Volume 75, Number 31 | December 21 - 27, 2005

Villager photo by John Ranard

Posters by squatters and housing activists blanketed burned-out East Village buildings in the late 1980s.

In Hollywood ‘Rent’ remake, the East Village is MIA

By Sarah Ferguson

I finally went to see “Rent.” After hearing Lower East Side folk gripe — once again — about this Broadway musical-turned-movie ripping off local characters and tap dancing over the neighborhood’s radical history, I dragged my butt over to Chelsea Cinemas to see Hollywood’s candy-cream version of the East Village circa 1989.

But the East Village was largely missing in action. Jonathan Larson won a posthumous Pulitzer for the play, which used the East Village as a backdrop to explore the impact of AIDS on its young, multiculti characters — and the role of rising rents as a killer of “bohemia.” (“Rent” was conceived as a rock opera adaptation of Puccini’s “La Bohème.”)

But to anyone who weathered the Tompkins Square Park riots and heady gentrification battles of the 1980s, the play was always L.E.S. lite. Its “squatters” were really lazy rent strikers buying time to pursue art, elusive “fame” or oddball intellectual theories, and the only organized protest against the eviction of a shantytown of homeless people was a lame act of performance art that somehow sparks a riot.

Larson sampled actual people and events (and evidently the plotline of lesbian writer Sarah Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble”), but the bohemia always felt painted on. Still, the play version managed to look the part, thanks to set designer Paul Clay, who borrowed heavily from Lower East Side street artists — from the anarchic scrap metal creations of the Rivington School to the Xeroxed street propaganda of Seth Tobocman and Eric Drooker to the tiled lamppost mosaics of Jim Power, which were recreated on the ticket booths inside the Nederlander Theater.

By contrast, the movie is a flashback to nowhere. Although critics have praised director Chris Columbus’s “painstaking” efforts to recreate the old flavor of Alphabet City, anyone who knows the neighborhood is instead confronted with a made-up landscape of mix-matched locales. Columbus filmed most of “Rent” in San Francisco and Oakland, then pieced in bits of Loisaida back in to authenticate the scenery, sometimes to jarring effect.

The facade of the Marz Bar, that lowdown watering hole on Second Ave. and First St., makes a guest appearance but is digitally rendered to appear midblock instead of on the corner, near an improbably placed Wiz store. Vazac’s bar on Avenue B is remade into Life Café (belying the Vazac’s sign still visible on the side of the building) and there’s an F train subway stop just off Tompkins Square.

And no East Village loft ever had such high ceilings as the one the central characters inhabit, which looks more like an old factory building in Soho or Tribeca circa the 1960s. Meanwhile the favorite drug-copping spot of the junk-addled stripper Mimi (played by Rosario Dawson) looks like it was filmed after hours at the South St. Seaport (or more likely, a lot in San Francisco).

Ditto for the riot scene at Maureen’s ditzy protest performance, which takes place in a cavernous warehouse that never existed down here. Maureen comes off like an annoying cross between Karen Finley and Sandra Bernhardt. And what to make of the aspiring rocker Roger (Adam Pascal) wailing Bon Jovi style in a brief, car-commercial-like detour to the New Mexican desert to mourn his breakup with Mimi? These Hollywood folks can’t help themselves it seems. The impulse to dumb down and deliver a sanitized version of true grit is inexorable.

The reduction of the East Village into a series of bohemian-esque clichés is not surprising. “Rent” the movie is the apotheosis of the Lower East Side as Hollywood movie set, where the local residents are simply off-camera “extras,” and production companies are free to tow your car at will. (I remember them filming the “La Vie Bohème” scene outside Vazac’s and watching them blow plastic snow into the trees.)

It’s interesting that the characters in the movie are only truly fulfilled when they watch themselves projected onscreen in protagonist Mark’s 16-millimeter film, which simply plays back snippets of previous scenes in the movie like a grainy promo trailer for the flick. Given the overmarketing of the East Village as an expensive playground — or “entertainment district” — for wannabe hipsters, even these movie characters seem to find the celluloid version of themselves more appealing.

That said, it was a goof to watch Rosario Dawson belting out lines like “We’re not going to pay last year’s rent!” when, according to a recent New York Post story, she and other members of her extended family have been refusing to pay their $100-per-month maintenance dues at the former squat she grew up in on E. 13th St. Dawson made much of her upbringing in the squat in publicity interviews for “Rent.” Yet in this case, the reality of not paying rent was far closer to home than the actress might like us to think. (According to tenants, shortly after the Post story ran, Rosario moved out and gave her apartment to her brother, who tenants say still does not pay rent.)

