Monday, December 19, 2005

I Plead the Fourth

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Good times.

It is, as Michael said, a safe assumption that previous administrations have violated the Fourth Amendment just as blatantly. Once again, there's a certain degree to which laws are symbolic. They'll always be violated. But the question is, are there consequences for said violations when they're discovered? Do we want to represent ourselves, both to ourselves and to others, as a society that so blatantly flaunts its own systems? Once again, this is indirections finding directions out. We know our values by how we symbolize them as much as by how we behave about them. Values are a guidance; values are society at its best. Society won't always be at its best, but it's equally important to know what best would mean to us, and to keep it as something to strive for.

Bush's pride in violating the Constitution is unique. To defend this country, according to Bush, we have to stop being this country.

I've now found myself in several conversations in which I am, in part as devil's advocate and in part seriously, defending Bush's speech last night. Not defending as in I agree with it, but defending as in there's nothing wrong, in my view, with his self-presentation or the headline on the Times' analysis of Bush's speech ("More Humble, Still Firm"). I don't believe in his humility, certainly, but that's the tone he was attempting, the stance he intended to convey. I hate Bush and I wish everyone else did, but it's not because of his self-presentation, it's because I disagree with and find hypocritical, horrible and morally objectionable almost everything he does. If I didn't think that way about him, I probably wouldn't mind his self-presentation one bit. It's not the problem. The problem is the content. I mean, to be fair to the people I'm debating, the problem is to some degree the form/content dichotomy. As per my usual agreement with the world.

According to my roommate, senators "on both sides of the aisle" are furious at this revelation and are planning to authorize investigative action. I'll spend my evenings dreaming of impeachment, unlikely but plausible. The Fourth Amendment is about as blatant as it gets, and the Constitution is absolute where actions are not.

Am I okay with this, this whole concept of law being absolute where actions are not? Human behavior, no matter what the regulations, will never be absolute. As The Decemberists (covering Bjork, I recently learned) say in "Human Behavior," they're terribly terribly terribly moody. But law then is the same thing as an internal journey of self-improvement in some ways, is it not? It's enforcing what we want to be on what we are.

"Now," says the man to Myron in the basement of Wayside School (read Sideways Stories from Wayside School and Wayside School Is Falling Down, right now, no matter how old you are), "do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?"

"Myron took a deep breath. 'I want to be free,' he said bravely."

Safety is more an emotion than a fact. Being safe is generally an illusion. Feeling safe is real; therefore, like all emotions, it is real and temporary. I do not, on the other hand, believe freedom is an emotion.

By the by, something totally random: does anybody know if there are linguists devoted to the study of syntax and semantics in the U.S. Constitution? Because that would just be fabulous. There's a great deal, in my view, to be gained from historically contextualizing the syntax of the time, could well eliminate some original-intent debates. Just a thought.

Friday, December 16, 2005

This Is a Meme. This Is Only a Meme.

Sorry, every now and then I feel like being a little more "bloggy."

But have we noticed how *profligate* this December has been? Give me a little room to think and I post like a madwoman. Anyway, this meme comes from my friend Bilal:

"This year's 'year in review' meme:
Take the first sentence of the first entry for each month of the past year and post it here. That's your year in review.
After doing this once, I decided to expand the meme this year. This will also include the last sentence of the last entry for each month."

I like Bilal's expansion, and this is just the kind of reflection on writing that I like to do. So here goes.

The Party of the first Part
and the party of the next
Are partly participled
In a parsley-covered text

It's also good on its own, is patriotism, but it's better than nationalism, clearly.

There have been sooooo many conversations I can write about lately.

But is sanity actually just a matter of adherence to, knowledge of, ability to adjust oneself to, social mores and the choices a society makes?

Spoilers for today: My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, Push by Sapphire, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal by Thomas Harris.

The scary part is that sometimes I think we might be right; these days I'm certainly having a hard time imagining how they would change.

I'm well aware it's been almost a month since I posted--you don't have to *tell* me.

I wanna hear from more people.

I learned long ago that there are three answers to every question that begins with "why?"

Is that seriously problematic, or not?

A long time ago I read a Letter to the Editor regarding the Patriot Act's surveys of our library records.

Tell me why!

It's going to take worse than this before I even hesitate to take public transportation.

It creates many social connections that we don't spend nearly enough time considering; it's what allows you to notice that you live in a community, or that you're present in one at the moment.

It's been a while!

Look for a series of posts--some following this shorter trend, some not--inspired by Work Thoughts in the next few weeks.

We're All Connected: which was also the slogan of New York Telephone in the late '80s and early '90s.

I'm getting into these brief entries, because it means I can ask simple(r) questions, put out simple(r) thoughts, while working on bigger posts, and not have to be removed from the "post frequently" list on Blue Skies Falling.

