Thursday, April 16, 2015

no day but today

In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.

First of all, I'd change that ending to, well, ever; just cut it off at "the terrors of life." Forget the millennium; live this every day. Reach out to people, connect. Second of all, those were some of the final words written by Jonathan Larson, found on his computer after his death. For those of you not paying attention, Jonathan Larson wrote the stage version of Rent.

In his analysis of Rent, Scott Miller says quite succinctly (and obviously), "Rent is so many things to so many people." As it should be. As any movie should be. As any story should be. In Rent, we've got eight principal characters--Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Angel, Collins and Benny. We probably shouldn't identify with Benny, but hey, jerk landlords deserve to see themselves on the big screen just like anybody does, and in a not-really-that-bad light either, played by someone hot instead of, say, a fat sweaty guy in a dirty tanktop, as a landlord might be in some other movies. Maureen doesn't necessarily have much of a story arc--she remains a self-centered, narcissistic (and, though those two things may seem redundant, Maureen is extra of both, so they will both remain), sexual being. But, we can identify with her, or want to. Who doesn't wish she had the confidence of Maureen Johnson? For that matter, who doesn't wish (at least some of the time) he had the (seemingly) secure lawyer job Joanne's got? Of course, if you're a fan of Rent--a Renthead--you probably identify with Mark or Roger, a struggling artist waiting for a big break that doesn't also feel like selling out. Or maybe your life isn't going so well and you relate to Mimi, or (absent the drug problem, of course) you want to be Mimi. She's got some confidence, too. She knows who she is, even if she lies about it from time to time, numbs herself against it some of the rest of the time, and (seemingly) wants to change who she is. I remember the actress who played Mimi at the last production I saw had this amazing mix of wholesomeness and sexiness that I'm sure some women aspire to. Mark gets his big break (READ: sells out) and regrets it because he's not being true to himself. Who can't relate to that? Even if you aren't an aspiring artist of some sort. And then, there's Roger. When I first saw Rent, I could relate to Roger the most. Not because I was an aspiring singer/songwriter but because, well, my life kind of sucked. I didn't have an ex-girlfriends who "left a note saying 'We've got AIDS" before slitting her wrists in the bathroom."

(I'll reiterate, again, that the film audience doesn't know she killed herself. We might just assume she died, as Angel does, from complications related to AIDS...

(And, I've got to interrupt my interruption to make another point about the problem in translation from stage to screen for Rent. The example here is the transition from "Life Support" to "Out Tonight." In the film, "Life Support"--

(Let's just Inception this thing with lots of layers of interruption. I've got to say something about "Life Support" specifically. Movie version: Gordon says... No, let's start earlier. Mark introduces himself awkwardly, there's a brief bit of silence and then he Markwardly asks, "Does anyone have a problem if I film a little bit of this..." Then he adds in his Markward movie-version-douche-Mark way, "For a documentary." Members of the support group shrug. It's like they're dying anyway, why do they care? Which is a horrible thought to have, but that's how that shrug seems to me. And, that notion is almost the exact opposite of what this story is supposed to mean. Mark sits down, and things get underway. Gordon offers, "Yesterday, I found out my T-cells were low." Paul replies, "Well, what was your reaction?"

"Scared."

"How are you feeling, today, right now?"

Gordon responds, "Okay. Alright. Pretty good."

Paul asks, stupidly, "Is that all?" Seriously, there's no reason for that question in this version of the exchange. Gordon has not only answered the question three times, all of his answers were positive. Maybe you ought to back off, Paul, accept Gordon's day as "pretty good."

Still, Gordon responds one more time. "It's the best I've felt in a long time... months."

Paul really shouldn't be running a support group. I don't think confrontation is the way to go. He asks, "Then, why choose fear."

Gordon responds with the always amusing, "I'm a New Yorker; fear's my life."

Stage version:

Gordon sings, "Excuse me, Paul. I'm having a problem with this... this credo. My T-cells are low. I regret that news."

Paul: "Alright, Gordon, but how do you feel today?"

"What do you mean?"

"How do you feel today?" Paul may be repeating himself, which out of context could seem like the same badgering fella in the movie, but it comes across more pleasant, more caring.

Gordon replies, "Okay."

"Is that all?" The question works better here because Gordon has only answered once, and with the plainest of the answers. He has not already qualified his response for the better.

Gordon replies: "Best I've felt all year" which rhymes with Paul's reply, "Then, why choose fear?" The exchange flows better, and it doesn't make Paul look like a dick.)

Anyway, in the film, "Life Support" ends with a momentary silence, a Markward silence as, instead of lingering on the folks dying from AIDS, we linger on Mark and his camera, its handle winding to a stop. Then, we cut to an establishing shot, because movies need establishing shots. The city streets, the outside of the Cat Scratch club, because if we didn't see that sign we would have no idea where the next scene takes place, even though it has already been established that Mimi dances at the Cat Scratch club; hell, Mark even reiterated it when Mimi left her note on the window--

(That note is just another symptom of the movie script's inexplicable choice to expand the single night of Act One of the stage version into that night and the next day into the next night. There's got to be a good reason for that, but probably it's just to make sure we see even less of movie-version-douche-Mark because he can't sing "Halloween" (filmed but cut from the movie) without referencing that it was "one magic night" that got this story going... Here, enjoy some lyrics you won't find in the movie:

How did i get here?
How the hell....
Christmas
Christmas Eve - last year

How could a night so frozen
Be so scalding hot?
How can a morning this mild
Be so raw?

Why are entire years strewn
On the cutting room floor of memory
When single frames of one magic night
Forever flicker in close-up
On the 3D IMAX of my mind

That's poetic
That's pathetic

Those last two lines, especially--they humanize Mark so much more than this entire movie version does. It makes being Markward kinda adorable.)

Anyway, establishing shot then finally into the Cat Scratch club for Mimi to start singing "Out Tonight." And, don't get me wrong--I actually rather like the staging of "Out Tonight" in the film. Starting it with Mimi working, then having her walk home and feeling antsy about being home--"Can't sleep in this city of neon and chrome," she sings--and that gives us a fantastic glimpse into Mimi as a character, maybe more than just her dancing provocatively in the stage version does (even if it might be a blasphemy to say such a thing if any Renthead might read this).

My point, since I have not made it clear, is this: the smash cut in the stage version from the end of "Life Support" to "Out Tonight" is just one example of how the stage version shoves these various stories and characters--not just the eight principals but also various recurring homeless people--up against each other. One song becomes part of another. One story becomes part of another. Mimi needs life support, too. She thinks that means she needs to go "Out Tonight" but all she really wants is to find someone else to spend time with, to feel less alone. She sings in "Out Tonight" (in a rather awesome lyric, even if it is kinda depressing), "So, let's find a bar / So dark we forget who we are" but she doesn't need to forget who she is... Well, maybe she wants to forget she's dying, but that's not the same thing. Mimi--if I can play psychoanalyst for a moment--just thinks she's living by going out. She is trying to move beyond defining herself by her disease, her drug problem. Attaching herself to Roger (or to Benny, or anyone) is just another way to ignore the big Truth of her life. I'm not saying that she and Roger are not going to do well together; maybe they can connect with each other over their mutual impending doom and build something nice. That's what we want when we're watching the show (on the stage or the screen); we want them to get together and make each other's lives together because that's the point. To Rent. To life.

The slower transition from "Life Support" to "Out Tonight" draws a line between Mimi and everyone else. It creates a gap. Roger can barely close the gap there on stage. A bigger gap just makes his job harder, and the movie is practically asking us to look at these characters separately, and that is not what Rent is about.)

Where was I?

April.

The film doesn't let us know that she killed herself because that would be too depressing. Seriously, Chris Columbus (the director) said the scene of April dead in the bathtub was "too much." They filmed it and everything. If he was really worried about too much a) maybe he shouldn't have directed the film adaptation of a musical, especially Rent (but, let's move beyond that point) and b) maybe don't show us April in the tub. Just put more Mark back into the beginning of the film, give us his "close up" on Roger. Let Mark be more useful as our introduction into this world. Let him not be so Markward.

