Confessions a 20th century ne'er do well: Drinking, fighting, stealing and other things one generally ought not do

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Everyone has AIDS really does sum it up, doesn't it?

I saw RENT this weekend. The whole phenomenon makes me feel like an archaeologist –
I have seen the movie (which includes the tony winning cast), and listened to the soundtrack extensively, and now seen the stage production. What I have not seen is the original cast in the original production.
The movie is different from the play in two main ways. There is dialog which is sung in the play (and on the soundtrack, of course) which is spoken in the movie. The play, of course takes place in a single visual frame, while the movie uses on the street production numbers from New York.
I loved how the movie used New York – especially Santa Fe on the Subway. Since I saw the movie first, it is these scenes and actors that are in my head when listening to the soundtrack – which is mostly them, since it’s the original cast.
The production I saw on Friday showed me a new dimension that wasn’t in the movie and wasn’t discernable from just listening to the soundtrack. For example, the life support group is on stage throughout “Out Tonight” which segues into “Another time,” making it clear that this is what Roger is doing while the rest are affirming the idea of ‘no day but today’ Not only is Mimi looking for attention, she’s the embodiment of the sentiment all Roger’s friends are trying to get him to realize – when she tries to seduce him with ‘there is only us, there is only this, no day but today’ (to which he answers, ‘another time, another place…’) The chorus joins in, from the support group. The play has a new dimension of, I don’t know if you call it symbolism, but it is multiple layers of meaning.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a lackluster performance. I didn’t get a sense that any of the actors were going places. Mimi’s voice seemed to be congested (I once saw a Bruce show where he was congested, but he still managed to belt out ‘backstreets’, likewise Mimi hit the high notes nicely, even if the rest seemed to be an effort.
“Today for you tomorrow for me,” seemed imprecise. And herein lies my question.
Was it imprecise because that is the nature of theater, or because the actor wasn’t as talented as the original actor. That scene was very edited – meaning that they could have had as many takes as necessary to get it right, and live the same actor might not have gotten it every time either. The soundtrack is also very precise. (do broadway actors go into a recording studio to make the soundtrack, or is it taken from the soundboard?) The lyrics for today 4 U are enunciated very carefully. You can hear and discern virtually every lyric on the soundtrack, but with this performance, the lines were blurred in quite a few instances. But, is that what a stage does? I can only wonder. During La Vie Bohem, Maureen belted out a line, and I felt like she could have held back – this show is known for being an ensemble performance, and obviously that song doesn’t have a star – if it does, it’s not her but Mark.

Obviously, the movie shouldn't require the original cast. It would have been cheaper and slightly more accurate with younger actors. But a few of the original people are big stars. Maybe the show DOES need those people to bring it to life. I wonder, has the play RENT become a second rate show, with b-level performers?

