Monday, June 27, 2011

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The Queer Film Blogathon is a month-long event celebrating gay cinema presented by the site Garbo Laughs. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the host site. The final list of blog posts will go up June 27, 2011.

seen @ Rock and Roll Summer, Coney Island Museum, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY

Two years ago, the state legislature here in New York voted to deny gays the right to legally marry. It was a bit of a shock, to say the least. New York has been a left-leaning state for a long time, going at least as far back as the days of FDR. In the spring of 2004, when President Bush threatened to make a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, there were two places in America that defiantly married gays illegally. San Francisco was one (I happened to be there when it happened). The other was a small college town in New York called New Paltz. I never believed New York State was so provincial that it would fall victim to the fear and ignorance that has kept gays from being recognized as equal under the law - but it happened.

It inspired me to write the state senator from my district, wanting answers. I had never done something like that before, but I felt it was necessary to let her know how I felt. Imagine my surprise when, a week or so later, she called me! I was on a bus when it happened; I had to get off to be sure I was giving her my full attention. She said the reason she responded to me personally was because I was the only one who treated her with respect. Apparently she had gotten a whole lot of angry letters and e-mails calling her names. She never gave me a direct answer as to why she voted the way she did, but she left me with the impression that we would talk again. She never did call me back - though she did try to friend me on Facebook!

This past Friday, the state legislature corrected their mistake from two years ago and finally agreed to permit gay marriage. I was pleased to discover that my senator changed her mind and voted in favor of it.

Given this momentous news, I was surprised that there weren't more people to come watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Coney Island Museum on Saturday. The movie was part of a summer long series celebrating rock-themed movies. As many times as I've been to Coney, I had never been to the Museum before. Coney, of course, has a long and proud history of counter-culture amusements, including burlesque, in addition to being home to the well-known and loved amusement park and boardwalk.

The first time I remember going to Coney was back in high school with friends. We went on the rides, of course, but what I always loved about the place was the arcades. I've talked before about my love of arcades growing up, and the ones at Coney were among my favorites. So I was quite disappointed on Saturday to see that they were almost completely gone. Oh sure, the midway is still around, where you can play all sorts of silly carnival-type games and win a stuffed doll for your troubles, but I always preferred the video games. And they had tons of them, in rooms all over the midway. I can't imagine why they'd want to get rid of them.

As for the rides, well, the Cyclone roller coaster is still around, though I have to admit that it's gotten a bit harder for me to fit into the relatively small cars. The Cyclone is a cherished landmark and I wouldn't want it to go away, but maybe it could stand a few upgrades here and there. Over the past couple of years, newer rides have been installed, and I could not believe how exciting some of them look. There's one that I saw for the first time Saturday that's called "Sling Shot" - it's a two-seated bubble tethered to two cables attached to two tall spires, and after they strap you into it, it shoots up from off the ground and waaaaaay up into the air at a ridiculous speed and bounces up and down for a bit before settling back down to earth. It kinda looks like the sort of stress-test that NASA puts astronauts through.

It's also $20 to ride. Yeah, did I mention that these new rides are expensive as hell? The Sling Shot is part of a new section of the amusement park that operates on a system where you have to buy a card and put credits on it, and the rides are priced in credits instead of tickets. It's a dollar per credit, but they offer discount deals the more credits you buy. Nothing's cheap anymore.

I think in some ways, I prefer the boardwalk anyway. In the summertime, the air is so festive along the boardwalk. There are areas where people gather to dance to Latino dance music. You can buy a Nathan's hot dog, or maybe a hamburger or ice cream, and stroll either east, towards the Aquarium, or west, towards the abandoned parachute drop ride and the minor league ballpark (yes, we have minor league baseball teams in the NYC area, several of them). Last summer I came down here with Andrea and we walked all the way to the western end of the boardwalk and beyond, and discovered a few things - but that's a story for another day.

Getting back to the movie, though: I had seen Hedwig once before, when it first came out. I met my first transgender person a couple of years after the movie. Her name is Gina. She's a woman now, but she was born a guy. She had made an autobiographical comic book about her life, which I came across when I was still writing about comics, and I knew in an instant that I had to write about her. So I contacted her, e-mailed some questions which she answered, wrote the whole thing up and that was that. 

