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However, the film adaptation of Rent Chris Columbus, has not enjoyed the same enduring popularity of the stage musical. The film has instead attracted little interest, particularly as an example of the contemporary musical genre, eclipsed by the success of more popular films like Moulin Rouge! Baz Luhrmann, or Mamma Mia! Phyllida Lloyd, , because of their bigger box office grosses, star names, and authorial style.
In this article, I will recuperate Rent as a contemporary American film musical, reflecting especially on the interdependence between the forms of this genre and the representation of gender in the movie. Since the early s, the American film musical has been increasingly concerned with subjectivities that escape heteronormative binaries through a performance of gender that asserts more fluid gender positions Butler, Gender Trouble. I argue that this representation is directly connected to a change in the forms of the musical, such as a remapping of its classic chronotopes to reflect this fluidity.
Through the analysis of some of the musical numbers of the film, I will show how the focus of Rent on a specifically contextualized queer subculture, a group of bohemian friends affected by the AIDS epidemic and the gentrification of the East Village at the end of the s, contributes to the queering of time and space. I will start by considering how a linear, historical temporality, traditionally associated with heteronormative conventions, is replaced by alternative configurations of time, either as an intensified present Halberstam or as a sedimentation of different temporalities Freeman, Time Binds xi.
This queering of temporality is connected to a reshaping of space as subcultural place. The emphasis on the community, while typical of the folk musical subgenre as theorized by Altman , is here reworked both in relation to the AIDS outbreak and the gentrification of the neighborhood in which the film is set. However, the idyllic community of many classic Hollywood musicals is here conceived only as a utopian response in capitalist terms to the problems posed by society Dyer Taking into consideration this contextual shift and the reception of the film, Rent could be then interrogated as a text due to its historical significance and, particularly, as a sign of the process of mainstreaming and commodification of queer subculture.
In the early s, Larson started to develop the musical on his own through workshops at the New York Theatre Workshop, which had recently relocated to the East Village and was looking for a play that would speak to their new neighborhood Gioia. The show premiered there on January 26, to generally positive reviews and sold out performances, transferring to Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre the following April, where it stayed until its closing performance on September 7, On Christmas Eve , aspiring filmmaker Mark Anthony Rapp and his flatmate, struggling musician Roger Adam Pascal , are served an eviction notice by their ex-flatmate Benny Taye Diggs , now representing his father-in-law, a major developer who wants to transform their neighborhood into an arts hub.
Meanwhile, Collins Jesse L. Martin , a third flatmate, falls in love with Angel Wilson Jermaine Heredia , a genderqueer drag queen who saves him after a mugging. The group is completed by Mark's ex-girlfriend, Maureen Idina Menzel , a performing artist who is now in a relationship with upper middle-class lawyer Joanne Tracy Thoms. In the year chronicled in the film, the friends have to fight against the gentrification of their neighborhood, go through ups and downs in their relationships, and, most importantly, cope with the loss of Angel and other friends, all dying from AIDS.
Drawing from this definition, Michael Dunne analyses the chronotopes of the classical American film musical, noticing a difference in their construction between the narrative and the musical numbers Thus, queer time could be extended to various subcultures and alternative ways of life that escape the logic of capitalism, with its stress on productivity and reproduction, such as ravers, sex workers, and homeless people, all of whom could be considered queer subjects On the other hand, queer time could be understood in terms of non-sequential forms of time, as theorized by Elizabeth Freeman Time Binds xi , as an alternative to chronormativity, a technique through which institutions impose forms of temporal experience to subjects by making them seem natural 3.
Freeman also foregrounds the experience of queer temporalitites through erotic pleasure rather than loss and pain, as other queer theorists do Furthermore, this experience of time is connected even to those characters who do not identify as queer-gendered, thus queering them. Set in an empty theatre, in the film the number opens with a fade from black and 8 spotlights slowly raising over the stage. Gradually, as other sources of light are introduced, the main characters emerge under the spotlights, standing still in a frontal medium long shot.
Temporality and film analysis
As they start singing, the camera tracks in front of them, presenting them one by one. The whole number is filmed intercutting medium close-ups and medium shots of smaller groups, while the camera returns to a medium long shot of the group, this time from behind, in each of the choruses and, circularly, at the end of the number as the lights are dimmed to a fade to black fig.
This cyclical sense of time, conveyed by the repetition of this group shot in the choral moments of the sequence, is strengthened by the lyrics that refer to the succession of minutes, hours, seasons and years. Thus, the number evokes the cyclical rhythm of Nature, which, according to Bakhtin, is characteristic of folklore and myths, connected to space as a little corner of the world, and unified by the presence of different family generations, conveying a sense of temporal boundlessness directly associated with agricultural labour Hence, this pre-industrial folkloric temporality escapes the logic of capitalism in an analogous way to the queer time that both Halberstam and Freeman talk about.