In keeping with my fixation on the right to privacy, and due to the recent prevalence of conversations about abortion in my life (sometimes topics just pop up all around you, rather like cartoon dodos), I'm coming to believe we're due not simply for a political, but for a philosophical revamp of how we approach privacy--privacy as it pertains to a woman's body, to abortion, to parenthood, and probably by extension to living in ways that do not directly pertain to reproduction.

And yet, even without knowing what you know, it happens to you, and means something to you, anyway.

This is not a terrifically useful post.

But maybe it starts there.

Because I don't know enough about Catholicism to create an interesting or useful post on the Vatican's condemnation of homosexuality, and because everyone else is doing it, I'm going to send you here, to Connor's blog, to read his fascinating and thorough dissection of the document in form and content.

December ain't over yet, so there's no last sentence yet.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Torture to Watch

I just read this Michael Kinsley article on Slate this morning. I think it addresses skilfully and substantively many of the legal and ethical questions surrounding torture and the ethics of the law in general, except for two of the most substantive arguments against torture: a) suicide bombers and b) whether torture works.

Spoiler is The Santa Abductions.

Firstly, I like very much what Kinsley has to say about law and how laws are made and enforced, and also the bland honesty with which he deals with our social ethics. It leads up to a larger question, of local and national control and social structures, that I want to write about later this month, but he doesn't pretend that we're currently anything we're not as a society, and I appreciate that. In a society where it's not considered to be the hand of the divine, law is intended to keep society functioning as best it can. Law is a system for social living. Therefore at some level it must, as Kinsley says, play to the median, play to the most likely scenarios--again, those might be different with more local control, but I'm not really certain. "[C]riminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it." The system of innocent-until-proven-guilty protects us from some of the least communally useful aspects of American human behavior, such as the desire for quick solutions (e.g., it's more important to have someone in custody than to know the truth, see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and snap judgments, and the fact that anger can blind us to reason. Currently American society is painfully angry, and not tremendously reasonable. And that's exactly what law is there for, it's to have reason set out when you don't have any, and that's why things like the Patriot Act are scary (particularly the thought of *renewing* these provisions, which is now seeming inevitable). The Patriot Act is, essentially, an attempt to counter the legal reasoning behind the above citation. It was a bunch of lawmakers panicking. Lawmakers that I no longer trust in a crisis (it pained me to vote for John Kerry), but their panic is understandable. But the very reason we have a document like the Constitution is to render as concrete as we can our values and principles, the system that keeps our society functioning. And here I will cite again my high school history teacher with regards to the American system of constitutional law: "A balloon! Raised in 1798! That's still floating! That's some balloon! And don't tell me it's hot air."

That said. Law is for keeping society functioning. Law is to enhance the functionality of society as best we can. So how does the McCain provision do that? Absolutes, again, as Kinsley says, are legally necessary even if not empirically practical. Everybody knows that under extreme duress people don't behave rationally or legally; that's not the question. The question is whether we would like them too, whether it would be more helpful to us if they did. Would we be better off if people didn't torture, even to gain information from somebody who might be about to blow up millions of people?

Yes, because--and this is the part I feel Kinsley skips--torture is not much more reliable at gaining information than any other method. Multiple organizations, including the Innocence Project, discuss the possibility of violence and coercion leading to false confession. Novelists, including my beloved Orwell, have chronicled it: people attempting physical self-preservation will do whatever is required to get them out of it. If I were accused of setting a nuclear bomb, whether I had done so or not, I would offer the first location I could possibly describe in detail, simply to stop the pain. Terrified and threatened people will aim to please those who threaten them, imagining it would make them stop.

Also, at this point, someone setting a bomb to destroy thousands, in the United States or elsewhere, is as likely as not to be a suicide bomber, and a suicide bomber has obviously been prepared for pain and physical sacrifice. Physical anguish would not be any kind of deterrent, at that level of fervent belief. Therefore, the only people setting bombs who might have been psychologically prepared to maintain integrity in the face of torture probably would willingly maintain it, on the assumption that they were bound to suffer as they left this world anyway.

Torture is reliable as a punishment. Torture, as I said earlier this year in this post, is a defensive reaction. Not to defend your nation, but to defend yourself, the torturer, le bourrure. It is a flailing out at the world, it is a way to make sure you inflict pain and cripple an opponent--even a potential opponent--before it can be done to you. And--who knows--maybe there's psychological research within the CIA that might suggest such officers can benefit from that release. That, too, is hardly the point.

I'm currently working on The Santa Abductions, a show in which a man became deeply deranged upon learning there was no Santa Claus; he has since that time taken it upon himself to abduct department-store Santas in order to make them into the real Santa Claus by means of torture--electrocution, violent beatings. A reviewer panned the show, claiming that it called to mind images of Abu Ghraib. While the show's light fare in some ways, and I think Ms. Metz is deeply exaggerating the resonance of the torture scenes (it's on a sleigh and everyone's in Santa suits, for fuck's sake), there are dystopic undertones that I wouldn't mind our government thinking about. At the end of the play, torture works. A man is worn down by physical torture and psychological confusion and is transformed into Santa Claus. He has big, bold, creepy, terrifying ideas, but as long as he's Santa Claus, everyone thinks they're for the best. It's not that torture won't provide answers, it's that the answers will take us in directions we should not go; it's that every ostensible success will be at the very least tainted and at the most destructive.

