Burning rubber: John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in Hedwig, which is taking a direct road to cult status.
Burning rubber: John Cameron Mitchell directs and stars in Hedwig, which is taking a direct road to cult status.


After your indie movie wins both the Audience Award and the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, what can you do for an encore? That's easy: You land the opening-night spot at the 2001 Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Such is the route taken by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the glam-rock, glitter-bedecked, ambisexually celebratory movie musical based on the long-running off-Broadway show created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. Hoping to exploit the wildly positive buzz generated last January at Robert Redford's annual winter wonderland for indie cinema, Fine Line Features plans to release the gender-blurry extravaganza in July. The film will open on the art-house circuit, but Fine Line nurses crossover dreams for its small-budget, high-decibel movie, meaning that the distributor fully expects to reach far beyond the usual audience for what might euphemistically be described as "niche-audience fare."

Which, of course, raises the inevitable question: If Fine Line wants Hedwig to make a splash with mainstream audiences, could it be counterproductive to be screened in a niche festival? That is, might a high- profile screening at a gay-oriented fest brand the film as being exclusively for devotees of queer cinema?

"Not at all," claims Trask, whose lyrics and music propel the action and illuminate the characters in director-star Mitchell's campy libretto. "Because, look, let's face it -- the only people who know about niche festivals are in the niche.

"I guess it would bother me if Fine Line gave us a list of all the festivals they were going to send us to, and they were all niche festivals. Then I would say, 'You know, you could be missing an opportunity here.' But since that's not the case, you certainly don't want to ignore a niche market that might be particularly interested in your movie. I mean, Hedwig arises out of a certain culture -- a gay culture, a drag culture -- and a certain downtown scene in New York. And you can't ignore that. It's just that you have to engage in a kind of juggling act if you want to reach a broader audience as well."

Indeed, it's often not so much a juggling act as a magic show. And sometimes the magic doesn't work. A case in point: Aimée and Jaguar, Max Färberböck' s lyrically tragic tale of star-crossed lesbian lovers in Nazi Germany, garnered rave reviews and respectable box-office numbers during limited theatrical release in 2000. Even so, the film wasn't deemed sufficiently commercial to play Houston art houses. That's why last March Aimée and Jaguar had its local premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts where, despite being ignored by Houston Chronicle critics, it attracted scads of paying customers for two weekends. "And a lot of the business," says MFA film programmer Marian Luntz, "was repeat business."

Pressed on the subject of box-office expectations, even Trask admits that Hedwig might present a marketing challenge. The film originally was produced for New Line Cinema, distributor of such mainstream product as Thirteen Days, Sugar & Spice and Next Friday. In the wake of Sundance, however, New Line passed Hedwig to its specialty-film subsidiary, Fine Line, which deals primarily with art-house product.

"But that's okay with us," Trask insists. "Fine Line's whole purpose is to start a film at a smaller level, and then grow. New Line's purpose is to start on 2,000 screens and shrink. It's a different business model. And we're not the kind of movie that can be stuck on 2,000 screens all at once."

Given the size of the niche market and the potential for crossover appeal, it's difficult to see how Hedwig and the Angry Inch could avoid turning a profit. Especially since, as Trask confirms, the final budget was "somewhere between $3.5 and $4 million." That was more than enough, the composer-lyricist says, for him and Mitchell to make the movie they wanted to make.

"When budgets get big," Trask says, "the list of rules gets longer. And the number of compromises you have to make gets longer. Because, automatically, you need to start second-guessing your artistic impulses with the thought of what an audience wants."

The fifth annual Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival kicks off Thursday, May 24, with a premiere screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the MFA. Cesc Gay's Nico and Dani, a Spanish-produced coming-of-age love story, and Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden, a tale of gay romance in small-town Montana, will kick off commercial runs (at the Greenway 3 and the Angelika, respectively) during the two-week festival.

But wait, there's more: More than a dozen other programs of shorts and features have been selected to unspool at DiverseWorks, Aurora Picture Show, the Rice University Media Center and the MFA.