And this is why I feel like an archaeologist. Because I never saw the original show. It doesn’t even exist in its integrity. I can only add up A. (the movie) B. (the soundtrack) and C. (the current production) and guess that this is an amazing creation.
I read a few reviews of the movie, and apparently it got lukewarm responses. But what was interesting was that the reviews didn’t add up.
In last week’s New Yorker, there was an article about conspiracy theories. It explained that people can be made to believe that there is a great amount of evidence for something when in fact there is not, because there are many unrelated facts. Haliburton getting no bid contracts plus george bush having a relationship to the Saudi royal family doesn’t add up to the government being complicit in 9/11. But if each fact raises an eyebrow, it feels like an awful lot of eyebrows are raised.
Similarly, The negative reviews of RENT the movie didn’t really add up. In one, the opening theatrical performance of Seasons of Love was fantastic, and the movie suffered because there were no other references to the film’s origins. In another, the opening scene was a weak attempt to capitalize on the film’s origins for nostalgia purposes, instead of letting the movie stand for itself. Another complained that “La Vie Boheime” was too long, another that its length was the highlight of the movie. Opposite opinions, which don’t add up to 2. They’re both negative, but if they both say for example that the NYC scenes were good, then that is not a score of 2 good to 4 bad, but rather a score of 4 for NYC scenes, to a score of one for too much theater, one for too little, one for long la vie boheim, one for short vie boheime (I know the math and facts are off there, but I think you see my logic). Over the long run, it seemed to me there was a score of 15 similar positive reviews to a similar amount of divergent negative reviews. In other words, many agreed the movie was good, but relatively few agreed it was bad – they said it was bad, but there wasn’t a coherent opinion of there being something wrong with it.
A few other reviews really set up straw men to criticize the script. I thought the story was pretty deep.
In my opinion, it is a coming of age story of Mark Cohen. He’s at an age where half of his friends are growing up (Maureen, who is in a committed relationship) and Benny, who basically has a real job. His other friends are holding onto a younger lifestyle. Simple enough conflict, except for one thing. Those friends are not going to grow up. It’s not reasonable for them to think too far into the future. They’re clinging onto something that most people outgrow because the next phase of life doesn’t have anything to offer them. Except it’s not even 100% that simple – people with HIV are living longer, as clearly stated in the life support scene. Roger wants to cling onto the idea of ‘one great song’ as his last hurrah (ironic, since many of Rogers songs are far from great).
This is not a movie about how great “La Vie Boheime” is. It’s a movie about people who don’t feel that there is anything else.
One reviewer criticized the film for celebrating that hippie trustafarian east village ideal, and not doing it well. But that is the point. Their life isn’t hopeful or particularly attractive. They don’t have anything else. Mark is half romanticizing it because he doesn’t want to abandon his friends, but nobody is that in love with the 20something lifestyle for itself.
Mortality is the theme of the movie, not some kind of idealized artistic freedom. Creativity in the face of mortality is a partial theme, but more importantly, letting go of the need for creativity is a theme – roger fixating on ‘one great song’ while Angel and Collins are singing a pretty mediocre song. ‘I’ll cover you’ is very sweet in context, but alone, face it, it’s got silly lyrics. And that’s a strength of the overall play – it’s supposed to come across as a spontaneous expression of affection, not a great song. Some of the mediocrity of the play works to its point, which is that each moment in life should be measured in love above all else. And everyone in the play sees that as the salvation. Maybe that’s more of a hippie sentiment than the celebration of counterculture is, but love isn’t about counterculture – it’s universal.
Mortality is what the movie is about. “When you’re living in America, you are what you own, but when you’re dying in America, you’re not alone.”(LA Vie Boheime says it’s about living with, not dying from disease, but of course that’s not literally what it’s about – it’s about clinging to life when death is right around the corner, which translates into living in the moment. La Vie Boheim is tied to not having a future)
Another thing which I noticed and liked was the casual nature of the gay relationships. They weren’t meant to be shocking. They were written as completely natural. In 2006, we’re almost used to this. But in 1996, a gay relationship in a storyline would usually have been a plot point. RENT was written pre-will and grace. At that time, Ellen and Melissa Ethridge were able to jumpstart their careers by admitting to being gay. I don’t think someone being gay makes news anymore – not in a way that’s different from any other Hollywood relationship story. But the storyline of RENT didn’t get hung up on that. And that made it ahead of its time.

One of the reasons I love the soundtrack is because it’s a great rock and roll concept album – sincerely a rock opera (as opposed to Tommy which is a collection of related songs, not an opera). There are few if any three minute stretches of repetition. That means in 2:30 hours there is lots to dwell on musically. There are no really ‘great songs’ – I can’t think of one I’d perform myself - but there are great moments in the context of the show, and there are great, memorable musical themes that come up again and again, and work in a baroque style which I don’t know if I’ve ever heard in a rock and roll milieu

The ending is a bit unsatisfying – but could the ending to RENT possibly be satisfying? What kind of resolution is possible? I think Roger resolves to allow himself to feel and live in the moment. Mark decides to complete his film as a tribute to this time in his life – presumably allowing him to move on.

Overall, I think this phenomenon of RENT is incredible beautiful. The mere fact that it is lost in time adds to its mystique. The fact that my vision of the show is based on archeological assumptions rather than a direct experience is unique as far as I can remember – there isn’t any other thing I’m fond of that I only know by conjecture. That too makes it a thing of beauty.

