Did I miss the nineties?

Spending the first half of last decade in a suburban Indiana high school wasn’t a bad gig: I got a good high school education, built up some discipline and leadership learning to be the bass drum line’s captain at the same time that I learned to play bass drum, and thought myself a bit of a bohemian (or at least a bit anti-establishment) as I took on a big part in the school’s “underground” paper. This week I caught up on what was happening on the east coast.

Rent

Mary and I rented this musical last week (did you catch that subtle one?), and I had big expectations going in. I’d read about it a number of times in the late nineties as a sort of Broadway manifesto for Generation X, a celebration of life and love in the time of AIDS. I wasn’t disappointed on that front; I recognize the irony of watching such a musical years after its run was over, on DVD, in my subdivision house, and Mary wasn’t buying any of it (she kept whispering to me that the characters needed to get jobs), but the effect was still there. The musical features an ensemble of characters, some of whom never had any luck and some of whose privilege has atrophied as they waited for “the big break” to land in their laps. At least half of the major characters have AIDS, and the second act moves along through one character’s death and funeral.

Every political drama (and most of ’em are political) has to have an “other” against whom the characters struggle, and this musical is sophisticated enough that the major characters never really identify theirs. At various points the “other” seems to be “the corporation” (though nobody is really certain what “the corporation” does other than close down tenements and co-opt young bohemians), at others “society”‘s indifference to AIDS (though the characters in the film don’t seem very activist about that). Indeed, part of what makes the lovable characters so frustrating is that they have the drive neither to get ahead within corporate capitalist systems nor to organize against them. Instead they live quasi-parasitic lives, getting decent jobs only to quit them months later or killing rich women’s dogs in behalf of other rich women for a few hundred bucks (I’m not making that up) or simply robbing ATMs for cash. The characters don’t live in a moral world coherent enough to do much more than survive. But they sure do sound good surviving. Jesse L. Martin (of Law & Order fame) particularly sings the heck out of the score, and all of the movie seems to work.

Angels in America

This one I read rather than watched; the multi-hour HBO version didn’t appeal to me. Angels in America happens a few years earlier than Rent, but the politics of AIDS still dominates the story. This one is more overtly political, the bad guys being Roy Cohn and the Republican party. Several characters in this one have AIDS, but hypocrisy rather than survival is the thematic connector. Louis, a gay secular Jew, spouts all kinds of quasi-racist theories and grand speeches along the way. Roy, the Reaganite power player, has had a number of secret gay affairs even as he’s pushed through anti-gay legislation. Joe, a Mormon who has struggled against his own sexuality and driven his wife to Valium by means of emotional abandonment, doesn’t tell Louis (who has abandoned Prior, his AIDS-stricken boyfriend) about his own anti-gay judicial career or his religion as they’ve developed a sexual affair. There are more characters and more hypocrisies, but those are the basic ones.

I’m not a big fan of partisan allegory; I like my politics a bit more nuanced. That said, this play breaks out of the liberal morality play in some very well-written moments, most powerfully when the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and Louis say the Kaddish over the dead body of Roy Cohn (hey, don’t act like I’ve ruined it for you–the power ain’t in the plot). The ghost of the (in this play) falsely accused Communist finally finds rest when she forgives the man who pulled the strings to get her the death penalty–if that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is.

Throughout the play there’s also a quasi-apocalyptic, quasi-Hegelian, quasi-God-is-dead motif running, and the angels of the seven continents do play parts, but I’m willing to trade Kushner the Brechtian stuff for his characters–they’re at once despicable and lovable, and as long as a producer leaves out the last, cheap-gag scene with Roy Cohn (I’ll leave this one a mystery), it stands as a complex and human exploration of power and (dis)loyalty and history.

Incidentally, Mary and I also watched Bewitched some time last week. Think of how dumb a movie based on a dumb sitcom starring Will Ferrell (I love ya, Will–go back to doing stand up!) might be. Yeah, you’ve basically got the idea.

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