fatalistic culture, not at all described by Gaiman, in which adult “Parent-Teachers” eat their children to reduce the population. Near the end of the film, the sexually ambivalent leader/founder of the six alien Colonies—each dressed in its own bright color and distinctive “futuristic” costume—announces that he/she awaits the final round of the parents’ eating the children to then eat the parents, and, in fine, end it all by eating himself. (Cf the cover of The Origin of Language.) Whether this is meant to satirize either the ecological passion for a human-free Gaia or its opposite is unimportant. On the other hand, the fact that, as we discover, Zan has through her “incomplete sexual activity” with Enn become pregnant (with five children, as we learn in the epilogue) is all-important. Her pregnancy gives her a tie-breaking, presumably positive vote on the decisive question of whether to accept Zan’s Parent-Teacher Waldo’s proposal to abolish the race’s child-devouring policy, hence to bring fecundity and life back to their otherwise dying planet. But to vote and bear her children, she must return forever to her home planet.
Skillfully avoiding sentimentality a la Avatar, the film is nonetheless at the other end of the spectrum from the narcissistic sexuality of Hedwig or Shortbus, where neither the drag-queen passion of the former nor the “sexual problems” of the later have anything to do with procreation. Indeed, in this context, Rabbit Hole, which takes place between middle-class adults in a non-controversial sexual framework, is closer than we might have expected to the Hedwig end of the spectrum. The couple mourn their Trophy Child not as a lost hope of perpetuating their family and species, but as the crowning achievement of their marriage. He cannot be replaced, because to reveal his biological replicability would devalue the uniqueness of their creation.
Whereas what matters in How to Talk’s incomplete sexual relations—where in a whimsical love-scene Zan talks calmly about Enn’s penis changing shape, as though she could see it through his trousers, while their interaction remains as chaste as in a fairy tale—is not sex but love. Zan’s “I love you” to Enn before leaving him forever is as touching a declaration as you will find in any film. And unlike the narcissistic love of Mitchell’s other films, this one is fecund. The fact that it produces five children and turns around the whole ecology of their planet is less the point than that their love is of the kind that can do this; it is the perfect synthesis of a private idyll and a manifestation of communal solidarity—humans and aliens showing themselves to be part of the same community.
The film’s (unexpected) epilogue takes place 16 years later, when Enn has achieved success as a graphic artist, his original ambition. It is difficult not to share the tears that we see in his eyes when his children—two girls and three boys—show up at his book signing to tell him they want to form a band. They each give their name, with no overt sign of recognition—but then Enn notices that they are all wearing the unmistakable insignia that adorned Zan’s ring.
What more beautiful resolution could be found for Hedwig’s sexual agony? No doubt a film cannot solve the world’s, or even a drag queen’s problems, any more than any other work of art, but one could not imagine a more tender transcendence. Seeing these films as a sequence, one can truly say that the agony of Hedwig is justified by this cosmic redemption of sexuality that comes across as neither Pollyannaish nor ironic.
No couple in cinema is more right than the lovely alien and the punk rocker, brought together by a gay film-maker. And I must congratulate the actors: Elle Fanning, totally convincing in all the aspects of her role, from innocence to rebellion to a minimal sensuality that remains more émerveillement than lust, and Alex Sharp, who, unlike the pauvre type in Gaiman’s story, is a tender but virile young man in love, in touch with his sexuality and yet able to fulfill it in every sense in this fairy-tale relationship. And we mustn’t forget Nicole Kidman’s spot-on performance as Boadicea, aging queen of the punk scene, who hosts the shy Zan’s blowout performance in an unforgettable blending of Hedwig-style hysterical musical liberation with an opening to the renewal of love and life itself.
Despite many tries, I have yet to meet a person willing to share my view that Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 Arabella: The Female Quixote is the most delightful novel ever written. In consequence of this, I won’t advise you to watch How to Talk to Girls at Parties, let alone expect you to cry at the end. I’ll just say that I’m very glad to have seen it, and to have had the opportunity to appreciate the cinematic art of John Cameron Mitchell.