We already know, as Kinsley kindly points out, that we live in a world where people torture. We always will. So, next question: do we want to live in a world where such people and such actions are a legally supported norm?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Work and Love, Part the Second

I realized how deeply elitist Part the First was when I reread it. It assumes that people can afford childcare, that it's an option present for everyone. My mother, and Noelle, and a good many people, are lucky. I'm aware that not everybody has this opportunity, that as often as not young children are passed from hand to hand within extended families, that numbers of my close friends were home alone at the age of six and completely fine. Yet my mind for this topic remained in my childhood paradigm, wherein everyone whose two parents worked had a baby-sitter, and the parents had the luxury of choice about who that baby-sitter was.

Oy, sometimes I embarrass myself.

I'm trying to figure out if that effects what I said about work and love, about one needing to become the other. Voigt, I believe, would say that it doesn't. The Tillermans in her books, everyone in her books, struggle(s) for money; I think that's part of the point she's making. Dicey's been in need, one way or another, for most of her life, but in the first book, Homecoming, she finds that her struggle has come to something, that she has found a new home with her grandmother for herself and her siblings. The love in her house, the love in her life, makes the work worth it, means there's something to work for, and thus the work becomes the love. That's the thesis of Seventeen Against the Dealer, too, that work needs to be for something that matters to you, to make a life that matters to you. And as Voigt would have it, that isn't luxury. It's luck to some degree, Dicey says so, but the books are also all about making your own luck, your own best circumstances, out of the parts that are inevitable. Everybody in the Tillerman Cycle has been hurt, weathered, by the world and by their own circumstances. They've worked at making their place in the world not only existent, but comfortable. They do that through having work and loving that work, and working at love.

In some ways, that makes both the books and myself sound awfully conservative--pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and so forth. But that isn't the point Voigt's trying to make, nor am I. There are as many people who haven't had to work and aren't happy, and aren't full of love, and the point is really that love is labor. Even if you're spoiled in certain ways, as my oversight in the previous post made clear that I have been, as some of the characters in the Tillerman Cycle are--be it financial or otherwise--it's labor that makes love, that thereby becomes love. If you don't recognize love as something you have to work at, if you don't recognize labor as something you can love, then that's your true loss in the world.

This, I believe, is the point at which I should bring in Karl Marx. He's clearly got a great deal to say about this concept, the alienation of labor on a greater scale versus the pride and need of the craftsman. This goes back to another interesting debate between R-boogie and myself, one about larger and smaller social structures and what's worth saving and preserving in large ones in particular. And I'm not sure I can do that right now, though I plan to at some point soon. I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts on how Marx comes into this mix.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Work and Love

This post will be lifted, adapted and possibly expanded from several conversations--with my mother, with Noelle, and an ongoing one that R-boogie and myself have been having for about a month now. This is the most lifted post ever, in fact, since the title comes from a book of Stephen Dunn poems. Spoiler is Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle.

I was the child of a working mother. I say casually that "I was raised in a theater," but I mean it to the letter. My mother took me to work with her at the theater where she was casting; a baby-sitter stayed with me in a dressing room converted to a nursery, and when my mother was not in auditions I could often be found in a baby seat on her desk. Everyone at the Public knew me, and that would be the case for the many workplaces my mother had and the one my father had throughout my childhood. I always had a regular baby-sitter; multiple sitters until I was about six (most of them were fabulous, though there was one who locked me in that dressing room nursery and wouldn't let me out--fortunately my parents caught on incredibly fast), and then the same one, Roz, for many years after that, until I was fourteen and my sister eleven. These baby-sitters were important parts of our lives, important voices. So were my parents.

My friend Noelle, who was a nanny before she was a mother, is making firmer and firmer plans to stay home until her children (currently one eight months old, another planned but imaginary) are in school. She was a nanny for six years, she said, and feels she had such a role in raising the children she took care of that she's reluctant to give up that position in her daughter's life. I tried to explain to her that I never felt my mother had given up that position in my life, a topic on which I've had volatile and vulnerable conversations in the past. Noelle explained that she felt this was more for herself than for her daughter, but it was still important to her, more important to her than any work she could take up in that time. I wandered for a few days, wanting to be offended because the feeling made so little sense to me or to the context of my own life--how I was raised and how I imagine it will be in the future--but unable to find a foothold for offense.

I brought that conversation up with my mother, a card-carrying Second-Wave Feminist (okay, they don't really have cards that say that). She said she felt really strongly that every woman--in fact, every person--needed to have something she (for the sake of simplicity) really loved doing, something that was hers and not just about your kids. A lot of what your power and directive influence with your kids is over when they go to school; a lot more of it is over by the time they're twelve. (I'm not entirely sure I agree, but she's been a mother and I haven't, so hey.) If your children, even your family, are the only thing you really love, my mother said, you'll suffer far more as your children age and stop building their lives around you and your household.

In my view, the feminist movement was instrumental to the integration of work into one's identity. Not just a woman's identity, everyone's, because the concept of "career" or "breadwinner" could no longer itself make you a man. If the woman you were involved with could also have a job, you had to identify yourself by your particular job and what it meant to you. Our identification with our work, too, is something we pass on to our children, so I would add that to my mother's argument. None of this, I should add, is an argument against Noelle. That was what I realized--I didn't need a foothold for offense. Noelle does have a theater company to which she is tremendously important, to which she gives the same endlessly supportive and devoted and loving energy she gives her daughter--she doesn't give the theater company as much of that right now, and that's a choice she has made. It is more a question of how the mother feels (or how the father feels, but as The Mommy Myth rendered concrete, the societal conflicts are about the choices the mother, and not the father, makes) about the baby-sitter/nanny situation than the existence of said situation in the first place. If the primary caregiver (I consent, although I myself don't feel I had one primary caregiver in my childhood) is comfortable with the situation and still loves his/her child(ren) and knows how to demonstrate that, that is in my view the core of the matter. The parent might choose 24/7, or might decide that work also deserves her time.

It's not a question of the mother's time as much as the mother's behavior: does she devote the time she has with her children to her children? Can she make her work life accessible to her kids? (For me, at least, that was tremendously important: I knew my parents' co-workers, had visited their offices enough to be able to picture where they were, understood what they did for a living and why they liked it and thought it was important. That way, your parents' jobs aren't simply things that take them away from you: they teach you about the interests and values in your family.) It's a question of the relationship between the baby-sitters and the parents: does each respect the other's opinion, does each treat the other with respect even in his/her/their absence? In the end, there's no question that Roz, my baby-sitter for most of my childhood, was influential to my sister and myself. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. She knew our parents loved us, as she knew she loved us, and she made both those things clear. My mother loved us, and she made that clear. She also made it clear that she loved her work, leaving us free to love our own work as well.

And as much as I am capable of (I'll admit here that I'm a bit burned out right now), I love my work and have always loved my work. I have always committed to it vociferously, I've always believed it was important and worked as hard to know why as I have on the work itself. I'm happy to hold my upbringing responsible for that, and for the most part it's an aspect of myself, and of others, that I like and admire.

R-boogie and I have been talking about work and romance, about the times when our careers fill us to such a degree that we can't imagine where love--in a romantic relationship, in one's children--would fit. Our relationships to our work feel as complete as romantic relationships have felt to us in the past, as we currently see them feeling to others. They're different, obviously, but the way in which we're filled is similar (similar as in triangles). We identify ourselves in major part based upon our relationships to this work; it's not simply that we say "I'm a [my job]," but that we seem to live in them, that we integrate the work we do into the way we think and feel and socialize (or, sometimes, do not have much opportunity to think, feel, or socialize due to a certain lack of time). Laura M. once castigated contemporary society for the fact that "I'm a [my job]" is the answer to "what do you do?"--she said it ought to be, "I'm a good friend, I like to swim, and I can bake like nobody's business." In my recent world, the world of the last two months during which I've been working 75-hour weeks transportation nonwithstanding, my own answer has been, "What do I not do?" Which is foolish; there's plenty I don't do, and still what I list is my work, the two technically part-time, de facto full-time jobs and the one actually part-time job that have dominated my life. The list of "what I do" does not, in conversation, include the people I love or even the things I do that cannot pay me. Even as I've become obsessed in the last eight months with distinguishing love, the emotion, from love, the actions that result therefrom, even as I aim to center myself on the action/skill of loving, I still cannot manage in everyday conversation to include love in "what I do."

Cynthia Voigt has written a number of books for young adults; I tried her single novels in my youth and was always disappointed, finding her plot and character shifts too subtle and too irrelevant, but I have devoted myself this year to reading the full, seven-book Tillerman cycle. (Look for an upcoming post on sequels and serials; it's a new line of thought for me.) The series follows a family driven by independence and the need to work, to work at and for everything they do. The family includes those biologically related (the four Tillerman siblings, Dicey, James, Maybeth and Sammy, and their ruthlessly stubborn and beautifully hard-loving Gram, plus one novel, The Runner, set in the sixties about Gram's killed-in-action son, Bullet) and those connected by love and not biology (such as Dicey's boyfriend Jeff and her best friend Mina). Voigt is in, my experience, the ultimate chronicler of work and love. She's telling us about a family that works hard because it feels it must but grows into loving it, as you grow into loving the people who are important to you, and in the novels we see this conflation mature, particularly in the last novel in the serial, Seventeen Against the Dealer. "I think you're lucky," says Voigt's Dicey in that book, "if you have work you really want to do." Her antagonist says, "Sounds to me like you're making a virtue of necessity." At the end of the novel, having nearly destroyed her long-term romantic relationship and put her family and herself at risk, unintentionally, for the sake of her work, Dicey still returns to labor, realizing "that what she did when what things went wrong was to get to work. Since that was also what she did when things went right, she figured it was just what she did."

In the Tillerman Cycle, work becomes love and love work. And that, I would say, is the goal. Again separating love the action from love the emotion, which is relevant to many things but not all that relevant when standing alone--it's kind of like "good intentions"--what you care about deserves your labor: your energy, your focus, your devotion. Where, though, are working at individuals and working at an occupation not the same? Thinking about it, I honestly don't feel like I can make any sweeping distinctions about it--just individual job by individual job and individual human relationship by individual human relationship. That may be unreasonable, but it feels truest to me. One's work is, in the end, a composite of human relationships, including one's relationship with oneself. Perhaps also with objects, in which case the difference is simply that most of the time you could, techincally, control the objects' responses. But not always, as I'm sure my friends in fields like woodworking or gardening would agree. And people, you can never control their responses, obviously. But it's about making the actual labor something you love, i.e. making the process as much a part of what you need as the goal is. As it's much harder to have goals with people, in human relationships that's even more logical.

Friday, December 09, 2005

On Persuasion

At work, the editors of the Grade 8 textbook are looking for an example of persuasive speech. Though clearly we cannot use it, my co-worker Maria found this and circulated it immediately.

No, seriously. Read it.

I'm still reeling with it a bit too much to draft an intelligent response--Pinter drops the thread in my view most complex, that of his conceptions of political theater, to deal directly with politics. Deal directly with politics it does; as Maria said, he had a lot to cover. Almost any fault in the document, I deem excusable.

Which does, though, make me realize that there are probably many people who feel the same about the document from the Vatican. Among other documents.

Going back six months ago, to when I read Ann Coulter: it is the postulates that divide intelligent people, not the proofs. It is a more frightening world when those who oppose us, those whose positions we find ethically repugnant, are intellectually sound and operating by means of logic. While their opinions are inimical to our own, while the things on which they use said logic are inimical to our beliefs and loves and needs, they are using the same *logic*, the same step-by-step process of reasoning, that we are using ourselves. We can follow their logic; if we used the same postulates they used, made their assumptions instead of our own, we would reach the same conclusions. It makes politics more difficult, simultaneously worse and better. Bush is a terrible president, but, as Pinter shows, he stands on the shoulders of giants similar to himself in many ways. He's not illogical. He's building on things that have been building for a long time. The reason we spend so much time claiming he's stupid is because it feels substantially safer than the alternative, that he is intelligent and surrounded by intelligent people who have both power and logic on their side. We have logic on our side (or sides--let me not fall into the if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us trap) too, but we cannot claim it as a trump card.

Once more, gah.

Monday, December 05, 2005

No Other Course, No Other Way

In keeping with an old blogging obsession, on Wednesday Cassie and I went to see Rent, the new 2005 movie musical, directed by Chris Columbus of the first two Harry Potter movies.

It hurt. Oh, did it hurt.

To recap, Rent is a rock musical, based on the opera La Boheme. It was written in 1994 by Jonathan Larson, at the time an artist just this side of completely unknown. After a workshop at the small, theatrically trendy New York Theater Workshop, it was tagged to go to Broadway, its workshop cast of virtually unknown actors coming with it. Larson, sadly, died of an aortic aneurysm when the show was in previews. It skyrocketed towards success immediately. In the years between 1996 and 1998, two people attempted to make claims on the musical's success. Larson's dramaturg, Lynn M. Thomson, claimed that before his death Larson had planned to give her co-authorship credit, and she sued for the corresponding share of the royalties. The case divided all literary circles in New York theater: all the major organizations had to take a side. She eventually lost. In the interim, Sarah Schulman, a lesbian playwright and novelist, believed that the aspects of Larson's plot not adapted from La Boheme were taken from her novel, People in Trouble. Despite valiant efforts, Schulman never brought a lawsuit, but she did in 1998 publish Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. The first half of the book chronicles said attempts to bring a lawsuit; the second half brings this particular conflict into a more general context, saying that in something like Rent, a story of the AIDS crisis with straight white males as the central figures and everybody, regardless of race or sexual orientation, getting along as a family and feeling they come from the same experience, the truth of the AIDS crisis in the '80s and particularly the truth of its results in the gay community are ignored, obscured. Schulman sees Rent as a dishonest approach to that time, place and situation, and as actually detrimental to gay rights movements by its neutralization of an authentic and harrowing experience.

All of that will become relevant, but let's start by reviewing the movie.

