Screens Old clichés never die 

They just get made into movies. Exhibit A: Rent

By the time Hair made it to the screen, in 1979, the ’60s celebration of bell-bottoms and love beads seemed like a project in Aquarian paleontology. Rent, too, has had a history of aborted adaptations since its first performance on the New York stage in 1996. Yet, fervently seizing the day, its characters deny the passage of time. “There’s only now,” they chant repeatedly. “There’s only here.” As computed in the opening song, the now of Rent spans 525,000 minutes — from December 24, 1989 to December 24, 1990. The here is the scruffy eastern edge of Greenwich Village. Today, that New York City neighborhood is on its way to being gentrified, yet trash and grafitti clutter the movie set. The sidewalks serve as a bedroom for the homeless, a marketplace for pushers, and a hunting range for muggers. “I’m a New Yorker,” says one character in this nostalgic evocation of urban angst amid the Age of AIDS. “Fear is my life.”

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Some things never change: The young, the consumptive, the addicts — they dance, they sing, they star in bad musicals.

Rent revels in the camaraderie of seven destitute, young, would-be artists who reject bourgeois comforts in order to embrace what they call “la vie bohème,” and one another. Except for the lack of an Asian, they are an admirably multi-ethnic, sexually polymorphous coterie, and their exuberance is more infectious than the virus that kills one of them, a drag queen named Angel. “Bohemia’s a fallacy in your head,” says Benny, a former comrade who sold out to the world of getting and spending and now attempts to collect their rent. “This is Calcutta. Bohemia’s dead.” Yet Mimi, Roger, Mark, Maureen, and Tom cling to the Romantic myth that poverty is proof of artistic purity. The song that Roger (Pascal) takes a year to compose offers meager proof of artistic talent. Mark (Rapp) is an aspiring filmmaker, but the random footage he compiles would win no prize at Sundance. Mimi (Dawson) does erotic dancing at the Cat Scratch Club more to support her heroin habit than to court the Muse Terpsichore.

Rent
Dir. Chris Columbus; writ. Steve Chbosky, from the musical by Jonathan Larson; feat. Rosario Dawson, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martins (PG-13)

Playing a brief riff on his guitar from “Musetta’s Waltz,” Roger signals a sly salute to the operatic source from which Jonathan Larson drew inspiration for his musical. When Giacomo Puccini, writing in the 1890s, set La Bohème in the raffish Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s, the Bohemia of starving artists was already a faded cliché. Rent, whose spirited but seasoned performers are mostly 10 years older than their youthful parts, does not rejuvenate the fantasy of being young, creative, and indifferent to privation. It does convince a listener that its banal music is unlikely to endure as long as Puccini’s has.

In a duet of self-pity, Roger and Mark, who have chosen to opt out of the consumer society to live in urban indigence, sing: “We’re dying in America at the end of the millennium.” On the other side of the millennium, how might a viewer in Darfur or Haiti respond? Puccini’s La Bohème concludes with Mimi’s plangent death from tuberculosis. However, at the end of Rent, Mimi, on the verge of expiring from the combined effects of drugs and exposure to the winter streets, suddenly recovers. She joins the others in affirming the vitality of the present, crooning “No day but today.” For the moment, Broadway and Hollywood triumph over mortality. In the entertainment culture, no one dies of consumption.


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