I am not a critic. My wife thinks that I am, and she has good evidence for this belief. I have a music library that is obscene, a movie collection which borders on idolatry, and I am (in)famous for my collection of books [note: my Dad once bought me an engraving with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, which read "When I get a little money, I but BOOKS; if any is left I buy food and clothes." I'm not sure if it was a gift or a commentary. Either way it is proudly dispayed in my office at home, right next to the bookshelves]. Further, I interpret my world through these media. I value creativity, but I use the creative expressions of others to communicate rather than actually coming up with something myself. Additionally, I have an opinion on everything. So I sure look like a critic. But I am not a critic.
A critic, ideally, actually knows what they're talking about. And when it comes to music or movies I don't, no matter how much I try to bluff or mask. Like Charlie, the Catherine Zeta Jones character in High Fidelity, I'm always talking but never really saying anything, masking ignorance with boldness.
Yesterday we saw the movie RENT. I know, it's about time. We meant to see it when it first came out, but since our son was born we haven't gone out much. But yesterday we were staying with my parents in my hometown, Lexington, KY, so we had free babysitting. In fact, I think Mom and Dad (Ma and Pops, as they are now known) would have begged us to leave the house so they could have their youngest grandchild for a while without his parents (to whom he clings desperately) around to get in the way of their villainous plan to spoil him rotten.
A few years ago, when the musical RENT was on a national tour, it stopped by Lexington. My parents have season tickets to the Opera House, so they invited us to come stay with them and see the play. Watching the movie reminded me of how much I've changed in the last couple of years. The movie isn't much different than the musical, but the eyes that watched it were.
When I saw the musical I was still recovering from a bad bout of fundamentalism. I was no longer a "fundie" (what a lovely and condescending word), but I was still operating within that paradigm, having not yet discovered a new (old) way of being Christian. This paradigm, which was at the very least conservative and evangelical, colored my viewing of RENT.
As such I saw RENT (at the Opera House as a musical) as principally a moral argument. This involved two assumptions:
1. That RENT, like every work of art (as I saw it at the time) was principally a kind of argument, a propaganda piece. This is a common mistake made by those who think they understand religion and who certainly don't understand art. Azar Nafisi's wonderful Reading Lolita in Tehran makes this clear as she details the Iranian theocracy's approach to art. Art, in this mentality, is judged not as a creative expression but as a tool through which one communicates ideals in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. This is why "Christian" works of art are so often so bad. Rather than being creative expressions they are evangelical tools.
I saw RENT as a kind of inverse evangelical tool, a subversive piece designed primarily to undermine the values I still held.
2. The second assumption dealt with the nature of the argument presented; that it was primarily moral in nature. Like Mame, a musical which advocates that one tolerate anything but moral absolutes, I saw RENT as promoting a set of values which intentionally ran contrary to my own.
Because I brought these assumptions to my viewing of the musical, I never really understood the attraction. Sure the music was catchy, and sure the performance of it was both charismatic and inspired. But for me it could ultimately be reduced to an argument for an obviously destructive lifestyle. The final straw came just before Intermission, with the great tribute to/ funeral for Bohemia, La Vie Bohem. Couldn't these people see that they were advocating rebellion for the sake of rebellion, which would ultimately lead to anarchy and destruction? Sure I had rebelled against authority from time to time, and sure some of those rebellions were less ideological and more anarchical. But I wasn't proud of it. I didn't think I was right.
Seeing RENT again, this time in the form of Chris Columbus' magnificent film, reminded me of how much I had missed the point the first time. When I first saw RENT I thought that art needed some kind of explanation, some kind of rational account. I was even working on a comprehensive philosophy of art as "creative expression" with both a cognitive and non-cognitive content. But now I see art as something which humans do because we have no other choice.
In the movie RENT one of the characters (I think it was the film maker) says, "The opposite of war is not peace, it is creation." To the extent that art can be explained, this is a much better explanation. Art, if it is anything, is an affirmation of creation over destruction.
But more than that, art simply is. It is creativity for its own sake rather than for the sake of some noble cause. It may communicate, but it is not communication.
I once saw RENT as an ode to destructive living. But as a saw the movie I realized that perhaps it is instead an affirmation of life in the face of death, an affirmation of love in the face of judgment, an affirmation of creation in the midst of destruction. While there is a moral component to this (creation is obviously better than destruction, love is obviously better than judgment) it is not primarily either moral or an argument. It is simply an act of creation.
Most interesting to me was the relationship between these three pairs of opposites:
1. Life and death
2. Love and judgment
3. Creation and destruction
As RENT tells the story of people living with and around AIDS in New York City, death looms large. Some of the most moving scenes in the movie involve death. These scenes include the funeral of Angel (and if any character represents the affirmation of life, love and creativity it is Angel) and apparent death of Mimi, and the vanishing of several members of the AIDS support group.
But, in these scenes death does not win out over life. This is, of course, most obvious in the stunning resurrection of Mimi, brought back by a song, and the love of a dead friend. But even in cases where, on a literal level, death does win, it still doesn't win. This is because death is used by the living as motivation to live more fully, to love more deeply, and to create more urgently.
I could go through the movie scene by scene and bring out these themes within the context of my argument, but I am not a critic, and my purpose here is not as much critical as it is autobiographical. When I saw RENT the first time, as a stage musical in Lexington's Opera House, I saw it through a particular lens. When I saw it the second time (oddly enough also in Lexington) in the form of Chris Columbus' movie I also saw it through a lens, though it was a new lens of a different color.
We see everything through a particular lens or glass or mirror. The apostle Paul speaks to this when he says, in I Corinthians 13:12
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
In this dim (if not outright dark) time between "now" and "then," colored as our vision is by the lens of our own bias, dirty as the mirror is in which we see an image distorted by our own ignorance; what are we to make of our limited, biased, ignorant nature? How are we to live if we cannot affirm and impose absolutes?
These are questions which bothered me the first time I saw RENT. It demanded that I see homosexuals and drug addicts and transgendered persons as first and foremost persons rather than labels. And it demanded that I accept and affirm their basic personhood. To me this called me to deny the moral absolutes which were imposed on me by the church, and I couldn't do that.
My vales have changed, as has my approach to viewing art. As such, I can now accept the personhood of everyone without reducing them to labels. I can now love individuals without judging them based on their lifestyle decisions. And, I can- understanding that RENT is more a story set to music than it is a moral argument - have a fuller understanding of what it is that RENT communicates while also understanding that it is not principally communication, but art.
I am not a critic, and so I won't give RENT "two thumbs up" or "four stars" or any other such nonsense, as though we could quantify the value of art. But I can say that I liked it very much. And my wife liked it very much. It kept us under its spell for however long it lasted (time meant little while we were in the theater), and sent us home challenged with our changing but still limited and biased lenses.
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