Monday, November 28, 2005

Joe Singer's comments on "Rent"

I was very impressed with the thoughtful comments of Harvard law professor (and all-star brother-in-law) Joseph Singer on the movie version of Rent, so, with his permission, I have included them here.

I saw Rent last night and overall I liked it. I think that fans of the show like me have to cut Chris Columbus some slack. To turn the show into a movie requires changes. I liked some and not others but overall I found the movie very moving and mostly liked the performances.

I didn't mind his changing the order of some of the songs and I understand the decision to use dialogue rather than the song passages to do the words between the bigger songs.

Some things that annoyed me:

1. When Joanne talks about the engineer being 3 hours late, she says "he's 3 hours late." If I'm not mistaken, the original is "she's 3 hours late." That was really annoying for them to change; there is no reason for that whatsoever and the original made a point that the engineer could be a woman. That took me back and annoyed me.

2. The absence of the homeless chorus is understandable since it's such a stage device. But the chorus is crucial to the play and its absence fuels the sense of these artists being self-indulgent. The chorus in the play sings "Xmas bells are ringing, somewhere else not here" meaning "not for us." They appear several times in the play (4 times at least) making them central characters in the play. In the movie homeless people are only on the periphery. They are the whole point of the protest and their own humanity and agency are hidden in the movie while they are central in the play. So it seems like it's just these guys having liberal guilt rather than actually caring about the homeless as human beings. The presence of a group of homeless reappearing again and again on stage emphasized that their being thrown off the lot had human consequences -- like where were they going to go? The movie makes this issue peripheral and decreases the sense of urgency about their situation. Even if a chorus would not work for the movie, I would have liked some homeless person to speak other than the woman who chides Mark for filming her.

3. Showing Roger in an open convertible with the wind in his hair and standing on buttes in Santa Fe was just laughable. I liked the image of him playing guitar on the street, not making it in Santa Fe, but the scene in the desert made people in the movie theater guffaw.

4. I really didn't like having Mimi's song "Take me out tonight" start in the Club where she was dancing. Perhaps it would have been ok if it had been there for a few lines or so but most of the song was there and only gets into Roger's apartment at the last minute. On stage, this song is very funny and touching partly because the whole thing is sung to Roger, begging him to take her out. The fact that she goes on and on trying to seduce him is part of what makes him so angry. The song's place for me is the sense of her pleading with him to get him out of the apartment and that is mostly lost in the way it was done in the theater. I especially didn't like having half the song sung in the street on the way to his place, again perhaps needed for the transition from the club. But then I would have not placed it in the club at all, maybe starting on her balcony or something. In the theater, the length of the song allows Roger to start out listening but he gets angry over time during the song. In the movie, she sings only for a few lines before he blows up and his emotional reaction is not as believable. I really missed the sense of the song as her pleading with him, partly for her sake and partly for his. Also in the theater, the seductive moves are for him, not for the guys in the club; they are real not fake and the movie mixes this up and suggests that her seduction is fake; she is treating him like the guys in the club about whom she has no feelings, but in the theater version she really wants to get to know him and the moves are for him really, not just as any guy.

5. Why did they leave out the information that Roger's first girlfriend committed suicide when she found out she had AIDS? That was part of the reason Roger was so traumatized and had not left the apartment in a year. Perhaps they thought it was touching enough seeing her get the news but it's an odd way to sanitize the story.

6. I like the actor who played Alexi Darling but she was not sleazy enough. The show gives a sense not just that this is corporate America but that the show is really really bad, not an ordinary TV show. The selling out part is not so much about making money as making it in a way that makes it hard for Mark to look at himself in the mirror in the morning. The sense I got from the show was that it was like working for the National Enquirer, not like working for CBS or something. This failure to show the show as really sleazy helped to exaggerate the sense of self-indulgence of these guys rather than their commitment to their artistic integrity. The selling out point was weakened considerably if it was just about not making money or doing something popular; in the play, it's not just that Mark wants to do his own work but that he doesn't want to do something affirmatively bad; the movie makes it look like he just doesn't want to work for corporate America.

7. The commitment ceremony was not a bad touch but I really didn't like having them do the argument in front of all their friends and family. I had envisioned the song as an argument between the two of them. Having the family follow them made an emotionally wrenching song funny when it wasn't supposed to be. I also imagine the song being less a challenge from Maureen than an effort to go back and forth from being angry (take me as I am) and reassuring (who's in your bed every night?) and the way Menzel played it, very little of the reassurance comes through, but that may be because the music is so aggressive.