A year later, I had the pleasure of meeting her at a comics convention in San Francisco. Through her work, I gained a measure of understanding about what she experienced psychologically as well as physically in her transition from male to female - not that I could ever have a hope in hell of fully understanding it. But she approached it with candor as well as lots of humor. Beyond her cartoon avatar, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect looks-wise - it's not like I had any experience with transgender people prior to this - but she looked entirely female, and was a sweet, lovely woman. Unfortunately, she doesn't do comics anymore, but she does do animation and sculpture.

Hedwig was shown in a low-ceiling room on the second floor of the Coney Island Museum. There were only about ten or so people which, as I said, was a surprise. The screen was at one end of the room, above a small stage, and the projector faced it in the center. As I came in, they were playing a bunch of old-time in-theater commercials from what looked like the 50s and 60s. Hard wooden chairs were arranged in several rows. The room had a bunch of exhibits; old photographs and artifacts from Coney's history. There were a bunch of stuffed animals that I think were meant to be "freaks." There was even a row of fun-house mirrors that I played around with. Before the show began, some dude came out to introduce Hedwig and talk about it. Hedwig was originally a theater show, of course, which played in a theater that used to be a transient hotel. When it moved to LA, David Bowie became a producer.

Can I say that John Cameron Mitchell makes for a pretty good-looking chick? Not so much when he's all glammed up on-stage but in the quieter scenes. While the movie still has the feel of a stage performance, it's okay because the songs are so awesome and JCM gives an amazing performance. You'd never guess that he'd go from directing this to something as somber and serious as Rabbit Hole.

There's a lot about gay culture I still don't get and probably never will. But when I think of my gay friends - whether mere acquaintances or close pals - I dwell less on the things that make us different and more on the things we have in common. This victory for gay rights here in New York is a major one, and there's still more work that needs to be done all over the rest of this country, but as I walked through Manhattan yesterday, seeing rainbow flags and "equal" flags everywhere as a result of the Pride Parade, I felt, if only for a moment, like homosexuality has become more accepted than ever before, that the fear and ignorance has dissipated, if not disappeared completely. And that the dream of true equal rights, for everyone, is closer than ever before.

Previously in the Queer Film Blogathon:
The Children's Hour
Paris is Burning
La Cage Aux Folles


  1. Thank you for another great post. Hedwig is a movie that's very close to my heart. I've seen it about seven times in the theater and have met JCM on four occasions. I haven't watched it in a long time, though, so it was good to revisit it through your eyes.

    Just a note on a few things you might want to edit to reduce the likelihood of upset commenters: the adjective is actually "transgender," not "transgendered," and the word "transgender" shouldn't be used as a noun. You can say "transgender person/people."

  2. Now see, that's something I never would've known about. I will fix it.

  3. I watched this about a year ago and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it despite the serious amount of anger that comes off the screen. It's definitely a movie I need to watch again. Great post.

  4. That's a good point about the anger. It's definitely there as well.

  5. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. I spent time in the GDR, and there's something very familiar and welcoming about Hedwig's East Germanness. But there's more to it than that. Hedwig's predicament of being caught in mid-transformation (a physical transformation that was [in her case] obligatory, not voluntary) speaks to me. Hedwig is caught in the middle of tranning, and they remain there -- in that middle space -- and it's a space that I recognize, even though (or because?) I am a straight sis woman.

  6. The animation sequences captured that feeling well, I thought - man and woman as one being, suddenly rent in half and rendered incomplete.

  7. This is a sort of strange film but the music and heart-touching story really kept me involved surprisingly. Good Review!

  8. It's not for everyone, perhaps, but if you keep an open mind you'll definitely be rewarded.

  9. I, too, am surprised this movie didn't do better business. I was lucky enough to see the live Off-Broadway production of it on Jane Street (back when John and I were dating) and when the movie version came out, I found myself enjoying it even more. I began telling my still-loyal-to-Rocky-Horror friends that there is finally a "cult" film out there that is better and ready to replace that old fossil.

    Nope. Didn't happen. It remains a beloved piece of musical drama for just a few of us. Well hey, I'm used to that.

  10. I'm glad you mentioned 'Rocky Horror,' because this is absolutely a worthy successor to that - not that I ever gave any thought to the idea of 'Rocky' being replaced someday.


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