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REFLECTIONS: AIDS for Rent
by Yasmin Nair
2006-01-01

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I recently attended a screening of Rent, the film based on the musical by Jonathan Larson. Given my cynicism about popular depictions of AIDS, I was unsurprised to find that it erases the massive organizing around AIDS by queers furious about government inaction in the 1980s. The activism of groups like ACT UP ( AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power ) led to significant shifts in policy and treatment alternatives, but none of that is apparent in Rent, which appropriates the group's name and part of its slogan ( 'Act Up, Fight AIDS' ) in one of its songs without a single pink triangle in sight.

Despite these and other flaws, the appearance of Rent brings two sets of narratives to our attention. The first consists of the fan material generated by 'Rentheads,' people who were in their teens when the musical appeared in 1996 and remain devoted to it. The second is the dispute between the estate of Jonathan Larson and Sarah Schulman, the lesbian novelist and playwright who has argued that Larson borrowed details from her 1990 novel People in Trouble. Taken together, these narratives form a cultural text about AIDS and the choices we make in remembering how the epidemic came about.

I was ready to dismiss the 'Rentheads' as unrealistic and obsessive people who love the glossy style of a musical about bohemian artists and AIDS without thinking about its content. A closer look and a conversation with a gay male fan, whom I shall call M., showed me why Rent's place in history might be more complex.

M. was 14 when the musical opened, and Rent was his first chance to see a mainstream cultural production that featured queer lives. M is aware of the issues around authorship and the representation of AIDS politics and is still a fan. Who am I to dismiss Rent as an inauthentic representation of AIDS and queer politics?

What makes for an 'authentic' queer text? And how does such a text circulate, or not, in culture? Those are the questions that emerge from Sarah Schulman's book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America ( Duke UP, 1998 ) , where she discusses her history with Rent. At one point, a writer at The New York Times, whom she calls 'Seymour', panicked at the idea of her taking on a Broadway success like Rent. Schulman writes about such naked contrasts between the power represented by big-budget productions and the smaller, lesser-known work by lesbians artists like her that are rarely funded. But she also seems to revel in both her own marginality and that of such work. Yet, surely the production and consumption of such theater by even very small audiences count for something. Does the marginality of a work mean that it is always without effect or influence? I came out to the images of Sadie Benning, whose films will never appear at a multiplex near you. But I know I'm one among many who can lay claim to the enormous effect of her work on my notion of queer politics.

Oddly enough, this is where Schulman's account of queer/lesbian art and artists has the most in common with Rent: Both texts espouse a narrow and 'bohemian' way of producing art. Grand pronouncements appear even if not articulated as such. Great Art Is Difficult and Unrewarded. The Artist Must Suffer for Art. Schulman characterizes her struggle as a David and Goliath battle against an establishment, and sees herself as a lesbian writer waiting to be recognized. I can't reconcile her self-portrait with what I know about her place in the literary world. She's widely published and her output includes acclaimed novels, plays, and cultural criticism and commentary. Her work is frequently taught in university courses, so there's always a new generation of students being exposed to her work, and she is not without her admirers. Sarah Schulman is no David.

The irony is that Schulman's argument about Rent eventually made it to the pages of The New York Times this October, in a piece by Jesse Green. Who, as it turns out, is 'Seymour.' In contrast, The Advocate, a leading gay magazine, ran a cover story about the film without mentioning Schulman. This reminds us that the forces that be, whether identified as the Establishment, Capitalism, or the Art World, don't inherently dislike certain forms of identity. They simply wait to see which ones prove more profitable at particular times.

So, given its commercial success and multi-culturalism, it's likely that Rent will become compulsory viewing for high school students and 'diversity workshops.' In an ideal if highly unlikely scenario, it will be accompanied by a reading of Stagestruck, thus revealing something of the tensions that surround sexuality and artistic production. It might also be accompanied by accounts of AIDS activism, including the work of groups like Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, whose struggles are different from those in the U.S.

Instead of a glossy and happily multi-cultural portrait of AIDS, people will see that any gains in access to pharmaceuticals have come at the cost of lives struggling against apathy and greed. And that protests against that apathy and greed, never seen in the film, were and are messy and brutal.

I don't always agree with Schulman, but she makes me think. Which is more than can be said about Rent, which requires you to stop thinking about the history of AIDS and only feel ... nothing in particular.

Rent is so unconcerned about the realities of the epidemic that it should be called AIDS: The Musical. It offers no more than a banal set of lines like 'No Day But Today' and asks us to love people with AIDS.

But what's the point of love or art or life without memory or thought?

Yasmin Nair, welshzen@yahoo.com


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