“Smash the oppressor, tell the truth, be an original, blah, blah, blah,” Nicole Kidman’s punk godmother Queen Boadicea imparts to Elle Fanning’s Zan, a beautiful alien, in the punk-themed ode to love and abandon How to Talk to Girls at Parties, out today. And save for the “blah, blah, blah,” she could well be describing the film’s director, John Cameron Mitchell, the iconoclast who’s delivered counterculture touchstones, including his smashing homage to gender fluidity Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the sexually liberated Shortbus.
At a glance, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an adaptation of American Gods creator Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story, is a straightforward tale of young heterosexual love between Enn (Alex Sharp), a ’70s-era British punk teen, and Zan, the young woman he meets at a strange house that appears to be swarming with performance artists in fabulous candy-colored latex. But the combination of Gaiman’s story, which ultimately depicts intergalactic love, and Mitchell’s rabble-rousing aesthetic makes the film the most punk/queer film in the director/writer/actor’s oeuvre to date.
“The main tagline of the film really is ‘evolve or die.’ It’s just such an obvious goal — to evolve,” Mitchell tells The Advocate about the movie, which begins with three aspiring punks, Enn and his friends, discussing music and girls and ends with them storming a house full of aliens. The otherworldly beings appear intellectually liberated but have painted themselves into boxes of their own making — that is, until the punks begin to tear down their walls.
John Cameron Mitchell on set
If Hedwig told the story of a transgender East German punk rocker in torn fishnets and a sausage curls and Shortbus depicted sexuality in dozens of polyamorous iterations, then How to Talk to Girls at Parties tackles fluidity and queerness on the celestial level. Not only do Enn and Zan engage in intergalactic love and sex, but the aliens are able to split off into the opposite gender when they anally fist a human (now that’s punk). For example, Enn’s blustery bad-boy friend Vic (Abraham Lewis) consents to sex with stunning alien “Stella” and freaks out when she splits into the female and the male versions of herself. Although, throughout the course of the film, the outwardly homophobic Vic will eventually evolve enough to embrace the beauty in both genders.
“The [punk sensibility] says it’s through miscegenation, it’s through diversity, it’s through the gene pool coming in from other places — that’s what restores viability. That’s what continues the species is variation,” Mitchell says, as opposed to the view of the aliens in the film, which he calls “nativists.”
“So variation, sexually, gender-wise, racially, point-of-origin, age-wise…. Every culture has wisdom. Different points of view — gender and sexuality have their own wisdom that need to be brought to bear if the species is to survive."
But Mitchell, who arrived on the heels of gender mind-blowers like Klaus Nomi, David Bowie, and Grace Jones when he conceived of and stepped into Hedwig’s platform boots for the first time at New York City’s Squeezebox in 1994, was also decades ahead of the burgeoning acceptance around sexuality and gender that flourishes in certain circles today. He would, of course, go on to inhabit the cult sensation he’d created off-Broadway beginning in 1998, in the 2001 film, and during the recent Tony-winning Broadway run.
A rule-breaker from way back, Mitchell’s body of work is both wholly in the moment — How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a period piece teeming with energy and immediacy — and reflective of the culture and politics that created that moment.
Elle Fanning and Alex Sharp
The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on “The Extinction of Gay Identity,” but How To Talk to Girls at Parties, with its youthful exuberance, its DIY soundtrack that grew out of the production’s inability to afford the rights to punk anthems like “God Save the Queen,” and its depictions of fluid gender and sexuality flies in the face of that assertion. Mitchell has churned out a deeply queer film so fresh and seemingly free of Hollywood strictures that it feels like watching an early John Waters film for the first time.
“I think of John Waters, Charles Busch, Charles Ludlam, maybe even David Lynch… I think of them as sort of good terrorists in a way,” Mitchell says of rule-breakers who’ve challenged and shaped the culture, specifically (although not as much with Lynch) queer culture. “They’re shattering stuff. They’re shattering piety. They’re suspicious of sanctimony and rules but you can see it’s coming from a good place.”
Mitchell has done plenty of his own shattering, especially considering the evolution of Hedwig from a queer club in Soho to the big screen to Tony-winning musical with a tour that traversed some states not exactly welcoming of gender-fluid punk rockers. And while “evolve or die” is the tagline for his new film, it also encompasses Mitchell’s career and personal ethos. An outspoken activist, especially against what he refers to as Donald Trump’s fascist administration, the artist has even managed to work politics into at least one guest spot when he appeared on The Good Fight playing a thinly veiled version of the gay button-pusher and friend to the alt-right Milo Yiannopoulos.
On its face, How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a romp, a love story with punks and aliens that moves from Enn’s humble home to a punk club where the band the Dyschords (created for the film) rattle the walls with anarchic notions of nonconformity to the divinely weird space the aliens inhabit on their trip to earth. But as Mitchell tells it, there are “big themes that are little things in his film that create a backdrop,” and those are ultimately political.
“We have an accidental Brexit metaphor — they’re [the aliens] all wearing British flags jumping off a building trying to avoid contamination by outsiders,” Mitchell says of the uncanny timeliness of at least one of the film’s plot points.
Mitchell in the film version of Hedwig
Regarding the notion of evolving that drives the film, although the movie is set in ’70s Britain when groups like the Sex Pistols and the Slits had kids thrashing in pits over the state of the government, Mitchell ties the film’s tagline into modern-day America.
The concept of evolving “seems to bring up a lot of conflict, especially when you have a government who seems to be kind of trying to return to the past, which is never really possible. It’s an ingenuous return to the past because it’s really much more about self-aggrandizement and power and money,” Mitchell says. “But for a lot of people who did vote for Trump, they really are trying to recapture a sense of innocence in their youth or simplicity in their youth when they didn’t know as much, when companies took care of their workers and gave them health insurance and such — when there was no need for universal health care because most people were being taken care of.”
Speaking of evolution, the character of Hedwig has most famously been played by men including Mitchell and Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway, with the actress Lena Hall (who won the Tony for playing Hedwig’s sidekick Yitzhak) stepping into the role for certain performances on tour. But Mitchell is excited about the prospect of trans actors taking on the role. He mentions that Laverne Cox, who he knows from his Squeezebox days, was once in talks to star but it didn’t pan out at the time.
“It’s a role. It’s a symbol. It’s a mask,” Mitchell says of Hedwig. “Everybody is Hedwig if you feel those feelings. Anyone can play Yitzhak. Any gender. We never had any rules about that.”
How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which Mitchell calls his Romeo and Juliet, is also rife with universal themes that are meant to appeal to a very specific kind of nostalgia, he says.
“’Evolve or die’ is really our code. We’re all part of tribes and it’s only things like love and sex that break up our assumptions. That’s why it’s so powerful,” Mitchell says. “The film really appeals to the 16-year-old goth girl within all of us. We all have one. Indulge your 16-year-old goth girl.”