On GHOST WORLD, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, And The Start Of A Beautiful Relationship
As you're probably aware via great pieces from Phil and Evan this week, November is thankful month. There are many films and television shows for which I am grateful, and many I have already written about in the past (like The Royal Tenenbaums), but both Phil and Evan got me thinking about what made me love movies in the first place. I could trace it back to being five years old and watching Labyrinth for the first time, developing my very first crush on David Bowie, or buying Clueless on VHS and watching it several times a day - but I don't think I really became enamored with the power of film until high school, when I got a part-time job at Blockbuster, where the only real employee perk was the luxury of renting movies for free.
At the age of 16 I was more rebellious than most, smoking and drinking and sneaking out with boys late at night. I fancied myself cooler than I was, even though I was plagued with crippling insecurities about my hair and weight and the shape of my eyebrows. My style was schizophrenic; I didn't want to be reduced to a label. Like most kids, I searched for myself and for validation in song lyrics while sitting on the floor of my bedroom - Nirvana, Hole, Garbage, and yes, okay, No Doubt.
It wasn't until I started taking advantage of my employee perk at Blockbuster that I began to understand something I wrote about not long ago, when I revisited High Fidelity: film has the power to speak to you as much as a song by Kurt Cobain or David Bowie. Just like music or books, film can mark the passing of time and our personal development, can help us fondly or sadly pinpoint specific moments, where we were and who we were with and how we felt - and that moment when you realize that someone understands you and how you feel, and has taken those feelings and translated them into art, saying all the things you can't with the eloquence and grace you lack in the heat of your most heightened emotional moments.
My first love during this time period was Ghost World. Enid and I shared a similar fashion sense, but more importantly, we shared a similar bratty outlook on the world. A sort of insular petulance and narcissism, feeling as though we were so much smarter and better than our peers, that we had so many intelligent opinions and insights to share - but mostly everything that came out of our mouths was dejected. It was the inverse of the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons - if you heard me speak as a teenager, no matter what I was actually saying, you probably only heard "why me, why me, why me."
Like Enid I was creative (writing, obviously) but adrift, precious about my talent but unsure what to do with it, often rejecting the advice of those who knew better. How could an art class or a creative writing lesson teach me something that is so subjective and innate? And why was everyone around me so idiotic and annoying? Like Enid I was drawn to older men, assuming they held a certain enigmatic maturity lacking in boys my age, and like Enid I was naive and sometimes ignorant, taking my insecurities and internally warping them into false confidence. And, like Enid, I was a different cliche every day. Goth, punk, emo - I had clothing to suit every clique, hiding myself behind accessories and makeup and thrift store skirts.
I watched Ghost World and became convinced that I had found a kindred spirit - Enid was the first flawed character with whom I could personally identify, and yet there was an aspirational quality about her, as faulty as she was. I felt like her and yet I wasn't as cool. She was the first of many women in movies with whom I both identified and wanted to emulate. Then came Lelaina in Reality Bites. And Margot Tenenbaum. And Noel in All the Real Girls. And eventually Mavis in Young Adult, and Greta Gerwig in, like, everything.
It's not that I necessarily perceived these characters as aspirational (the women who played them, on the other hand...). I recognized their flaws and their neurotic emotions and the way they reflected my own experiences, but there's a certain validation that comes with seeing yourself reflected back in a piece of music or the pages of a book or a movie you watch late at night all by yourself while your parents are asleep. You know that you should try to better yourself, but it feels so reassuring to find out that these feelings and problems you have are not exclusive to your existence - that you haven't been singled out for some abstract existential punishment.
I wasn't delusional - Enid is a heightened fictional version of what many teen girls think and feel and do, but she resonated with me, and inspired me to seek out more films that my parents and friends weren't talking about.
And this is when I found Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Two weeks before the DVD and VHS copies were available to rent to the public, I took advantage of my employee deal which allowed us to "rent" movies for a few days before we had to put them out in the store. I had heard about Hedwig from a friend - one weekend, while we waited at the local arthouse theater for the Rocky Horror Picture Show to start, we peeked into a showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was the scene in Hedwig's trailer, as she leads Tommy through the laundry she's hung out to dry. It was dreamy and strange and unlike anything I had ever seen before.