Oh yeah. And Doctor Who rocked this week!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Everything that crosses my mind now seems completely sophomoric. I used to at least think I have insight – now, I think the mere act of commenting on most things is foolish. I feel that way about whether movies are good, current events, social issues. I feel like people who engage in these conversations are blowhards, regardless of their opinions. I’d rather read a good book. I’m reading a lot, and watching TV. I suppose the shift is that people who talk about stuff would be better off listening, or referring me to a book. I’m also feeling bored with people – a shift from annoyed – who talk too much in this manner. I have little tolerance for people who talk about restaurants.
I was in San Francisco last week. The bay area is beautiful – underrated, if you ask me, since TV and movies mostly focus on the hills or Golden Gate Bridge. I walked along the shoreline from Market Street to pier 40 something past fisherman’s wharf, taking it all in.
It was a beautiful experience. The kind of thing that you can only experience there. I felt a kind of empty feeling whenever I spoke to anyone about San Francisco, because it seemed like the first question or bit of advice was about what restaurant to find. What a waste – and a boring one. The hills are another example. As I said TV and movies focus on the hills, but the real attraction is not the hills, but the view!
Maybe part of this comes from living in New York. Fancy or interesting restaurants aren’t so hard to find, and great views aren’t often encountered on foot. Maybe, similarly, every blowhard opinion or observation out there has crossed my mind by this point?

Sunday, October 08, 2006


I keep forgetting that I have my own blog where I can actually write about things that cross my mind with the hope of someone reading it.

There has been alot about torture in the news, and two things have crossed my mind.
First, on one side, people are supportive of torture, the more sane of these because they believe that anything to save American lives is acceptable. Their scenerio is: If someone knows where a bomb is that will kill thousands, would you use torture to save lives?

I notice a void on the anti-torture side. On the Sunday shows last week, and in various blogs or editorials, I keep hearing that torture undermines the US's "Moral legitimacy" ot that it endangers US troops, or weakens our position in the world.
What I don't seem to hear is an objection that merely states that torture is wrong. In other words, the thrust of the anti-torture opinions I'm hearing is that it makes us look bad.
But why should anyone get behind this opinion? Who cares if we look bad? I understand that no politician wants to come across as weak by putting morality before safety. The idea of "moral high ground" still implies a concern for the US's ability to fight the war on terror, but it doesn't make a case against torture unless you can illustrate the value of moral high ground. If the US is an 800 pound gorilla, what difference does it make (Where does an 800 pound gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants)

The other argument against torture is that it doesn't work. The premise is that torture can be used to force a confession, but not to gain information because the victim will say what ever has to be said in order for the torture to stop. This argument also stops short of saying torture is morally wrong. It implys the person making it is primarily concerned with national security, and isn't opposed to hurting an enemy, but is opposed to ceeding moral high ground where it is unnecessary.

But I think this arguement is a red herring because I think it doesn't accurately assess the full methodology of torture. I also think that the proponents of torture are powerless to effectively refute this argument because of the implications of the truth.

I don't think information is ascertained by merely torturing one person. The idea of one person who knows where the bomb is is a phony scenerio. I believe it is effective when you torture hundreds of people. I believe this is a game of statistics.
If you torture 100s of people, and 80 give you different answers but 20 give a similar answer, and you ask questions you already know to be true or false, to test the persons's general honesty, then torture can lead to information. It's also probably checked against information gained from friendly informers. And, information from allys might come from questionable methods. But even then' it's probably not 100% reliable. So to employ torture is a large undertaking that involves subjecting probably thousands of people!

But I notice that this has never been suggested as a refutation to those who say torture doesn't work. Why? because it is far more reprehensible than torturing a few people. But if torture is being used, and it's working, then I think this aggregate approach has to be the method.

And, if this is true, the missing morality argument looms much larger - because out of those thousands of torture victims, many are likely innocent as well. So I think the entire debate is disingenuious. If torture works, but in order to work it if far more widespread than assumed, where do we stand? It's really a Us against Them argument more than the utilitarian suggestion of one victim to save the lives of many. And I don't really believe that when the truth is all told that there is anyone is sincerely for Them over Us.
But I find it interesting to watch an issue debated like this - passionately and partisanly, but with the truth hiding in the background.