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Saturday, November 26, 2005



the first time i saw "rent" was at wolf trap. some of my friends had seen it in new york and loved it - i knew the experience wouldn't be the same at an outdoor amphitheater in northern virginia, but it was the only chance i had to see the show, so i went. i was so ready to be inspired, to fall in love with it - i was in love with dreams then, with quotable life philosophies - but instead of empathizing with the characters, i found myself judging them. at the time i wrote it off to the setting - the feeling of soft grass between my toes and the sound of chirping crickets made it hard for me to immerse myself in a vision of downtown bohemia. but watching the movie yesterday, almost 10 years later, i had a similar response -- for different reasons.

10 years ago, i judged the characters because i thought it was irresponsible to be an artist, to live so indulgently. i had trouble feeling sorry for them. plus, i was even more sheltered then than i am now, and embarassingly more conservative, and i thought, these people chose this lifestyle -- chose to do drugs, to have unprotected sex -- and now i'm supposed to feel sorry for them? why couldn't they get jobs if they wanted to? why didn't any of them seem concerned with anything beyond their immediate circle? (ironic that i so harshly judged self-absorption, since i reeked of it, and in less angst-ridden ways, probably still do.)

back then, i bought into the myth that being an artist meant indulgence, meant chaos, meant trouble. meant bohemia. ironically, a musical ostensibly intended as a love letter to art instead reinforced negative stereotypes of the artist as over-indulger, tragic, doomed -- narcissistic. watching the movie yesterday, 10 years older and wiser, i was outraged -- i thought of all the repressed artists who were watching, and how this would reinforce the popular myth that art is an either/or proposition - either you are an accountant or a dancer, a computer programmer or a songwriter, a teacher or an actor.

well i'm here to say you can be an artist in whatever damn way you please. sure, pop culture tells us that all artists must be freaks, lonely geniuses, obsessive abusers, reckless dreamers - and yes, there are artists who fit those descriptions, and some who wear it as a badge of honor. but since when did we trust pop culture as the fountain of all truth? art, and artists, come in all shapes and sizes. the impulse to create is part of the impulse of life, and some of us just feel that impulse more strongly than others - and we all express it in different ways. art isn't elite, and artists don't need to be tortured.

"the opposite of war isn't peace," says one of the characters in the show. "the opposite of war is creation." yes - so let's get more of us creating.

Since you brought it up, let's assume you are self-absorbed. Not to use it as a criticism, but just to point it out. I'd argue that many people who write about themselves and their world views are self absorbed. Self-absortion means concern primarily for oneself. Would that also mean difficulty to see outside of one's own experience? Point being, your experience gives you no easy way to relate to the characters. Does that mean they are inherently unsympathetic, or just outside your experience?

The way you write about the characters makes it sound like you believe they are being held us as role models or as examples of all artists. I haven't seen this movie so I can't say for sure, but I would assume that the movie (and musical before it) are portraying a group of people at a certain time with certain circumstances. These are their lives, not yours. As you wrote, we all express art in different ways. For some people it is tortured, for you, perhaps not. Not to sound argumentative, but why is your perspective on art any more valid than the perspective of the characters in the movie (or the writer, to be more specific)?

Sympathetic characters are a funny thing. I've heard many people say they like to be "challenged" by art. This can mean many things, including struggling to find true "art" in a movie or book where the characters aren't likable, make bad choices, or are in some other way repellant. I'm not saying that this movie contains anything like this, but I say it to challenge your perspective. Do you need to like, understand, appreciate, etc. the characters of a book or movie to actually like the book or movie? Do you *think* that you don't have to like or understand them, but find that you really can't appreciate art unless you do?

When I was in high school I read "The Stranger," by Albert Camus. It was the first book I read where not only did I not like the main character, but I didn't even understand him. His actions weren't rational, from my perspective. It was foreign to me at that age, but I found it fascinating. Since then, I've felt a great affinity toward art that challenges by presenting people that I simply shouldn't like. I'm not saying that my experience or worldview is any more valid than yours; I just say this to acknowledge a different way of looking at art.

You do bring up some points that I appreciate, but I have to ask: why assume that the appropriate response to the characters in "Rent" is to feel sorry for them, or even to like them? Why assume that there is an appropriate response?
Thanks for reading.
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