Rent went up on Broadway in 1996; with two exceptions, this 2005 film is performed by members of the original cast. In a movie about a young, hip culture, it seems an odd choice to use the same actors ten years later, nostalgia or otherwise. This was one of my greatest concerns before seeing the movie; it didn't turn out to be nearly as important as I thought. Only Idina Menzel seemed too old in context; as a result, her character Maureen's performance piece became even more embarrassing and hard to swallow than it is in the musical. Of the original cast, though, only Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs have gone on to have a serious film or television career. Many others have met with a great deal of success in theater since that time--Idina Menzel was part of the original Broadway cast of Wicked--but as Rent, the movie, made painfully clear, these are different media that require different skill sets. Most of the people in the movie were theater actors and were acting for an audience surrounding you rather than up against their faces. They had no idea how to emote or to present themselves on film. With notable exceptions, namely Mr. Martin (Taye Diggs, for all his skills and beautiful tenor voice, is onscreen for all of ten minutes), the acting in Rent consists of a series of carefully constructed facial expressions. Without the ability to read their audience, these actors--some of them, like Pascal and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), excellent stage actors--are lost.

Clearly Columbus did not think of this distinction or consider hiring a coach for his actors (as the daughter of an on-camera audition teacher and coach, it's my duty to notice these things). But there were any number of things Columbus didn't think of. At a very basic level, he has never defined where the musical numbers fit into his movie's world. Is this a universe where people just burst into song and no one notices, as in "Out Tonight"; is it a world where songs naturally flow from moments of heightened emotion, as in "Will I?"; are they actual performances, as in "Santa Fe" (my favorite song in the musical); are songs interior monologues, as in Roger's "One Song Glory"? The correct answer is e, all of the above, which makes the piece deeply confusing. These confusions, barely permissible in theater, are inexcusable in film, where to keep such contradictions in place you must ignore not only your audience but a substantive portion of the scene you have created. When can secondary characters and extras see these songs; when do they participate? Nor did Columbus consider choreography; attempting to be unstylized, to flow naturally from the barely-there characters, movement is awkward and unmotivated. People wiggle with the music, uncertain; Angel's ostensible artistry is belied in "Today 4 U" (idiotic onstage, deeply embarrassing onscreen). The only clear rule of the film's world is that one cannot sing sitting down--in at least three numbers, people stand up to present themselves before beginning their song. In "I Should Tell You," Roger and Mimi enter an alley behind the Life Cafe where it has begun to snow, sing the song while walking back and forth, maybe sort of rhythmically, and getting snow stuck in their hair--barely a moment of physical contact--and re-enter the cafe. Their friends' production number from which they slipped out, "La Vie Boheme," mysteriously stopped in their absence but ready to pick up again as soon as Roger and Mimi enter and begin to make out against a very public wall. Now why didn't they do that outside? If they needed the privacy, might it not also have been for physical contact--or was it because the music might stop as soon as they started speaking? Now why *did* the big, voracious (terrible) song stop when they left? It was going strong without their participation when they started to talk. In the theatre this was explained by a simple freeze and lighting change; that doesn't work in the movies.

The transition from recitative to dialogue is at its best painfully awkward, at worst artistically offensive. The stage version of Rent is an opera, though not created for operatic (or even particularly good) singers; there are perhaps four lines of spoken dialogue in the entire piece. Few and far between are the musical theater nerds of my generation who cannot recite "Tune Up #1," Rent's introductory number, verbatim from memory. The contemporary, lightly rhyming patter of these recitatives is one of the best things about Rent, making some of Larson's artistic failings charming rather than glaring, as they become in the film. Dialogue is lifted from the recitatives, but twisted to prevent it from rhyming (as if the movie had any hope of being realistic), resulting in poetic lines devolving into pedestrian speech, or simply people saying stupid shit. (And the breath in the "cold" as characters speak or sing looks rather edited in.)

To be fair, Columbus and his film have their good points. He manages to take the play's ridiculous premise that two couples in the same circle of friends, one straight and one gay, meet, fall in love and become committed and monogamous over the course of one long evening, and stretch it over three days--it's a start. In the Broadway version of Rent, the internal conflicts of our leading men, Mark and Roger, are condensed, stated and resolved into one ostensibly all-encompassing song, "What You Own." Mark says he will work for BuzzLine, a Fox-News-style show, then changes his mind; Roger says he's about to go to Santa Fe and then changes his mind; all of this happens in the course of "What You Own." Not obliged to have the characters sing out loud or in the same room, Columbus is able to show Mark *actually* working for BuzzLine and Roger *actually* arriving in New Mexico, by means of montage. (The montages are an issue of their own, but having lost the exposition from the recitatives Columbus has few other options.) Jesse L. Martin is a lovely, unassuming presence onstage and onscreen, and has a delicious bass voice that one could listen to all day. But most added details conspire to undercut the film: how is it even possible that a man living in the East Village in the late 1980s, whose circle of intimate friends clearly includes a number of queers, would not know how to use pronouns in reference to a drag queen? Carrying a deathly ill young woman into the apartment of your dear friends and seeing the couch covered, why would you say "Just put her on the table" rather than either clearing off the couch or taking her into a bedroom? And why on Earth are your friends always sitting in on the most intimate moments of your life, just kind of watching and occasionally singing backup?

