My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Monday, November 28, 2005

a theory of actual reality part 1

Talk about coming late to the party. Over the weekend, I saw the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent, a phenomenon which I managed to completely miss when it came out back in 1996. Not only did I not catch the musical, I'd never even heard the soundtrack until after I'd seen the first time (for the rest of you who were as out of the loop as I was - it's really good. Go see the movie).

It's really not surprising that I've never seen the stage production, since at the time it came out, I was living in a co-op in Columbus, OH, 22 of us camped out in a crumbling, glorious ruin of a mansion just east of Ohio State University. The mix of perennial grad students, wannabe writers, artists, and musicians, and party people with fluid sexualities would be familiar to the characters from "Rent." But we didn't go to see Broadway shows that much (I got the impression neither would the "Rent" crew. What else was out then, anyway? Cats?)

Seeing the musical at such a remove from that time and place raises a lot of questions for me. Was I a "bohemian?" What am I now? Have I betrayed my ideals? Did I have any ideals worth clinging to? And so on.

Before we go there, some more obvious observations:

The AIDS epidemic probably hurt New York a lot more than 9/11 did. It killed more people, and in the process gutted the creative community that had been the energetic beating heart of Downtown communities like the East VIllage and Alphabet City. Also, while 9/11 caused the country to (briefly) rally behind New York (remember "it's your patriotic duty to go to a Broadway show?"), the AIDS epidemic caused Middle America (and there was such a beast back then) to recoil.

A lot of reviewers have complained that Rent is now a "period piece" - the community depicted no longer exists in the same way. It seems a strange criticism. Did critics feel that was a negative thing in the case of "Chicago," or "Capote," or "Dances With Wolves," to name a few movies set in times that are not now? Every Western ever made, for example? The truth is, "Rent" was already a period piece when it premiered on stage - the Alphabet City bohemia depicted was already vanishing, for the very reasons discussed in the play - AIDS for one, as well as rising rents in the neighborhood (hence the name).

In fact, pronouncements that "those days are gone" are a bit premature. It's true that the East Village is now filled with multimillion dollar condos (one of which is owned by Rent star Anthony Rapp!), but Bohemia has simply left Manhattan for grimier pastures in Dumbo, Williamsburg, and other points east. But if Brooklyn doesn't exist to these people, there's just no point in bringing up Yellow Springs, Ohio, is there?

"Relevance" isn't exactly the point, anyway. "Bohemians" (so named after the centuries-old hipster scene in Prague, still going strong last I heard) are out of the mainstream by definition. Most critics of the movie (and Broadway show) quickly devolve into personal attacks on the relevance and worth of the type of people depicted in the show.

The best review so far:
"Get a job for God's sake, people, and bring back some better songs while you're out."
-- Jeffrey Bruner, DES MOINES REGISTER

This one goes into more detail:
I’m shocked that a musical about AIDS, heroin, and squatters could become the eighth longest running musical in Broadway history with over 4,000 performances. It has grossed more than $210 million in New York alone. After seeing the movie, I’m glad I didn’t go to the Las Vegas performances of this acknowledged worldwide phenomenon.

I understand that the musical has a huge following, but the movie RENT will not. Why hail the lives of a group of people who do nothing, engage in sexually risky behavior, get terminally ill, and refuse to pay their rent? Because they feel that it is only important to love and let someone else pay the Con Ed bill? To find this “truth,” these misfits have traversed a lifestyle of anonymous, multiple sex partners and needle drugs. Larson ignores what made this group of sweet kids damaged souls of hopelessness.

Who are these boring, uncreative friends? Roger (Adam Pascal) is a songwriter who hasn’t written a song in a year. He just kicked heroin. His tenement roommate is Mark (Anthony Rapp), an out-of-work filmmaker who keeps filming his friends sitting around. Surprisingly, since Mark appears gay, he was unceremoniously dumped by sultry performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who is now in love with a successful lawyer, jealous Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Downstairs lives Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a fully-dressed exotic dancer who does not make enough money to pay her rent either. She is a heroin addict. She likes sullen Roger. It is so sweet when they admit to each other they are both taking AZT and are HIV-positive!