8. I really missed one of my favors songs/scenes, which is a song in the street that is a very complicated medley of songs (It's Beginning to Snow) between Angel and Collins, Roger and Mark, drug dealers and junkies, street vendors, and homeless people, and at the end they are all singing together in a very complicated quartet/quintet like an oldstyle classical opera. It may have seemed too complicated to stage on the screen or maybe Columbus thought it got get in the way of the plot or made the movie too long, etc. But this was one of the Xmas Bells songs started by the homeless chorus asking if others can spare a dime, and then lamenting that they would have no tinsel, no reindeer, and no room at the inn. This song also would have in some sense been easier to show in a movie than the stage because it involved so many different groups singing. And again the "no room at the Holiday Inn" theme showed the homeless chorus singing for themselves, drug dealers doing their damage, all at the same time Angel and Collins were falling in love, and Roger had emerged from the house for the first time and approaching Mimi outside the house. And again and again in the song, the homeless are saying in different ways they're not getting Xmas; they seemed to me in the theater both desperate and strong at the same time -- very human. The contrast between Xmas and their having no where to go and really having no where to go after the lot is rebuilt is manifest in the play and the movie makes this issue very peripheral.

9. It was exceptionally important to me the first time I saw the play (and afterwards when I analyzed it) that Collins's coat is ripped when he is mugged and Angel notes this by singing "you've missed a sleeve." The ripped garment immediately made me recall the "rent garment" which is the custom seen in the Bible with Jacob who rips his cloak when he believes Joseph has been ripped to pieces by wild animals. It is a sign of grief at the death of a loved one and foreshadows the deaths of both Angel (and Collins at some point after the play ends). It also suggest the meaning of rent as "torn" and the very few song (called "Rent") contains language stating that they feel torn apart. The last line of the song is "We're not gonna pay rent cuz everything is rent" uses different meanings of rent for the two words; the first is the obligation to pay money to a landlord; the second is the experience of being torn apart by forces in the world (the economy, homelessness, AIDS), as well as torn apart by grief. Not using the symbol of the rent garment in the movie is sort of incomprehensible given the title of the play/movie and what I believe to be its deep double meaning.

Things I did like:

1. Showing the support group 3 times instead of only once and having Roger show up at it as the first thing he does when he leaves the house after a year. That was really touching. I also really liked showing the characters disappearing as a prelude to Angel's death; having seen them all before and hear them speak and then seeing them disappear was very powerful. That was a change from the show that I liked.

2. Shortening the second act considerably. Since I don't consider it finished and the songs aren't as good, etc.

3. Showing how AIDS is central to their existence and their fragile and damaged psyches. Mark is afraid of being left alone; this is before the better drugs we have now and he can anticipate deaths of Roger, Mimi, Collins, as well as Angel. The only ones left will be Maureen and Joanne and as the ex-girlfriend that doesn't leave Mark with any real family. Benny is no longer family to him, and Mark is going to be alone. This doesn't come through that well in the film but the importance of family does.

I do think your reaction that they are somewhat adolescent and not sophisticated in blaming "yuppie scum" comes through loud and clear in the movie version. It felt much less that way to me in the theater because in a sense their Bohemian lifestyle meant that they were in a precarious position somewhat like the homeless people they championed. In some sense they were able to identify with the homeless and see them as human and sympathize with them in a way that Benny couldn't (or he forgot how to do this). Of course, they have options the homeless don't have; they all could emerge from their state if they wanted to do so, and that fact suggested to me the need for some response to people who do not have options. I understood the play to criticize 2 extremes; no property (homelessness) and absolute property ("any owner of that lot next door has the right to do with it what he pleases"). The message was not so much against Benny as against the tendency not to see the homeless at all or to see them merely as obstacles or as not fully human. The movie did a much worse job of humanizing them than than the play did and that was one reason the naivete seemed much greater in the movie than in the theater.

But I guess in the end I have to say that Columbus did ok; I knew the movie would be different from the play and since I'm a musician I believe in interpretation and this was Columbus's interpretation of the play and it was really interesting to see how he viewed it when he had the job of making it a movie rather than merely a stage production. He got to me emotionally even though some of the scenes made people near me laugh inappropriately (like seeing the wind go through Roger's hair on the mountain in Santa Fe) and interfere with my (and their) listening to powerful lyrics where Roger was realizing he'd been a jerk and decided to come back home.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Marin/Minow interview

Distinguished broadcast journalist Carol Marin interviews Newton Minow, former FCC Chairman, statesman, eminence grise, all-around brilliant guy and my dad.

Friday, November 04, 2005

IndieFlix: Host your own indie film festival

This site provides a place for independent film-makers to take their movies straight to the audience, without going through distributors or theater owners. Just pick the movie you like and they'll burn you a CD. No more multi-plex fodder just because there's nothing else to see.