Figure 1. This non-linearity is further supported by the choice of a different ending from the stage musical. On stage, all the friends gather together, with Angel returning to join them. Similarly, in the alternate ending cut from the film Rent , the tableau in fig. Thus, the circularity is actually avoided. At the same time, the lyrics of the song themselves offer alternatives to measure time, such as cups of coffee, laughter, strife, and love. Therefore, an institutional, abstract way to mark the passing of time is substituted by the materiality of repeated bodily actions and emotions that echoes Freeman's theorization of queer time.
After one of the attendees, Gordon announces that his health has worsened, the music starts, with Gordon seamlessly turning his speech into song. The camera slowly moves circularly, showing the members of the group one by one from outside the circle. Their medium close-ups are intercut halfway through the song with a medium long shot that shows the group together and Mark filming the meeting outside the circle, hidden behind the camera.
He lowers it only at the end of the number, connecting with the group. Still, Mark retains a liminal position that often characterizes him as the narrator of the film, neither outside nor inside this group, as, for example, shows the shot with its members in medium close-up that leaves him off screen, but aurally present through the noise of the camera. Thus, the urgency to live in the present is underlined by the context in which the number takes place and further stressed by the feeling of community created by the camerawork.
The participation of the whole company to the choral moments produces this effect on stage, which is here visually strengthened by camera movements and editing, connecting the characters and making the audience feel part of the group. The cinematic elements thus mediate the liveness of the performance for the cinema. A sense of community is once again invoked in the final part of the number by the opposition of Roger and Mimi, when the two melodies intertwine. While Roger is alone on the balcony, always shot from a low angle but from different distances, Mimi is shown in the street from a high angle, doubling his shots, at first alone and then supported, vocally and emotionally, by Angel, Collins and Mark, who join her on their way home.
All the friends are now reunited, singing together in a medium long shot while watching Mark's film, projected on the wall. The anthem becomes a definitive celebration of life, embraced by all the characters. Thus, through the experience of AIDS, loss and death, this form of queer temporality is extended to the heterosexual couple, and to Mark, deeply affected by the epidemic on a personal level, creating a sense of community, which is most typical of the folk musical, as I will explore later.
According to Altman, the use of dissolves in musicals is particularly relevant in creating connections between different times and places Most often, dissolves are used in the film to signal the passage of time, like daylight to night time, or the succession of days. The subjective recollection of the past then goes to write itself over the present, inevitably affecting it, and giving an insight into Roger's motivations, while determining his future. Soon it becomes an anthem of their disenfranchisement from mainstream culture and a further assertion of their community through a fire-rapid list of alternative practices, objects, and names that best represent their Bohemian lifestyle.
Although part of a longer set of names not directly associated with queer culture, this list of queer icons from different cultural fields, like literature, music al , film, and dance could be considered an attempt to create a cultural archive or historiography and, consequently, a sense of affiliation to previous generations of bohemians and queer subjects that span from the s to their present.
However, the continuity in time that generations guarantee is usually connected to chrononormativity and the family institution in a sequential way through biological reproduction Freeman, Time Binds Instead, here the list produces a non-sequential juxtaposition of different historical periods that generates a kinship among the friends in the present, going beyond the heteronormative family, as the repudiation of hated parents in the song signals.
This queer genealogy is rendered even more significant by the connection to AIDS. Even though the show debuted in , it documents the socio-historical context in which it was being written, a moment that is already in the past when staged. The association between AIDS and homosexuality in the media in the early s had a negative impact in the response to the outbreak during that decade, as Tamar W.
Carroll writes Homophobia and misinformation, paired with the gentrification of poorer areas of New York, often left people with AIDS isolated and without a home, while the closure of gay bathhouses and clubs by the Koch administration pushed the queer community to the margins ACT-UP was founded in in reaction to this context, pressuring the government to make treatments available to everyone through civil disobedience while giving the gay community positive visibility in mainstream media. Significantly, ACT-UP was very active in Lower Manhattan, where posters were often affixed to construction sites , stressing the connection between the disadvantaged life conditions of people with AIDS and gentrification.
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However, neither AIDS nor activism disappeared. Thus, the show functions as a reminder of a problem that is past and present at once. It could be argued that the film functions as a memorialization, celebrating the dead and the activists, leaving this moment in History. Nevertheless, the conflation of different temporalities that informs the film, and this number in particular, would allow us to read this as a reminder of a still present problem and the way it affects people in their everyday life, akin to the survival strategy already mentioned.
