Friday, June 30, 2006


The question of the objectivity of art has been asked for centuries, and never really answered. I used to be very careful to say "I didn't like it" instead of "It was bad" to make sure not to offend people who liked "it" (whatever "it" is - you can find it on ebay). But then, I also used to seat during credits at the end of movies.

Let's face it, nobody really wants to seat during those credits, and all we really want to yell is "I hated it, it was bad". Tonight, I finally saw Rent (the musical on Broadway), and yes, I thought it was really, really bad (I just heard my friend Karen scream all the way from Avenue I). Of course, people will argue "no, you really can't say that. If people liked it, it can't be bad". Well, can't people like bad things?
Tell me, have you never seen a big blue square, hanging in a museum in the painting section? And when you cross someone walking in the street wearing yellow pants and a white t-shirt with purple vertical stripes, do you say "I don't like it" or "Oh-my-god-how-could-she-do-that-it's-so-fucking-ugly?" I thought so. (Also, how often do you tell people "You can't say it was good, you have to say you liked it. You're offending people who didn't".)
To be really clear, I'm just arguing about the fact that I have every right to say so. Whether I'm right or wrong is another matter.

The truth is, writing (whether music or words) is a skill, it has to be mastered, and you can fail at it.

But let's get to our subject, and let's put aside a few things first. I thought the music was ok, if you like that sort of cheesy, a-thousand-times reused pop music. So if you're a huge fan of the music, listening to the CD all the time, I understand, you're probably not the only one. The performers were neither good or bad, certainly not of Broadway-caliber; but then, it didn't stop hundreds of spectators to yell and applause at the end of each song like they've just witnessed a reunion of the Beatles. So to the people who will tell me Rent is only as good as the actors in it, I say "I guess this time, Rent-fans thought it was a good one." I didn't. Overlapping dialogue is great in a Robert Altman movie, not in a musical. In fact, if I hadn't read the plot before, I probably wouldn't have gotten it. The 50-year old choir director from Michigan seated next to me agreed, and so does the management of the theatre, apparently, since the whole story is explained in the "Playbill" - which is a first.
A short word about the set and the dancing: I found both pretty simple but powerful. All in all, the strong side of the musical.

But beside the acting, beside the music and the dancing there's a play. And so we get to the plot and to the lyrics and dialogue, which are really at the heart of my argument. My guess (once again, as a disappointed spectator to a cult-musical, I can only guess what appeals to the fan) is that rent-followers admire that it deals with never-before dealt-with issues. AIDS, being poor in a big city, being a lost soul in the 80s/90s. In three words: "la vie boheme". Great. Chapeau bas. That doesn't make the play good.

The characters are extremely simplistic, the already mentioned impossible-to-understandable plot, once you get it, is in fact inexistent (which wouldn't be a problem if the musical numbers were entertaining), the dialogues of the kind that wouldn't grant you admission to a high-school creative-writing class ("I missed you so much! - Me too!"). As a matter of fact, the writing is so poor that the main character, Mark, has to come forward and explain to us what we're looking at. Obviously, Jonathan Larson had never heard of exposure. Mark, by the way, is a would-be filmmaker. He owns a camera that's supposed to look cheap, but is in fact so expensive it could pay last year's, this year's, and next year's rent (yes, I happen to know this camera, and you can also find it on ebay). His credo, and everyone else's, is art and creativity, but the way he uses his tool, shooting asses and buildings, he looks more like a Dawson or that guy from American Beauty with his plastic bags, than the Spike Lee he so fondly refers to.
Another interesting character is Maureen. You hear about her for most of the first act before she actually appears. She's supposed to be an incredibly intense girl, attracting every eye, sending shivers to every spine. But when she finally shows up, she's boring, empty and shallow. Actually, I'm sure I've seen her profile on a dating site the other night.
Talking about Maureen, I don't know what to make of Rent's crudeness. Yes, sex references are mandatory with this kind of subject, but did they really need to go as far as showing us her bare ass?

Let's take another example! Oh, how do we love examples, they're so great and easy to use when you want to make a point. (But be careful, I will divulge important points of the plot, so if you haven't seen it, skip this paragraph).
My example tonight will be Angel, a tall black guy who arrives in Alphabet City - the New York neighborhood where Rent takes place - at the beginning of the musical. Now, if you know anything about narration, you know that such a character is supposed to be our friend. Just like him (and just like Dorothy in Oz), we know nothing about the world he enters and the people that inhabit it. That's why in theory, he's the most important character. But apparently, Larson hadn't heard of that either, since Angel doesn't serve here as a narrator (Mark does), and is in fact nothing like the average spectator. He has AIDS (as do others) and likes to dress as a woman. In the second act, he dies and all the characters mourn him. This is supposed to be a very emotional moment. There's just one problem: that guy we were supposed to love and side with, we know nothing about him: therefore, we don't care. In fact, we learn more about his personality when others talk about him after his death. Mark tells us how Angel used to go talk to people in the street, and they'd be stunned cause they've never talked to a drag-queen. Such a fun story... Wait, no, actually it sounds exactly like one I overheard in the subway the other day.
Oh, and while we're at it, being a drag-queen is a complex art that involves performance and entertainment. When you cross-dress, you're simply a transvestite. Honestly, for a play that sees itself as the symbol of "La vie boheme", they could at least have gotten that right.

Some people say Rent is not what his creator, Jonathan Larson, intended it to be, because he died, age 36, before opening night. This strangely reminds me of Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut. Except that Kubrick had a few masterpieces behind, and I still think Eyes Wide Shut was genius.
Larson had just written a few off-Broadway plays before Rent, and cited "Jesus Christ Superstar" as a reference.

I'd like to advance my own reference: the movie "Les nuits fauves" by Cyril Collard, who died of AIDS before his movie was released. It deals with the same issues, but you'll have a good example of smart writing, emotional scenes, and depth of story.

In a way, it's very sad. If you care about an issue, wouldn't you like its most popular vehicle, the one that gets the most exposure, to be good? Truthful? Witty and smart? It looks to me like the masses, instead of asking for better and denouncing a cheap representation of their values, settled for what was there. It is, really, a pity.

In the meantime, in this beginning of millennium, I find Rent to be cheap, and Broadway tickets expensive.

No comments: