Rent

Rent, a rock musical by Jonathan Larson, was first performed in 1994 off-broadway at New York Theatre Workshop and grew to demanding success by 1996. Still, 20 years later, Rent is a powerful and impactful story that touches hearts and lives despite the changes in time and culture. The show follows a group of New York City friends living in the shadow of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, and while this was a frightening moment for many in history, the musical presents a lasting message of hope, friendship, love and living life to the fullest.

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In 1995, AIDS became the leading cause of death in the United States, taking an all-time high number of lives. This musical provided a message that was so cathartic at the time being and still continues to do so, even if the viewer has no personal connection to the disease. In Rent, we are exposed to a large, diverse cast of different genders, sexualities, races and interests, with people who are both diagnosed and not diagnosed with AIDS/HIV. Although the disease is a central concept throughout the show, it is not the most prevalent. We witness characters attempt to make their lives meaningful, whether it be through pursuing a career or finding love. An event that was so specifically focused on a certain group of people was given an important message with this musical: we are all still people and we all have the same desires.

This epidemic tore people apart due to multiple reasons: death, misunderstanding, etc. Rent was able to show the other side of the disease — the side that brought people together. Roger and Mimi, a couple who had multiple ups and downs in their relationship, found true meaning and understanding in their relationship the night they discovered that they were both HIV positive. Angel and Collins, two strangers who met on the street, developed a friendship and love by revealing they both had AIDS and attending support meetings together. Characters like Mark and Maureen, who did not have AIDS/HIV, remained a strong support system and were allies to the infected community. The network that this disease created built lasting friendships. The best example of the strength in these relationships is shown when Angel loses her fight against the disease and every character begins to deteriorate a little. A scene so beautifully tragic reminds us that every life was connected. Even after her death, she continued to act as a link that brought their family back together as Mark dedicates his film to her.

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A time period filled with grief provided so much hope because of this musical. While we have learned of the power of AIDS/HIV, we should not neglect the strength inside those associated with the disease that allowed victims to persevere and continue to live life to the best of their ability. Rent sheds light on these people through beautiful songs, both sad and optimistic, and character development that reminds the viewers that a disease does not define who we are. We all come from different socio-economic experiences that have made an impact on our lives. The conflict in Rent is interchangeable. Because of that, we see Rent as more than just a production about AIDS. It is a production about who we are, how we cope and why that makes us such powerful human beings.

Elephant (2003)

Elephant is a drama film directed by Gus Van Sant that is based on the events surrounding the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The film follows an ordinary school day, introducing us to many different characters along the way. We meet Alex and Eric entering the building with weapons in the middle of the day and, due to the film’s non-linear narrative, see a flashback to the day prior and see what a normal day at school is like for them. Alex and Eric are two outcasted students who are mistreated by their peers. They become infatuated with the fantasy of killing those in their path in order to escape the reality of being rejected.

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Alex and Eric entering school before the shooting.

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The students about to begin looking for those left in the building.

While there are many interesting plot lines within the film, it is important to focus on the experimental nature of how the movie was produced. It is composed of many tracking shots of students going about their everyday lives, but also tracking shots of Alex and Eric running around the school with their guns. There is no narration of thought, which is extremely frustrating as a viewer, however the particular filming draws parallels to the graphics of a violent video game. As we see Alex and Eric walk through the halls from behind, it is very familiar to controlling a video game character. This only enhances the fantasy of the situation, leading us to believe that committing this massacre was an escape from their reality.

This idea of escaping reality is also found in Willa Cather’s story Pauls Case: A Study in Temperament. Paul was also a student who struggled to fit in at school and at home, so he made the decision to leave Pittsburgh and run away to New York to live out a new life “entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings”. Paul played up the part of his character, building his perfect fantasy by dressing how he pleased and spending money on fancy dinners and alcohol and thinking that he would finally be happy. However, this all changed when Paul realized his father was coming for him. His fantasy was coming to a close. In the end, Paul took his life in order to permanently escape the reality of the trouble he would endure at home.

While Paul’s fantasy ended with him taking his own life, Alex and Eric ended theirs by taking the lives of others (in addition to Eric also being shot by Alex). Their sexualities can be linked to their desire to escape what life had been for them, as Paul was outwardly homosexual. While we don’t know Alex and Eric’s sexualities, they do share a kiss in the shower together the morning of the massacre, which can at least be considered non-normative. An interesting concept to note from both the story and the film is that neither piece ends concretely: we do not know what comes of Paul’s death or of the massacre, however lives were certainly taken under unnecessary and unfortunate circumstances.

Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required is a memoir by seventeen-year-old Arin Andrews. Published in September 2014, it shares the many experiences Arin had growing up transgender. Beginning with stories about his early childhood (like loathing performing in dance recitals) and leading up to high school milestones (like going to prom), Arin discusses his gender reassignment and the struggles he faced while transitioning.

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This memoir does more than just speak to transgender teens. It resonates with readers of all ages and genders and informs them on what being transgender is really like in today’s society by providing a modern, honest and vulnerable journey for readers to relate to and does an excellent job on educating readers of the difficulties faced while growing up transgender, as well as on the transition process itself.

One of the most significant points in the memoir is when Arin begins his hormone replacement therapy. A reoccurring idea made throughout the text is that it’s extremely difficult to feel complete and comfortable with yourself if “the outside does not match the inside”. Arin refers to the day he started taking testosterone supplments as his “second birthday”, and notes that even one day after the first injection there were changes in how oily his skin was, how fervent his appetite was and how cracked his voice was. Arin said, “It was all happening – just one more step to becoming the person I was meant to be.” Casey Plett, the author of “Balls Out: A Column on Being Transgendered”, also recounts in one of her articles the stretching ritual that became a part of her daily life. She said that likes to stretch out before and after she goes to sleep in order to feel the difference in her body that was due to her hormone pills. “It’s an added pleasure to the bookends of my day now,” she says. Moments like these, coming from real-life people in the transgender community, help best explain to anyone their simply joys and desire to feel perfectly comfortable in their own bodies.

Arin has a story that is not uncommon. The transgender community continues to grow and has been getting a lot of coverage for some time now. Arin and his ex-girlfriend Katie Hill received a ton of media attention for being a trans couple (more specifically a trans couple that was “safe for the masses – white, telegenic and heteronormative”). Arin noted that it bothered him that no one was interested in filming any of the other trans teens in his community, but at least they were getting the conversation started on a larger scale. It’s important to reflect on the fact that Arin is neither a fictional character nor a prominent member in society. As discussed in class, Caitlyn Jenner has nearly become the face of the trans community, and her story is one that is difficult to relate to being that she has lived her life in the spotlight. Although Arin and Katie’s lives were certainly glamourized, it’s important to recognize them as more suitable advocate for the trans community simply because of how relatable and raw their journeys have been.

Below is an interview Barcroft TV held with Arin and Katie about their transitions and relationship.