So when it came in to Blockbuster, I snatched it up and proceeded to renew my rental every few days. I must have watched it a dozen times over a two-week period, quickly memorizing the songs and falling in love with that little slip of a girly boy from communist East Berlin who became the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before a handful of curious audience members in some mediocre seafood restaurant.
John Cameron Mitchell's vivid, tragic creation instantly became my everything. I bought the official Hedwig and the Angry Inch script and song book and within it I found so much to which I could relate: a rebellious and highly creative spirit aching for the simplicity of an intimate connection, a social outcast who takes all that rejection and assimilates it into a complex internal and external patchwork design of vibrant humanity. Tommy Gnosis - her protege and lover - steals Hedwig's heart when he takes off with her songs and presents them as his own. "He took the good stuff and ran" is a sentiment women have been singing for decades, in folk and country and Riot Grrrl songs, but when Hedwig sings it in the solemn opening of "Exquisite Corpse" before devolving into punk rock madness, it holds a specific sadness and anger that I innately understood in my heightened hormonal state.
It seems odd to diagnose teenagers with clinical depression, but by the age of 16 I had already been admitted and released from a mental health facility and had taken a variety of antidepressants that my parents thought could cure my natural state. I felt stigmatized in my own house and painfully alone in a crowd of friends - no one was experiencing what I was feeling, no one understood me. But Enid did. And Hedwig did. They were so creative and so bright and so weird. They showed me that it was okay to be so many things at once: confident and insecure, loved and alone, desperate and self-sustained, flawed and yet wonderful. So often we try to measure things in binary, but the reality is that we can - and are - so many conflicting feelings and ideas and manifestations at once. This is why I've clung so hard and fast to characters like Enid and Hedwig and Lelaina Margot and Mavis. On the surface they seem enigmatic and difficult, but they're just heightened realities of you and me. Their flaws make them more interesting. I learned to embrace what my parents said was wrong with me. I learned that my "issues" made me far more interesting than if I were "normal."
When I was 18, I visited my biological mother in Florida. My last living memory of her is the day we drove to Tampa to see a live performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in an old retro hotel dining room. I sang to every song, I laughed and cried. My mother loved the show, and we bonded on the drive back to her house - our first time bonding since I was a toddler and she crept out of my life. I identify The Royal Tenenbaums with my father, but when I think of my mother I think of Hedwig - brave, sad, complicated, messy Hedwig. Like Hedwig, my mother was creative (she used to paint), and like Hedwig my mother's heart had been broken by men who took the good stuff and ran, and like Hedwig my mother felt like a delicate shell wrapped in a hurricane. She was reckless and impulsive and artistic and sensitive. She just wanted to be loved like Hedwig just wanted to be loved, like we all just want to be loved.
I bonded with my father through Nirvana and the filmography of Bill Murray. I bonded with my mother through Alanis Morissette and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
A few years after this transformative trip to visit a mother I hardly knew, she was hit by a truck while crossing the street. The last time I saw her she was on life support, though not at all alive. I remembered the drive home from the Hedwig show, laughing and listening to Alanis and singing along to "Head Over Feet." Seven months later, my father passed away as a result of alcoholism. Everything changed.
This has become a little digressive, and if you hate navel-gazing, I'm surprised you've made it this far. Thank you.
I guess what I'm thankful for is discovering the power of movies at a time when I needed them most - discovering myself in them, learning that I wasn't alone, discovering how they change as you get older, and how they helped me find new ways to connect to my parents, particularly since I, like my peers and like many of you at that age, had always believed them to be so painfully uncool. I identified with these films, but they also taught me so much: they showed me my own flaws from a different perspective, they taught me it was okay to be weird and wild and faulty, they helped mark a specific time in my life and taught me that not only can you identify a film with a specific time or feeling, but with the ways you feel about other people and your connections to them.
And I'm glad I shared these crucial moments and pieces of myself with my parents before they died, just as I'm glad they shared such a human part of themselves with me. In those moments, they weren't just "parents," like corporate alien overlords whose jobs are to make us do all the stuff we don't want to do - but actual people with interests and interesting opinions, and (sometimes) good taste.
Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Royal Tenenbaums - these movies have been there through the best and worst times in my life, always evolving with me like an ideal partner should. They've helped me grow and they've helped me grieve. Their existence is a comfort for which I am forever grateful.