As George Chauncey documents, in the first part of the twentieth century, particularly in the ss, cafeteria society represented an important feature of gay subculture in New York, where restaurants and cafes were appropriated by queer communities as places of socialization, as alternatives to dominant culture Furthermore, cafeteria society continued a tradition already established in the Bowery at the turn of the century, when it was a centre of commercial vice, working-class culture and gay clubs, quite popular with the middle-classes as well While the lyrics create an archive encompassing culture and activism, the setting situates the community in a local tradition; both juxtaposed with the present and still living through the non-heteronormative kinship relations between the friends.
The shoot also features in two montages. Shots of the group, immersed in the bright white light of the projector, are alternated with the images of the documentary, which reprise the previous montage, until Rent becomes Today 4 U once again. The very fast editing portraying the friends ends on a slow motion image of Angel, making a gesture as if to conclude the story, before the final fade to black. Freeman argues that photography and film have been traditionally connected in their domestic use to the heteronormative discourse of family Freeman, Time Binds The family immortalized here by Mark's camera instead escapes this conventional discourse.
He also creates a connection between them and the homeless, who could be considered queer subjects for their alternative lifestyle, as already mentioned Halberstam However, there is a distance between the bohemians and the homeless, who are doubly disenfranchised by the process of gentrification of the neighborhood, as it will be highlighted later on.
This is particularly evident during a short scene in which Mark films a homeless woman being harassed by the police, but then receives a very hostile treatment from her as she thinks bohemians like him are just trying to exploit people like her to assuage their guilt. Therefore, while bohemians and the homeless could represent a united front against the dominant, heteronormative society, there are still differences between them, reflected in their negotiation of space.
This haptic relation that film privileges is most evident in the cinematographic process itself, as Freeman stresses drawing on Benjamin's conceptualization of mimesis The light has to touch the object to capture it on film, but what we see is just a trace of the object in the past that is no more, which could be recuperated through the repressed tactile experience of the body.
This relationship between light-object-film is most evident in the finale. The past and the present converge in the same moment thanks to the character that has acted as the emotional core throughout the film. The rest of the group is directly involved in this haptic relation too. Figure 2. Being haunted by these past presences means being open to the possibility of the return of the past and being inhabited by it, implying a traumatic pain Freccero Still, this interpenetration of past and present, and subject and object could stimulate queer jouissance as well Hence, queer temporality thus articulated further contributes to the establishment of kin relations among the friends in light of their common loss.
Dissolves connect the various moments in time, while the use of slow motion heightens the dramatic suspense, further subverting the linearity of time. Two shots of the group appear in the montage, intercut between those of Mimi using heroin and feeling sick. In the first one, a circular camera movement is employed once again to portray the members in slow motion, starting from Gordon. The movement is reprised in the second shot from where it left off. As the camera moves around, some of the friends gradually dissolve, fading away from the image to symbolize their death.
Time and space are thus connected, creating a community constituted on shared loss, an alternative mode of affiliation typical of subcultures Halberstam In Altman's definition, this subgenre realizes a kind of make-believe related to the wish to be in another time, most often a mythical Americana in the classic Hollywood musical At the centre of the folk subgenre, particularly after Meet Me in St.
Louis Vincente Minnelli, , there is usually a close-knit community as a traditional family unit, whose stability is symbolized by the family house, situated in a small town or in a city neighborhood in a time when everyone still knew everybody else However, later examples like Nashville Robert Altman, offer a more realist vision of the world rather than a mythical one Rather than the traditionally heteronormative family unit, here we find an alternative family whose kin relations are established through common loss, as already seen.
Thus, traditional family is substituted with a web of friends who support each other, with Angel caring for everyone both emotionally and economically. However, here the house itself is in danger, threatened by the gentrification process embodied by Benny.
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Then it is picked up in turn by Roger, Collins, Mimi, Benny, and the whole neighborhood. Hence, the song establishes a connection between the main characters, and between the neighbors, all united in the chorus against Benny. The first impression is that of a small neighborhood as in the classical period.
This is further confirmed in the rest of the film as the action mainly takes place in this area while the rest of New York appears only through some iconic landmarks like the Empire State Building. This focus then helps to create a sense of inclusiveness in a neighborhood where a queer subculture is strong.
While studio-era New York neighborhood musicals reacted against the anxieties produced by the contemporary socio-economic urban context with a sense of harmonious community Shearer , the tensions are on the surface in Rent. Although essential to the fostering of their kin relationships, Alphabet City is depicted as a tough area, reflecting the socio-historical context of the s.
The Lower East Side, the area south of 14 th Street, north of Houston Street and East of 4 th Avenue, has always been a highly contested neighborhood, as the different names associated with it, i. Lower East Side is traceable to the second half of the nineteenth century when the area developed, inhabited by immigrants from Ireland and Germany first, and then from the south and east of Europe, mainly workers at the nearby docks and in the local manufacturing industries x.