WEST SIDE STORY’S Maria and Tony look like whining babies now!

Roger and Mark’s buddy Tom (Jesse L. Martin) turns up. He is homeless, jobless, and has just been mugged. But he has a really good attitude! He meets the Soul of RENT, precious Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a drag queen. They are HIV-positive. That makes four sick people in one movie. They go to AIDS meetings. Everyone gets up and sings a We Shall Overcome song.

Trying to promote reality into these happy-go-lucky freeloaders is Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs). He married their tenement owner's daughter and, even though he long ago promised his friends their valuable loft rent-free, he now needs the space for a business enterprise. What an ***! Where is the love in New York City real estate?
. . .
I didn’t like the music. I know it is sacrilegious to write anything negative about RENT (as the show-stopping song goes, “but I am who I am”). And, like the SERENITY and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA fans, I am sure I will hear from everyone who ever brought a ticket to RENT and cried. After all, it is a musical about HIV-positive young people who haven’t a care in the world. The creator died at 36 years old of an aortic aneurysm before enjoying the perks of creating the first Gay AIDS musical.
-Victoria Alexander,

Feel the love, people.

And then there's this gem:
His songs, with their somber despair and contrasting seize-the-day attitudes, slice to the heart of a disillusionment that has been forgotten since Sept. 11, 2001, even though the problems of AIDS, drugs, urban isolation and self-serving relationships still infect a generation.
- Mark Collette Tyler Morning Telegraph

Huh? There are people out there who are less disillusioned after 9/11? Apparently there are, in Texas.

For me, dropping out of mainstream society was a rejection of the hypocrisy and greed I saw in mainstream, materialistic society. I wanted an entirely different kind of existence, rooted in creativity and spirituality, in community, relationships and people. Which is sort of funny, because I'm bad at relationships, irreligious, and lack the follow-through to really write the Great American Novel. But I never said I was the model for a new society, I just said I wanted one.

Which brings us to the philosophical underpinning for the whole project, Tom Collins' intriguingly hinted-at "Theory of Actual Reality" that got him kicked out of trendier institutions like MIT (He reprogrammed a virtual reality demonstration to say Actual Reality! ACT UP! Fight AIDS!).

What would such a theory be like? I can see it's something I'm going to be chewing on for the next few weeks. But here's an outline: wherever humanism and postmodernism are incompatible, postmodernism should be dumped like a high school girlfriend. This approach will allow us to excape from the solipsistic trap that has pretty much short circuited critical though in this country for the past couple decades.

AIDS is a great place to start. It isn't socially constructed, it's real. It's a retrovirus, a renegade strand of RNA that will kill you regardless of what social meaning you ascribe to it or how you attempt to integrate it into your understanding of reality. Or another example. People often say that race relations are "so much better than they used to be." Again, you may feel that way, but there are actual facts, and the facts say different. Segregation is worse than ever - the average white person and average black person live further apart than ever before, and are less likely to have a member of a different race living within a mile of them. African American infant mortality rates are worse than some Third World nations (Cuba's is much lower, for example).

In postmodernia, we are expected to give equal weight to all "perspectives." Hence the news media, intent on showcasing both "sides" of an issue even when one side is lying. But nobody calls it a "lie," now it's called a "conservative perspective." How many times have I heard a talking head or some guy on NPR say that same sex marriages will "undermine marriage" or "threaten American families." Why? How would that work? What does that even mean? If these questions can't be answered, then this "perspective" doesn't belong on the air. Perspecives with evidence to back their claims should be - what's the word - privileged over other perspectives. Yes, I'm saying that some people's views are more important and better because they are well informed, while other people's views deserve to be devalued and ignored because they are ignorant. Obviously people have different values and opinions about a great many subjects, and that's all to the good. But we don't need to show good natured tolerance and respect for self-serving blather based on assumptions that can be proved false with a few minutes of effort.

