Since Caitlin’s movie this week (2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by John Cameron Mitchell) was primarily concerned with some good old rock ‘n’ roll, I decided to whip out some Kids In The Hall sketches featuring their recurring band Armada. To completely bookend the experience, I selected the very first Armada sketch (where they’re already changing their name!) and the very last Armada sketch, taken from the final episode of the series and starring The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson as the greatest Rock And Roll Angel ever.
But so much for silly – it’s time for a serious film with a message, and that message is that East German transvestite rock star hookers with bobbed penises just want to be loved, too. Let’s jump into the middle of the story, just like the film does:
This is Hedwig. Hedwig (neé Hansel…apparently Hedwig is a female name for those of us who don’t do German) is a struggling transvestite glam rocker who spends most of her time playing to small (but fanatical) crowds and puzzled elderly diners at a chain of dive restaurants known as Bilgewater’s – kind of like Red Lobster if Red Lobster were trashy, inexplicably had live music, and insisted on having pictures of sinking ships on the walls. Through her songs and her intercanticle musician banter (as well as some non-stage scenes), Hedwig starts to give us some exposition.
Perhaps the most important early bit of information revealed is that Hedwig is currently gig-stalking rock’s flavor-of-the-week Tommy Gnosis (hence the Bilgewater’s tour that mirrors Tommy’s arena shows), and has filed a lawsuit claiming to have written all of Tommy’s music. In real life, you’d call shenanigans on a claim like that, but since it’s a movie about Hedwig, you pretty much know this claim is going to turn out true.
For instance, Hedwig performs Tommy’s new hit “The Origin of Love”, which is a pretty good tune, and taken completely from Aristophanes’ speech delivered in Plato’s Symposium (which I will include basically in its entirety at the end of the review, just because). It’s about how all humans are souls divided and gives quite a bit of insight into Hedwig’s struggle to find love.
Once the stage is set, we get to see all of Hedwig’s backstory. Hedwig began life as Hansel, an East German teenager, who is plied by the Gummi-Bears of Iniquity into a relationship with the American Sgt. Luther Robinson. In order to marry Robinson and escape the D.D.R. to the U.S., Hansel has to, shall we say, lose his boy parts so he can pass the East German marriage-license-required physical examination. Oddly, his mother is completely in favor of the idea and Hansel takes her passport, her name, and is neutered and more, leaving only the eponymous “angry inch”.
Cruelly, Robinson leaves Hedwig on their one-year anniversary for another man (another neuter job?) – on the same day that the Berlin Wall falls. So cruel, life can be. Hedwig gave up five inches for nothing, and abandoned in Kansas she turns to babysitting and tricks to support herself and her fledgling band through which she gets out some of her aggressions.
At one babysitting gig, she meets the 17-year-old Tommy (who really should have been old enough to babysit his infant sibling his damn self, but let’s forget that) and the two eventually develop an intimate relationship. Much of their activity together is spent on writing music, but when Tommy finally tries to “go all the way” he learns Hedwig’s angry secret and kind of freaks out.
This leads to where Hedwig is today, headlining an all-Eastern-European band and trying to track down Tommy. Apparently Hedwig is now married to band member Yitzhak, though their backstory (outside of Yitzhak’s apparent desire to wear Hedwig’s blonde wigs and be a diva) is completely ignored. Yitzhak (played by a woman, which I totally did not notice) tries out for and wins the role of Angel (a transvestite drummer) in a production of Rent and his departure combined with the complete lack of money signals the end of the band.
Hedwig, stranded in New York City, returns to turning tricks but is picked up one day by a limo containing none other than Tommy Gnosis. A bit of a private reconciliation appears to be in the cards – and then the movie goes into Complete Symbolic Summary mode. It’s almost as if the filmmakers suddenly realized that there was two hours’ worth of story left and they were already ninety minutes in with only a half-reel of film left.
So Boom! a nighttime auto accident brings their relationship into the public; Tommy plays Peter and denies Hedwig three times before the dawn; there’s a Tommy Gnosis apology scene that basically boils down to Weezer’s “Butterfly”; Hedwig sets Yitzhak free to be a diva of her own; somehow Hedwig, still alone, becomes a complete soul and finishes the film walking naked out of a NYC alley. Honestly, the entire denouement makes no sense outside of giving you the impression that some loose ends have been wrapped up in a quite unsatisfactory fashion.
You know, other than the end, it’s a pretty decent film. It’s kind of the polar opposite of Cinema 1544’s iconic rock opera to date (Repo! The Genetic Opera) in that the Repo opening credits started so promisingly but the film quickly devolved into terrible acting, a terrible screenplay, and worse music, whereas my impression of Hedwig through the opening credits was one of horror that I might have to sit through 90 more minutes of this, only to find that the acting was good, the screenplay was at least passable, and the music was enjoyable.
One of the interesting things about the film is that basically none of the angst that Hedwig experiences is over her gender issues. Missing a penis, sure, but there’s no am-I-a-man-or-am-I-a-woman wrangling going on here. Hedwig wants love in order to make herself complete, but she’s never struggling with her identity, which is exactly what you wouldn’t expect given the outline of the story. That’s well done.
And now, I’m going to make this the longest movie review ever by including a very long excerpt of Aristophanes’ speech from Plato’s Symposium, as translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. It really forms the backbone of the movie, despite only appearing explicitly in “The Origin Of Love”.
