Brandishing Swords

Thegirlwhoateeverything and Emily Rutherford had really good points about the cult of Rent that I wanted to highlight here.  Thegirl wrote (in the midst of a longer, smart deconstruction of the show):

The film glorifies a starving artist lifestyle at the expense of any actual creations that these so-called artists make. Being broke doesn’t give you extra credibility or talent, especially if it’s not pushing you to develop your craft to a level where you could reach a wider audience and perhaps make some dirty, evil, filthy money. It’s poverty porn for rich kids.

I agree the show would be substantially stronger if the case for any of the artists’ talents were stronger.  And Emily makes a point that I think interfaces with Thegirl’s argument.  She writes:

The show romanticizes a tragic epidemic that killed off tens of thousands of people in the face of uncaring, homophobic city, state, and federal governments–and that, even though our attitude to the virus has changed somewhat, continues to kill. I can’t read Larry Kramer and Randy Shilts and Ed White and listen to my friends’ and relatives’ stories of the people they lost and really take Rent seriously anymore.

My friends thought I was pretty crazy when I was bitching about this: after all, the story’s a total rip-off of La Bohème, and you don’t see me bitching about how he ignored the realities of his Mimi’s TB. I’m painfully aware of how few of the artsy teens singing “La Vie Boheme” know the meaning of the chant “ACT-UP! Fight AIDS!” that recurs in the background of the cast album, but maybe that’s more my failure than the show’s.

I think this is essentially right.  The show spends a lot of time romanticizing the bravery of the people who live with HIV, and very little dealing either with their emotional desperation or the societal conditions that caused it and abandoned many of them to their illness.  The reduction of Roger’s girlfriend to this single line “whose girlfriend April left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS‘ before slitting her wrists in the bathroom” is really disgustingly callous.  The line’s delivered with a sarcastic tilt–perhaps it’s defensive, but given that it’s Mark observing, it doesn’t really read that way.  Roger’s mourning over her is treated like moping, and his quick hookup with Mimi doesn’t really dispel the suggestion that it is.  

The show also minimizes, in some really strange ways, the sacrifice Collins made in blowing up his job at MIT in the name of an alliance with ACT-UP.  Allying yourself with radical AIDS activists was a big deal–Collins didn’t just lose his job, he probably lost himself a chance of ever working in academia at all.  But of course, Collins comes back to New York to chill with his bros, and the loss of his job becomes the equivalent of the loss of his coat when he meets Angel because TRU LOVE IS 4EVER and of course nothing else matters ever again.

This isn’t to take anything away from people who faced HIV infection with enormous energy, courage, anger, and empathy.  I spent a bunch of time with Larry Kramer in college, enough to know that those positive attributes aren’t the entire story.  For government agencies and leaders, and society at large, to face the shame they ought for their behavior in the early years of the epidemic, the whole story desperately needs to be told.  I recognize Rent isn’t an act of retribution.  But it’s not helping any either, if that’s what a lot of folks know about the ways in which AIDS decimated entire communities–and entire arts scenes, which didn’t have fabulous drag queens at the ends of long dark tunnels telling them to turn back.