Among the highlights (all reviews by Joe Leydon unless noted):

Gaea Girls -- By turns humorous and horrifying, and sometimes both at once, this overly long but ineffably fascinating documentary drops us deep into the world of Japanese female wrestling. Grizzled vet Chigusa Nagayo, a champ grappler who looks like she could bitch-slap Godzilla, is scarier than anything this side of Boot Camp as she verbally and physically brutalizes the young wanna-bes at her training facility. Some of her students crumble under the pressure and take flight. But teary-eyed Saika Takeuchi, seemingly the least qualified in the class, doggedly endures the pain and embarrassment of repeated ass-whippings. Why? She wants "to be someone" and "stand out" in the ring. Or maybe she likes to be mistreated? Directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams take a scrupulously nonjudgmental approach to their subject matter, but the sadomasochistic subtext is discomfortingly apparent. (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26; and 9:30 p.m. Monday, May 28, MFA)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- Think of it as The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium, complete with frequent opportunities for audience participation. John Cameron Mitchell's gaudily campy film version of his long-running off-Broadway hit (created in concert with composer-lyricist Stephen Trask) appears fully capable of generating the kind of cult following that can ensure years of exposure on the midnight-movie circuit. Directing himself in the lead role, Mitchell pumps up the volume and hard-sells the pathos in his seriocomic extravaganza about an East Berlin-born rocker, known alternately as Hansel and Hedwig, who survives heartbreak, betrayal and a botched sex-change operation while on the long and winding road to true happiness. The transplanted transsexual strives for superstardom in the United States but succeeds only in landing gigs at theme restaurants while a former lover tops the charts with songs stolen from Hedwig's playlist. The going gets rough, for Hedwig and the audience, during the Sturm und Drang stretches between the musical interludes. But many of the production numbers are genuine stunners, and their megawatt energy is sufficient to propel Hedwig just far enough over the top. (9 p.m. Thursday, May 24, MFA)

Just One Time -- For anyone who misses the smirky but safe naughtiness of mid-1970s dinner-theater productions, here's a sitcom-style comedy in which an engaged couple timidly considers some bisexual shenanigans. Anthony (Lane Janger, who also served as director and co-writer) wants to fulfill the typical male fantasy of a threesome with his sweetheart and another woman. Amy (Joelle Carter), his fiancée, reluctantly agrees to walk on the wild side, but only if Anthony agrees to a ménage à trois with Victor (Guillermo Díaz), a virginal gay man who lives with his mother in an apartment down the street. Just One Time evidences a welcome generosity of spirit: No one, not even a tart-tongued lesbian (Jennifer Esposito) who'd like to light Amy's fire, comes off as a complete jerk or a cruel caricature. And just about everyone gets a shot at happily-ever-after. (7 p.m. Sunday, June 3; and 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, Rice Media Center)

Nico and Dani -- Films about teenage boys discovering the joys and sorrows of sex generally come in two varieties: dumb and dumber. Not this graceful Spanish film about an endearingly gawky youth named Nico (Jordi Vilches) and his more conventional-looking pal Dani (Fernando Ramallo). Spending the summer together, the boys -- who like boys everywhere have enjoyed mutual masturbation -- find themselves taking different paths. Nico is straight and girl-crazy, while Dani is gay and conflicted. Director and co-scripter Cesc Gay shows them resolving their problems with a minimum of fuss, and a maximum respect for the emotional resilience of teenagers. With material this hot-button, it goes without saying that you won't see an American remake anytime soon. (Opens for commercial run on Friday, May 25.) (David Ehrenstein)

Paragraph 175 -- Co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Tales from the Quilt), this achingly sad documentary about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals is capable of inflaming any compassionate heart with outrage. Yet this quietly powerful film also has moments of bittersweet humor, as when elderly gay gentlemen who survived purges and death camps fondly remember trysts during the "gay Eden" of the Weimar Republic. Early on, researcher Klaus Muller expresses shock when an interviewee admits to making love aboard a subway train during the bombing of Berlin. The older man smiles knowingly, and chides his young interrogator: "You are slow, darling." (5:30 p.m. Saturday through Monday, May 26-28, MFA)