First you must learn what human nature was in the beginning and what has happened to it since, because long ago our nature was not what it is now, but very different. There were three kinds of human beings, that’s my first point—not two as there are now, male and female. In addition to these, there was a third, a combination of those two; its name survives, though the kind itself has vanished. At that time, you see, the word ‘androgynous’ really meant something: a form made up of male and female elements, though now there’s nothing but the word, and that’s used as an insult. My second point is that the shape of each human being was completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands, and two faces, exactly alike, on a rounded neck. Between the two faces, which were on opposite sides, was one head with four ears. There were two sets of sexual organs, and everything else was the way you’d imagine it from what I’ve told you. They walked upright, as we do now, whatever direction they wanted. And whenever they set out to run fast, they thrust out all their eight limbs, the ones they had then, and spun rapidly, the way gymnasts do cartwheels, by bringing their legs around straight.
Now here is why there were three kinds, and why they were as I described them: the male kind was originally an offspring of the sun, the female of the earth, and the one that combined both genders was an offspring of the moon, because the moon shares in both. They were spherical, and so was their motion, because they were like their parents in the sky.
In strength and power, therefore, they were terrible, and they had great ambitions. They made an attempt on the gods, and Homer’s story about Ephialtes and Otus was originally about them: how they tried to make an ascent to heaven so as to attack the gods. Then Zeus and the other gods met in council to discuss what to do, and they were sorely perplexed. They couldn’t wipe out the human race with thunderbolts and kill them all off, as they had the giants, because that would wipe out the worship they receive, along with the sacrifices we humans give them. On the other hand, they couldn’t let them run riot. At last, after great effort, Zeus had an idea.
‘I think I have a plan,’ he said, ‘that would allow human beings to exist and stop their misbehaving: they will give up being wicked when they lose their strength. So I shall now cut each of them in two. At one stroke they will lose their strength and also become more profitable to us, owing to the increase in their number. They shall walk upright on two legs. But if I find they still run riot and do not keep the peace,’ he said, ‘I will cut them in two again, and they’ll have to make their way on one leg, hopping.’
So saying, he cut those human beings in two, the way people cut sorb apples before they dry them or the way they cut eggs with hairs. As he cut each one, he commanded Apollo to turn its face and half its neck toward the wound, so that each person would see that he’d been cut and keep better order. Then Zeus commanded Apollo to heal the rest of the wound, and Apollo did turn the face around, and he drew skin from all sides over what is now called the stomach; and there he made one mouth, as in a pouch with a drawstring, and fastened it at the center of the stomach. This is now called the navel. Then he smoothed out the other wrinkles, of which there were many, and he shaped the breasts, using some such tool as shoemakers have for smoothing wrinkles out of leather on the form. But he left a few wrinkles around the stomach and the navel, to be a reminder of what happened long ago.
Now, since their natural form had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together. In that condition they would die from hunger and general idleness, because they would not do anything apart from each other. Whenever one of the halves died and one was left, the one that was left still sought another and wove itself together with that. Sometimes the half he met came from a woman, as we’d call her now, sometimes it came from a man; either way, they kept on dying.
Then, however, Zeus took pity on them, and came up with another plan: he moved their genitals around to the front! Before then, you see, they used to have their genitals outside, like their faces, and they cast seed and made children: not in one another, but in the ground, like cicadas. So Zeus brought about this relocation of genitals, and in doing so he invented interior reproduction, by the man in the woman. The purpose of this was so that, when a man embraced a woman, he would cast his seed and they would have children; but when male embraced male, they would at least have the satisfaction of intercourse, after which they could stop embracing, return to their jobs, and look after their other needs in life. This, then, is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being: it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.
Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him. That’s why a man who is split from the double sort (which used to be called ‘androgynous’) runs after women. Many lecherous men have come from this class, and so do the lecherous women who run after men. Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more toward women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented. While they are boys, because they are chips off the male block, they love men and enjoy lying with men and being embraced by men; those are the best of boys and lads, because they are the most manly in their nature. Of course, some say such boys are shameless, but they’re lying. It’s not because they have no shame that such boys do this, you see, but because they are bold and brave and masculine, and they tend to cherish what is like themselves. Do you want me to prove it? Look, these are the only kind of boys who grow up to be real men in politics. When they’re grown men, they are lovers of young men, and they naturally pay no attention to marriage or to making babies, except insofar as they are required by local custom. They, however, are quite satisfied to live their lives with one another unmarried. In every way, then, this sort of man grows up as a lover of young men and a lover of love, always rejoicing in his own kind.
And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, whether it’s to young men or not, then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment.
These are the people who finish out their lives together and still cannot say what it is they want from one another. No one would think it is the intimacy of sex—that mere sex is the reason each lover takes so great and deep a joy in being with the other. It’s obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle. Suppose two lovers are lying together and Hephaestus stands over them with his mending tools, asking, ‘What is it you human beings really want from each other?’ And suppose they’re perplexed, and he asks them again, ‘Is this your heart’s desire, then—for the two of you to become parts of the same whole, as near as can be, and never to separate, day or night? Because if that’s your desire, I’d like to weld you together and join you into something that is naturally whole, so that the two of you are made into one. Then the two of you would share one life, as long as you lived, because you would be one being, and by the same token, when you died, you would be one and not two in Hades, having died a single death. Look at your love, and see if this is what you desire: Wouldn’t this be all the good fortune you could want?’
Surely you can see that no one who received such an offer would turn it down; no one would find anything else that he wanted. Instead, everyone would think he’d found out at last what he had always wanted: to come together and melt together with the one he loves, so that one person emerged from two. Why should this be so? It’s because, as I said, we used to be complete wholes in our original nature, and now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.
Long ago we were united, as I said; but now the god has divided us as punishment from the wrong we did him, just as the Spartans divided Arcadians….Whoever opposes Love is hateful to the gods, but if we become friends of the god and cease to quarrel with him, then we shall find the young men that are meant for us and win their love, as very few men do nowadays.