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.


At 4:26 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Very comprehensive. And I think that, at the heart of it, you have that: "Desperate wish-fulfillment during the peak of the AIDS crisis in America is one thing. Nostalgia for the American AIDS crisis is quite another."

I haven't seen Rent (either the film or the stage version), but this may make me curious enough to check it out (having realized that you basically ripped it down) simply because it *is* a significant cultural cornerstone, and in the light of current pitch in the gay rights debate, people will be paying attention.

At 12:53 AM, Blogger meridity said...

I really miss the days when you, Carla and Mary would sit in on the most intimate moments of my life and sing backup. Seriously, we should all get together sometime in the future and relive those glory days.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Yeah, for sure. When one of us gets married, the other three will be there in the hotel room and already know the song that the bride and groom will come in singing. It's gonna be awesome.


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