The Vampire Lovers -- Long cherished by connoisseurs of high camp and other forms of disreputable cinema, this seriously absurd 1970 production is infamous for being the first Hammer Films horror show to feature bare-breasted beauties and -- gasp! -- hot sapphic love. The movie doesn't quite live up (or down) to its reputation as a blood-splattered Therese and Isabelle, but there's no denying that Ingrid Pitt makes an indelible impression as a vixenish vampire who bares her fangs whenever she spots the bulging bodice of a beautiful victim. Veteran vampire hunter Peter Cushing, looking even gaunter here than he would seven years later in Star Wars, pops up to deliver a grisly coup de grâce. Despite the seeming finality of the climactic death scene, however, Vampire Lovers spawned two equally silly/sexy sequels: Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). The latter, it should be noted, showcased Playboy's first twin-sister Playmates. No kidding. (9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27, MFA)

The Wolves of Kromer -- Director Will Gould's gracefully fey but thuddingly obvious fable is a fractured fairy tale set in a picturesque English village. In the nearby woods, wolves -- actually pretty male models with bulky fur coats and long fluffy tails -- cavort and copulate with each other. In the village, a wicked maid and her daft partner-in-crime plot to poison the maid's elderly employer. Naturally, the innocent lupine libertines are framed for the murder. Just as naturally, the villagers behave like bloodthirsty bigots as they hunt the prime suspects. (Just in case we miss the point, a member of the mob is decked out in Ku Klux Klan mufti.) It's all well intentioned, and more than a little silly. (7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, May 27 and 28, MFA)

The HGLFF Schedule

Thursday, May 24: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 9 p.m., Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515.

Friday, May 25: Nico and Dani opens a commercial run at the Landmark Greenway 3 Theatre, 5 Greenway Plaza, 713-626-0402.

Saturday, May 26: Paragraph 175, 5:30 p.m., MFA; Gaea Girls, 7:30 p.m., MFA; The Vampire Lovers, 9:30 p.m., MFA.

Sunday, May 27: Paragraph 175, 5:30 p.m., MFA; The Wolves of Kromer,

7:30 p.m., MFA; The Vampire Lovers, 9:30 p.m., MFA.

Monday, May 28: Paragraph 175, 5:30 p.m., MFA; The Wolves of Kromer, 7:30 p.m., MFA; Gaea Girls, 9:30 p.m., MFA.

Tuesday, May 29: BI All Means, a shorts program at 9 p.m., Aurora Picture Show, 800 Aurora Street, 713-868-2101.

Wednesday, May 30: All Over the Guy, 7 p.m., MFA.

Thursday, May 31: Huge, a shorts program at 8 p.m., DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-335-3445.

Friday, June 1: Big Eden opens for a commercial run at Angelika Film Center, 501 Texas Avenue, 713-225-5232. Sleep in a Nest of Flames, 7 p.m., Rice University Media Center, University Boulevard at Stockton Drive, 713-348-4853. G..A..why?, a shorts program at 8 p.m., DiverseWorks. Not Love, Just Frenzy, 9:45 p.m., Rice Media Center.

Saturday, June 2: Finished, 5 p.m., Rice

Media Center; Women, 7 p.m., Rice Media Center; Live Nude Girls Unite!, 9 p.m., Rice Media Center.

Sunday, June 3: Massillon, 5 p.m., Rice Media Center; Just One Time, 7 p.m., Rice Media Center; Not Love, Just Frenzy, 9 p.m., Rice Media Center.

Tuesday, June 5: Lost and Delirious, 7 p.m., Rice Media Center.

Wednesday, June 6: Live Nude Girls Unite!, 7 p.m., Rice Media Center; Just One Time, 9 p.m., Rice Media Center.


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