And then there's the ethics.

Certainly, the stage version--or at least its marketing--has some difficulty on this front. I doubt any piece of art has ever sent more fourteen-year-olds home to the suburbs eager to become nineteen-year-old homeless, HIV+, heroin-addicted exotic dancers. For the most part, though, the Broadway Rent is a just a little bumbling about women, as our protagonist, Mark, must clearly be. It doesn't know how to deal with lesbianism, certainly, but its failings are not so much unethical as clumsy. Not so the film.

In both pieces, Mimi works as an exotic dancer with a masochistic flair ("I didn't recognize you without the handcuffs") at the Cat Scratch Club. In the play this is simply a character detail, not illogical for a young runaway drug user. In the movie, we spend a lot of time in the Cat Scratch Club, watching Rosario Dawson flail her emaciated body. (Rosario Dawson was one of the replacement actors; Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi, was pregnant while they were shooting.) Half of "Out Tonight" and a decent portion of the "Without You" montage consist of a camera running up and down Ms. Dawson. It very clearly crossed the line from character development to exploitation. Mimi was never a character, she was always simply an iconographic love object, foreshadowing in 1996 the vivacious, intelligent, unstable woman who has become the new ingenue of the twenty-first century, but in this film she goes from love object to simple object. I thought the difficulty with drag queen pronouns showed a certain level of disrespect for drag queens, but that may just be me. However, the only other genetic females are Joanne and Maureen. (Tracie Thoms, playing Joanne, was the other replacement--while Fredi Walker, the original, was older than some of the other actors, I would speculate that she was cut because of her weight. You can get away with an upper-middle-class black lesbian in Hollywood, but not an upper-middle-class, black, *heavy* lesbian. That would just be too dykey.) Here Columbus and his screenwriter reveal not just ignorance and sexism but a certain, puzzling current of homophobia. Part of "Tango: Maureen," a number in which Maureen's current girlfriend, Joanne, discusses Maureen with Maureen's ex-boyfriend, Mark, has become a dream sequence: when Mark loses consciousness, Mark and Joanne, who have been dancing, melt into a ballroom full of dancing couples. All straight. In such a number, in such a story, shouldn't a decent number of those couples--say, at least, one out of ten (the estimated number of homosexuals in the population)--be gay? Sure, Maureen (in red where all the others are in black and white) dances with women as well as men, but all that implies is that lesbianism is an aberration, that added to Maureen's many other sins is that of messing around with the abnormal gender. They don't even get a tango of their own.

And nor, apparently, are they able to commit in any concrete fashion. Joanne and Maureen were never very developed characters, but the most substantive addition to the film also becomes the most problematic. Normally their painfully stupid duet "Take Me or Leave Me" stems naturally out of their incessant bickering. In this film, their incessant bickering leaves Joanne begging for commitment. Maureen offers it immediately, and we cut to a commitment ceremony hosted by Joanne's suburban, professional parents. (Um, this movie is set in 1989? Black parents in a New England country club? Country club parents willingly hosting a commitment ceremony? A country club being willing to host a commitment ceremony? In 1989? Excuse me?) It is in the middle of this ceremony that Maureen once again begins to flirt, Joanne once again begins to bicker, and an inappropriately dressed Maureen bursts into "Take Me or Leave Me." They break up in the middle of the expensive, lavish commitment ceremony--a ceremony entirely unnecessary to the storyline. "Take Me or Leave Me" could just as easily have happened on the street where Joanne begs for commitment. Perhaps Chris Columbus desperately wanted to showcase the (grievously wasted, in this film) talents of Anna Deveare Smith; perhaps he wanted to demonstrate a pro-gay-marriage stance; perhaps he wanted to demonstrate the fiery nature of both characters. The end result, though, is that our iconographic lesbians are shown to be incapable of considering a romantic decision before they make it. The fact that Maureen and Joanne get together again after Angel's death changes nothing in this regard.

All of this adds fuel to the Sarah Schulman fire. I have at long last read People in Trouble, the novel she claims in Stagestruck was the basis for Rent, and I can say with confidence that I find those claims ridiculous. Neither Schulman nor Larson invented the lesbian/straight love triangle; their perspectives differ, and the perspective from which Larson comes gets far more airtime with the general public, and that is not a positive thing, but it doesn't mean that Larson and only Larson impinged on a story belonging to Schulman and only Schulman, nor even to the gay community and only the gay community. The details Schulman claims he lifted from her novel are so altered in Rent that they must be considered inspiration, rather than theft or copyright infringement. I can't say I thought too highly of People in Trouble either; Schulman had a political axe to grind, and preaches homosexual separatism as vociferously as Larson pursues warmth and fuzziness. Indeed the canon should have more space for lesbian perspectives, but that doesn't make Schulman's novel any good. The portion of Stagestruck that accuses Larson of theft, once I had read People in Trouble, seemed to me more of an attempt to lend street cred to a subpar novel than to truly make a case for copyright infringement. However, Schulman's later, broader points regarding cultural dishonesty (particularly in Rent, but elsewhere as well) are demonstrated much more clearly in the film than in the musical.