Look at these so-called critics. "Get a job?" Do you know how hard it is to make a movie or write a novel while working a full time job? If people don't drop out of the mainstream work force to create art, where is it supposed to come from? Or are people actually satisfied with the empty-headed "cultural products" peddled by Disney and Viacom? Even if they are, they should realize that most of those guys also started out in an unheated loft somewhere. And if neighborhood after neighborhood is converted into housing for the wealthy, where the hell are the other 90% of people supposed to live?

These are not rhetorical questions, I actually want answers. That's another thing that separates Actual Reality from the Blatherverse. The irony here, of course, is that right now it's me who's just ranting. But I plan to return. Soon! With Actual Examples! And then maybe I'll Make Sense!

Till then, just go see the movie.


Trope said...

Dude, that quote from Victoria has got to go. I think you were, in fact, a bohemian, until you acquired too much stuff. You could have that freedom again, if you were willing to lose the books.
The thing that I think is funniest about the folks who say "Rent" is a "period piece" is that they're implying that no one dies of AIDS anymore, with the advent of all these new drugs. Or that there are no longer starving artists in New York. And that just ain't true.

marf said...

If people don't drop out of the mainstream work force to create art, where is it supposed to come from? Or are people actually satisfied with the empty-headed "cultural products" peddled by Disney and Viacom?

After taking 3 years off of school to work in the "real world" while also doing my art, and now having met many true artists in Columbus, South Korea, and Philly, I really have to come to the conclusion that for the most part, the idea of the starving artist is a myth. Maybe it was true some time in the recent past, or maybe it is still true in certain places, but as far as I can tell, us artists don't have it any tougher than the average person. My reasons for this opinion are complex, but I'll try to summarize with these points:

1.) It is highly questionable (at least to me) that true art-making should be a "profession". Herbert Read wrote a lot of stuff about this issue that I agreed with in his book To Hell With Culture, but the basic idea is this: All professions have conventions and institutions. The nature of true art is to question such things. Thus, when art is made a profession, artists often end up questioning the very establishments that support them, rather than questioning conventions of the outside world. And then the world of art becomes that of "insiders" and "outsiders". One could say - "But wait, artists have to make a living!" But if people who are moved to make art have access to day jobs that pay a living wage, work them no more than 40 hours a week, give reasonable benefits and vacation time, then those people have plenty of time and resources to make art.

2.) At least in urban areas, we're not exactly suffering a shortage of quantity or quality of real art. Both professionals and amateurs create and enjoy art of all sorts, all the time. (high-quality graffiti, independent theatre or gallery collaboratives, hell, even quilt-making clubs, etc.)

3.) Although it has been suffering in the public schools, funding for the arts is really not that bad in terms of grants for individuals, funding for museums and public art education programs. However, this may change if another fucking Republican gets into office.

candoor said...

Even seven years later when I was searching for what Larson meant (in his own words) by the term "actual reality", this entry is a much appreciated. I am surprised Victoria, who in her Twilight review confessed that she once asked her personal phlebotimist in Las Vegas to save her a vial of "prostitute's blood" for her magic, did not retract her review. Here's an excerpt:

"I know plenty of vampires (and I do not mean those silly “Psychic Vampires”). They are the men and women who draw blood all day, every day, working in doctor’s offices and medical labs. They know blood. I have my own blood extractor. I’ve become addicted to giving blood. My tech uses a very fine needle and never fails to get to the vein the first time. She gives me an extra vial for my own personal use. I need it, I tell her, for my magic spells. She didn’t even flinch. So I recently felt emboldened to ask: “What I really need is the blood of a prostitute.”* She said: “Well, we’re in Las Vegas. It can’t be very hard to find one.” She agreed to keep a vial for me if a prostitute comes in.

Anything can happen in Vegas."

Apparently she doesn't know the code about "What happens in Vegas...."

After reading her frighteningly insensitive and skewed review in your entry here, I felt it only fair to review some of her 500+ online film reviews in order to put her mind-set in perspective... the jury is still out, but her views on Rent are, by my review, ridiculous to the point of being hateful.

All that said, thank you for your perspective on Rent and the life experiences related to the film. I appreciate your insight and perspective and hope your life is smiling more than frowning for you these days.