Anyway, I related to Roger when I saw Rent the first time, not because I was dying or had an ex-girlfriend who killed herself, but because my life seemed empty and I didn't want to go out any more than Roger does. Mark, for all his cute, pathetic Markwardness actually not only wants to go out, but does go out. Sure, he (perhaps) hides behind his camera, but he does get out into the world and looks at the people in it. For a while I could relate to Mark more, because a) I've written screenplays (and novels and short stories) and I've had no "success" with them (for the most part), nothing to write home about; b) I've got exes that, I'm sure, I would do favors for if asked; and c) I want success but don't really want to "sell out." I would love it if one of my novels got published properly, but I doubt they would ever be particularly popular or commercially successful. Their themes and characters are probably too outside the "mainstream."

But, this isn't about me.

Or maybe it is. It is.

Lately, I relate to Collins a bit, I think. He's a teacher, though we don't get a good sense of him as such. We know he doesn't teach like every other teacher. He got fired because of his "theory of actual reality" after all. And, I relate to Mark and Roger, aspiring artists who go unrecognized (and probably wouldn't know what to do with success they got it). And I relate to Mimi, but only in retrospect, because I know what it's like to make stupid life decisions because you think you don't deserve better than the thing that is right in front of you (and, not, I don't mean Roger, necessarily). I relate to Joanne, wanting someone (or something) but it remains just out of reach. I relate to Maureen, with crazy ideas that need to get out into the world. And--I shouldn't admit this--I wish I could flirt with girls in rubber like she can. I don't mean the "rubber" part as what I wish for, though that would be fine. I mean the flirting thing. I've been overweight for so long, and then I was married for a decade, that I just don't often feel like I deserve a response even if I do find someone to flirt with, dressed in rubber or not.

I think my pending divorce--though I tend to refer to my marriage in the past tense, and there is paperwork filed finally, I am still legally married, even if I have not been practically married for a few years now--might add to me identifying with Collins lately as well. I like that he seems to be okay after losing Angel. I like the idea that we can move on and still value the memory of things we no longer have.


(The problem with staging Angel's funeral as an actual funeral in the movie--and I'm not saying it wasn't, strictly speaking, a bad idea--is that Collins is alone when he sings the reprise of "I'll Cover You". On stage, Collins sings alone, but the group lines up with him as it goes and by the time it transitions into a reprise of "Seasons of Love" they are all together. Collins is not alone.)

But, that's not really my point today, is it?

I want to come back to Larson's lines at the top of this entry, the idea that we can learn from, well, not only people who are dying, but people who are living. From everyone. We should never isolate ourselves like Roger does, never numb ourselves like Mimi does. We need to get out there and meet people, talk to people. Live.

That's kind of been the recurring theme of this blog. It's a big part of Groundhog Day. It's been a big part of so many other movies I've watched for this blog or watched for life. It's possibly the most important theme you can take from anything.

There's only us
There's only this
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss

No other road
No other way
No day but today

I will end with this:

I need more than three days with a film to do it justice--

(For example, I haven't had the chance to get into, small example, get into why Benny's wife's akita is named Evita, or, big thing, what the title of Rent really means. Jonathan Larson's favorite iteration of what that word means was not the money we pay for something on, say, a monthly basis, or even a metaphor for that money (the effort we've got to make to keep what matters in life), but the sense of being torn, like one might rent one's clothes out of extreme anger or grief. Everyone in this film is dealing with big, emotional decisions about what their lives are going to be, who they are going to be with, or not. Everyone is torn. Like the final line of the title song: "Everything is rent."

And, rent is everything. Rent is what it takes to live life. Rent is what it takes to be together, what it takes to be... just to be.)

Hell, I need more than seven. I think, really, I need more than 365. Every film, even sad little things like The Room, teach us about film, about the world, about us, about life. I once wrote in this blog, "every piece of art deserves to be studied and broken down. Every piece of fiction deserves to be dissected until we know not just what it means but what it can mean." And, really, yes, every film can and maybe should be broken down interminably. It's a metaphor for life. Break it down. Explore its nooks and crannies. Get to know all of its players. Relate it to everything in your own life. And, be better off because of it.

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