Loisaida is the name used by the Puerto Rican population that emigrated there mostly in the ss, settling on the eastern part of it, between Avenue A and D xi. The hippies and counterculture followed in the late s, renaming it East Village while Alphabet City, which corresponds to Loisaida as it also appears in signboards in the film, was named so from the late s by the artists who moved there xi. It is a utopian place that Altman directly associates to the formation of the heterosexual couple, allowing the characters to find their true selves and share the other's desires It can take different forms, such as the homestead, a European realm, the Hollywood lot or an imaginary place like Oz This concept also echoes many differently named, yearned for utopian places, whose opposition to the reality the characters live in is structurally central to the genre.
After the encounter with the homeless woman, they take the subway with Roger and Mark. While entering the station and then hopping on the carriage, Angel starts singing the song, then picked up by Collins, who sings a solo and dances in the middle of the carriage, occasionally joined by Angel, while Mark films everything and Roger observes them. The contrast between New York, symbolized by the dirty subway carriage, and Santa Fe as a dreamlike place where life would be good, with a restaurant, a salary, and free time to spend thinking about philosophy is echoed by the posters behind Collins's head.
On the other, a poster reminding people about health insurance, echoing the threat of AIDS. Subverting the logic of the classical musical, the number is not a duet between the heterosexual couple, but between Roger and Mark, in which they both realize what they need to do, with parallels and oppositions between Roger in Santa Fe and Mark in New York.
The shots of Roger driving towards Santa Fe and then in the town are characterized by warm tones, the yellow and light brown of the desert, and by the bright sunny light, whereas December in New York is depicted through the cold grey of the cement, the white snow, and the typical light of a cloudy day. While Roger and Mark are often seen from a similar distance, their shots, juxtaposed by the editing, are complementary in the composition, with Roger often occupying the left of the shot while Mark is on the right.
It is only at the end that they finally reunite embracing each other on the roof. At first, Santa Fe is a potential dream for a homosexual couple; then it becomes a place of self-realization for two male friends. Through the kinship relationship, the valley becomes a shared place instead of being exclusively tied to the heterosexual couple. Then what is actually the valley in Rent? When the neighborhood is in danger because of gentrification and everyone is dying because of the AIDS epidemic, community becomes the only utopian capitalist solution to capitalist problems As a matter of fact, the community of artists seems to be part of the gentrification process itself, as suggested by the relationship between Mark and the homeless.
Bohemians were variously associated with different groups in Alphabet City. On the one hand, wealthier artists were connected with the process of gentrification itself, striking alliances with developers, as it had already happened in the Village and SoHo Sites According to Neil Smith, artists contributed to the gentrification of the area and the displacement of existing residents in the s, even though they became victims of this process themselves at the end of the decade, turning to activism Moreover, they reinforced the image of Alphabet City as a subversive, alternative place, which was actually used by the gentrifiers to sell the East Village to the upper-classes Mele, Selling the Lower East Side It might sound cynical, but it actually reflects the shifting context in which the play and the film were produced and came to fruition.
From an off-Broadway musical born out of experiences very familiar to the creatives involved Tommasini , through the 12 years run on Broadway, Rent has become a film with a considerable budget, produced by Robert De Niro among others, and intended for a wide international release, through a process that is paradigmatic of the entrance of this cultural text into the mainstream, reflecting a different socio-historical context and the mainstreaming of queer subculture itself.
It could be argued that, through the representation of the beginning of this process, Rent addresses an issue that is still a source of conflict in , even in other New York neighborhoods like Williamsburg, where a similar commodification of bohemian life started in the s Zukin Schulman, who claims that many plot points of the musical plagiarize her book People in Trouble , sees Rent as an exploitation of queer subculture in the mainstream, particularly for the erasure of the role of lesbian activism and authorship Chisholm On the one hand, queer representation has increased in media and popular culture since then.
According to Eaklor, the AIDS epidemic has represented a turning point in queer activism and visibility , leading to important steps forward in the representation of queer identity in the media, such as the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres in , both in reality in an interview on Oprah and in fiction on her sitcom Ellen ABC, , or series like Will and Grace NBC, which featured gay characters among its protagonists.
American TV has been particularly perceptive in registering the shifts in gender politics and society, as the increased presence of queer celebrities and characters demonstrates. Moreover, the representation of queer identities on the small screen is starting to be more inclusive, as seen for example through the popularity of Orange Is the New Black Netflix, present and particularly of transgender actress Laverne Cox, who has been nominated for an Emmy for the show.
Nevertheless, an increased visibility, at least in numbers, does not necessarily equate a complex and in-depth representation of queer identity. As Eaklor cautions, only the lack of exploitation of non-heterosexuality by dominant culture would be a positive sign Similarly, New Queer Cinema has been co-opted into the mainstream as a niche market, as B. Ruby Rich, who first coined the term, lamented in Morrison