As my mother's said, Larson *was* a straight white male; from such a raw, not yet intellectually sophisticated artist, an attempt to go from any other perspective would have been a failure, and either way he's entitled to see things as he sees them. The glut of such perspective on the artistic scene is something for which we cannot hold him alone responsible; had he lived, he might have used his power to better ends. We'll never know, but I don't think it's his fault.

Homosexuals do suffer at the hands of Rent, though. In the long run, it's a show where the straights get to (yes, temporarily) survive AIDS by means of a performance-art-oriented miracle (that aspect of Mimi's recovery, at least, was mercifully cut in the film), while the gay male suffers the greatest loss and the gay female couple can't make themselves clear to one another or relevant to the plot. In a show or film marketed on the lyric "No day but today," Angel's refrain "Today 4 U, Tomorrow for me" seems almost a cruel joke at the character's expense. I don't claim that Larson did any of this deliberately. He was a talented, passionate, intelligent guy who died before he had the opportunity to revise his work. As my mother often says, I would love to hear the next thing he would have written. He's somebody who might have gained from success, rather than "selling out" (which his characters claim that success renders inevitable). With more success, he might have been able to laud the amazing aspects of his friendships and lifestyles without romanticizing a devastating epidemic. While I've spent a lot of time cutting Rent down, it's an honest work from an extremely talented, socially unsophisticated artist. It's honest about Larson's feelings and views and perspectives; he was not yet mature enough as an artist to also feel responsibility to society, to be honest in that regard. But I've grown comfortable taking Rent's stupid ending the same way I take the ending of (the infinitely better) Angels in America, as wish-fulfillment. Larson didn't want his characters to have to suffer as much as the AIDS epidemic made real people suffer. The gay/straight dichotomies weren't on his mind at the level I've analyzed them; he may, in fact, have intended to show with Angel that the gay community did indeed suffer the early stages of the epidemic disproportionately. In death, I'll happily give him the benefit of the doubt. I will give no such thing to screenwriter Stephen Chbosky, or to Chris Columbus.

A.O. Scott, who likes the movie much better than I do, claims in his review that Rent's "idea of Bohemia is not realistic, but romantic, even utopian." Utopianism regarding the AIDS crisis may have been acceptable in 1996--I still haven't reached conclusions about that, but certainly given its success it must have served some sort of purpose, and I disagree with Schulman's claims that the results of Rent's one-big-happy-family approach are entirely negative. But what could be read as starry-eyed idealism in the original comes off as irresponsible, borderline unethical, a decade later. An adaptation of Rent could in theory be a good idea--it gives its adapters the opportunity to correct a few of Larson's mistakes. One would not have to lose the love of friends that makes the core of the piece in order to develop Angel, Mimi, Joanne and Maureen as characters, nor to show honestly the physical devastation that AIDS causes--particularly for the poor and uninsured, as it seems safe to assume that Angel was both. One could show that the characters' exuberance in "La Vie Boheme" (I hate the song, but to be fair, most non-New-Yorkers love it because the canon lauded in the song is not obvious to them) is resilience in the face of an epidemic devastating their community, rather than a constant, rocking, free-flowing and consistently happy lifestyle that happens to have AIDS in it. Columbus and Chbosky do none of these things. The film's only major conflicts are shown by means of montage; obviously, then, not only their reality but their significance suffers. In the case of a film like Rent, I think social responsibility and honesty are one in the same. (This may indeed be the case for all art, but I have to think about that further.) Desperate wish-fulfillment during the peak of the AIDS crisis in America is one thing. Nostalgia for the American AIDS crisis is quite another.

Perhaps I give Larson too much credit; perhaps I am too condescending towards him. Perhaps, also, I'm giving the film a cultural signficance it doesn't really deserve--I spend so much time around theater people that movie musicals seem a bigger deal than they are. Nevertheless, Rent's explosive success was unusual, the drive and budget to make such a movie even more so. And it may be that what people want from Rent is not something they're entitled to have.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Giving the Vatican Document a Catholickin'

Because I don't know enough about Catholicism to create an interesting or useful post on the Vatican's condemnation of homosexuality, and because everyone else is doing it, I'm going to send you here, to Connor's blog, to read his fascinating and thorough dissection of the document in form and content.

I'm now part of an incestuous network of bloggers, huzzah!