Inspired by Buzzfeed’s list of the 17 ways that Rent, the musical about downtown aspiring artists that made $280 million and introduced a new generation of viewers — people my age — to Broadway, lied to us, I decided to fire up Chris Columbus’ 2005 movie adaptation of the show on Friday. The result was an epic bout of rage-tweeting, much of it about how awful the main characters Mark and Roger are, and how minimal the show’s self-awareness is. But my main reaction, perhaps an inevitable result of inching towards thirty, actually surprised me a little. The movie adaptation made Mark and Roger so cringingly awful that they awakened my inner troll, and made Benny seem like the closest thing Rent has to a hero.
It might be easier to side with Mark and Roger against Benny if the Alphabet City Avant-Garde outlined any sort of actual political program for their neighborhood. But other than protesting the emptying of the lot — not that they have any thoughts about the services available to their homeless neighbors — their main priority is that they be able to continue to live rent-free in the space where Benny’s letting them crash. Rent control and affordable housing don’t necessarily fit neatly into soaring Broadway numbers, but then, neither do discussions of ACT-UP’s work, and Jonathan Larson managed to pull that off. Maureen’s performance in the empty lot is a cynical re-appropriation of the residents of the tent city to draw attention to an incoherent rant against “Cyberland,” an incoherent assortment of things Maureen mostly dislikes because she associates them with Benny. Collins’ AIDS-related work is admirable, but mostly tangential to the plot of Rent, which addresses HIV diagnoses mainly in terms of self-confidence rather than policy or drug pricing. If Mark, Roger, and Maureen connected their priorities to a larger vision that was a real alternative to Benny’s, they might be sympathetic characters. Instead, they come across as supremely self-regarding.
It doesn’t help that they routinely come across as callous to actual working and poor people in their neighborhood. The poor, beleaguered waiter at the Life Cafe’s a prime example: Mark seems to think that he has all the right in the world to take up space in the man’s section without ordering, or to order food he has no real intention of paying for, without thinking of the consequences for the man’s take at the end of his shift, or how his boss might react to the waiter’s lenience towards Mark in favor of paying customers. Similarly, the homeless woman who calls out Mark’s self-congratulatory filming of her interactions with the police as the act of exploitation that it is, then exposes that Mark has no interest in helping her financially, reveals the profound limitations of Mark’s attitude towards his neighborhood as any sort of holistic entity. Benny may be less than polite to a Squeegee guy, but I’m more willing to forgive an act of rudeness to someone who’s actively getting in your space as an attempt to extract money from you than a general sense that goods, services, and people’s lives should be available to your for your enjoyment and artistic fulfillment. It takes a lot to get me to sympathize with a real estate developer over artists, but it says something about the way Rent’s stacked its deck that it’s not an unreasonable conclusion.
None of this is to say that Benny is a saint, or that gentrification is without consequences. His neighborhood redevelopment plan would be a lot more compelling if he was earmarking a number of truly affordable rental housing units in the buildings he wants to renovate and flip. But in the absence of an alternative program to root for, Benny’s plans to redevelop properties in the neighborhood are really all we’re left with as a vision for the neighborhood’s future that expands beyond Mark and Roger’s living room. “Days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing / The need to express, to communicate” aren’t actually in conflict with improving the housing stock in the neighborhood, or building a recording studio. And fetishizing poverty, both your own and other people’s, as some sort of necessary condition to creating art doesn’t exactly stand up to scrutiny.
And there’s an extent to which Benny’s plans for the neighborhood actually constitute a greater vote of confidence in Roger and Mark’s art than his former friends actually demonstrate. That Benny’s willing to invest in a recording studio suggests that he believes Roger and Mark’s work is monetizable, that it will be attractive to people outside the small circle of their friends, which is sort of sweet given what we actually see of their output. Roger, in the wake of his girlfriend April’s suicide, has stopped performing publicly, and is holed up writing “one great song,” a perfectionism that conceals that the song itself is actually derivative and terrible. Mark quits working for Buzzline in a fit of theoretically principled pique because “I need to finish my own film.” But it’s not clear that Alexi Darling or anyone else censored his work or killed any piece that he did. He’s effectively walking away from a chance at speaking to a wider audience and sacrificing the money that might let him make a better or more expansive movie. Even if Benny doesn’t have as much confidence in Mark and Roger’s work as he suggests, he’s still offering them a place to live for free, which is what they wanted in the first place. Given that Collins and Angel play with the dream of opening up a high-end restaurant in Santa Fe, it seems like the group’s problem isn’t really with the profit motive, or any other such principled stance, but with Benny himself. Blowing off Auntie Em, or the friend of yours who has a stable job, just for the sake of sticking it to the three-piece suits without any larger idea behind your outrage gets pretty silly once you’re as far out of college as Mark and Roger are.
There is, of course, the question of Benny’s affair with Mimi. The facts of their liaison are never fully established, but it is clear that Benny cheated on his wife, and when she kicks him out of the house after finding that out, he basically seems to accept his exile without protest. There’s no question that adultery is unattractive behavior. But of the two men in their mid-twenties who date Mimi, who is both 19 and a drug addict, Benny actually seems to conduct himself better than Roger. He may bring up their past relationship in ways that embarrass her, and imply that they slept together again to get at Roger. But Roger is unnecessarily hostile to Mimi when they meet, and he later slut-shames her and is hyper-critical about her addiction, and runs off to San Jose rather than support her or face the consequences of their failed relationship. Benny, by contrast, tries to get her into rehab. Nobody’s behavior in the matter of Mimi is purely admirable. But it sure reinforces that I’d rather deal with Benny, however flawed he is, as an ex than I would Roger. And I’d rather be friends with someone who consistently tries to do nice things for me, even in the face of my constant disdain and disrespect for everything about the way they live their life, than I would with a pair of ingrates who mock every life choice I’ve made, even as they benefit from my generosity.
Maybe it’s just that I’m older than I was when I heard the original cast recording for Rent, which a friend had taped for me off her CD version. Maybe it’s that the idea of even finding affordable rent in Manhattan seems like such a precious dream now that the idea of getting het up over the end of free housing seems impossibly selfish. Or maybe it’s that I know that bohemia involves more than video cameras and ATMs with the ability to spit out free cash if you happen to have the appropriate code. I know I might get priced out of the new neighborhood that Benny’s contributing to building, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live in Mark and Roger’s selfish little dreamworld either.