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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

Not in Kansas anymore

Having consumed the better part of John Cameron Mitchell's life since 1994, when he and his musical collaborator Stephen Trask first came up with the concept, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" could easily be seen as a lifework.

News photo
John Cameron Mitchell

But Mitchell himself, who was in town last November for the screening of "Hedwig" at the Tokyo International Film Festival, downplays the idea that the work is monumental. And despite his identification with the protagonist, the story isn't particularly autobiographical. The only outward aspect that connects Mitchell to his transsexual alter ego is his eye-popping sartorial sense. Sitting in the dressing room of Orchard Hall in Shibuya, the 38-year-old American actor is comically resplendent for the postscreening Q&A in striped trousers and tie and a bright-red blazer with a huge raven insignia on the breast pocket -- the uniform of his former school in Scotland, he explains.

Because his father was in the army, Mitchell moved around a lot as a boy; which accounts for his nondescript accent and outsider's appreciation of American pop culture.

"I did live in Kansas in the 1970s," he says. "The character of Hedwig is based on a woman I knew there, a German woman who worked on the base. She was divorced, an outsider, and very interesting to me. She was also a convenient object of scorn."

Kansas also helped shape his musical tastes. "All you heard was Top 40. I preferred musicals, but I had to listen to Kiss and Led Zeppelin, because that's what the other kids were listening to. Believe it or not, I didn't really hear punk or even David Bowie until I went to college."

One of the movie's strongest suits is its sense of place. Whether the setting is Kansas, Berlin or New York, the movie makes clear distinctions that go beyond production design. In one pivotal scene, Mitchell visualizes Hansel's dream of escape to the West with a shot of the Golden Arches rising up on the other side of the Berlin Wall against a beautiful blue sky.

"All I did was take a photograph of the Wall and place it on top of a photograph of McDonald's. Because we didn't have much of a budget, we had to think that way."

Budgetary constraints may also have had a hand in shaping the film's unique sense of humor. In one scene, the Angry Inch plays "the ninth stage" of The Menses Festival of Women in Rock, a mile away from the main event. The image of rock musicians dwarfed by a huge expanse of nothingness is pure Richard Lester.

"Actually . . . I was thinking more along the lines of Kubrick, with his big rooms. As far as humor goes, I do think I'm influenced by British tastes. My mother is English. I like the gentle humor you find in Roald Dahl, the children's books. And Monty Python."

He expressed concern that the Japanese audience didn't laugh very much, but chalked it up to the script's dependence on pop-culture references. He also agreed that the film's allegorical quality may limit its appeal.

"It isn't a huge hit. Just the surface thing about drag tends to scare people away, but it wasn't designed for the general public. I admit, it's difficult to market, but that's OK. It found its audience."

At any rate, Mitchell was able to indulge his thematic whims without interference, even to the extent of hiring an actress, Miriam Shor, to play Hedwig's husband, Yitzhak, as well as the well-known indie band Girls Against Boys to do the instrumental tracks. Mitchell admitted that he was perhaps making a point with Shor but denied that GvsB's name had anything to do with their involvement.

"My boyfriend used to do sound for Girls Against Boys, so that's how I knew them." He thinks for a second. "Strange, that never occurred to me before."

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