Given Rosario’s real-life chops as a Lower East Side squatter babe, one wonders why director Columbus couldn’t muster a more authentic representation of the place? Why didn’t he cut in some in some actual footage of the old days, when there’s so much available? Perhaps he was just too cheap. Videographers Clayton Patterson and Paul Garrin both filmed the Tompkins Square riot and may have inspired the lead character of Mark, since like Mark’s, their riot footage landed on the TV news (the young Garrin even made an appearance on MTV, where he also got to screen his own politico work to the masses).

Both Garrin and Patterson say they were approached to sell portions of their tapes for a “Rent” documentary to be packaged with the DVD version of the film. But both declined because they say the production company offered them pittances for their work. (“They were offering like $200 for historical, unique footage, for a Hollywood release that’s going to sell millions of copies,” says Garrin. “It was a slap in the face.”)

That’s too bad, because some riot scenes or actual squalor would have injected a much-needed blast of reality — which was always lacking in the play. Despite the title “Rent,” Larson glossed over issues of class and the real estate battles that tore apart the East Village scene by pushing out many of the minorities, immigrants, artists and crazed idealists that gave this place its bohemian élan — not to mention the many homeless, who make a brief appearance in the play as the inspiration for Maureen’s self-indulgent performance crusade, but are virtually MIA in the film (there’s just one outspoken bag lady).

What was radical, if overly idealized, in Larson’s play was his celebration of gay relationships — both for portraying them as loving and enduring as any straight coupling, and for allowing gay lovers to intermingle, even overlap with straights in a web of friendship that many in Middle America still refuse to comprehend.

However cartoonish, the film’s embrace of gay love is more emphatic than I remember in the play, and the drag queen Angel’s struggle with AIDS remains quite moving — especially today, when the suffering caused by AIDS has been relegated in much of the public’s eye to Africa. For all its camp, Angel’s funeral brought tears from my eyes along with memories of the dear friends I lost here over the years.

So it felt like déjà vu when, riding my bike home from the cinema, I ran smack into a group of East Village folks headed to St. Mark’s Church, where a memorial service for longtime Lower East Sider Carmen Rubio was underway.

The scene inside was eerily similar to Angel’s funeral in the movie, which was filmed in part at Mary Help of Christians Church on E. 12th St., just a few blocks away.

In fact, it felt like watching bonus footage from the film, because in Carmen’s life lay the real story of “Rent”: How rising rents on the Lower East Side rent apart people’s lives and undermined the community. How rents robbed the scene of soul as the radicals, art-makers and dreamers were exchanged for the efficient worker bees of capital, who have transformed the tenements into pretty IKEA hives.

Carmen died of cancer not AIDS. And she had nothing of the lithesome curves of Rosario Dawson’s Mimi, or the angst of young filmmaker Mark. But she studied painting at the Art Students League and taught her love of filmmaking to neighborhood youth at the punk rock performance dive ABC No Rio.

Yet her primary passion was community activism. Alfredo Feliciano, Carmen’s partner of 23 years, described how she took him in in 1982, when he was squatting in the basement of an apartment building where she was living on Norfolk St.

Together, she and Alfredo literally risked their lives to clear out the drug-infested lot next door and transform it into a community garden, the Children’s Magical Garden, for neighborhood kids.

Yet even in their fiercest battles, Rubio remained compassionate for those struggling with drugs, because she knew how “our unjust system” had forsaken them, Feliciano said. “She had compassion for everyone. She was like the queen of hearts.”

As an organizer for the housing group GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) for 12 years, Carmen went to bat for literally hundreds of tenants to help save them from eviction. Residents of Umbrella House, the former squat on Avenue C where Rubio lived for the last decade, praised her as a fighter and outspoken house member who did her best to remain fair to all. “She was a teacher of activists,” said Matt Metzgar, a former resident. “Everyone learned from her righteous stubbornness when it comes to struggles for social justice.”

And while it might seem flippant to compare Carmen to a fictional drag queen, like Angel, she fought to remain fabulous and upbeat right until the end. Former GOLES director Donna Ellaby, who hired Carmen, spoke of her refusal to let cancer kill her spirit, even as it ravaged her body. “She was going around with this withered arm that gave her a lot of pain,” Ellaby recalled, “but when I asked her about it, she said, ‘Oh yeah, my arm, it just won’t get with the program. But look at this fabulous wig I get to wear!’ ”

Alfredo played a few songs for his beloved on flute, and Marta, another neighbor at Umbrella, sang her a Native American song, “Because she was a true warrior.”

But one of the most moving tributes came from Philly, a Lower East Side artist, who lived in a building that Carmen helped organize. Philly told the story of a Japanese Butoh dancer who danced until the moment he died because that is what he loved to do. Carmen continued to work, dragging herself into the GOLES office just two days before she passed on Thanksgiving, because, Philly said, “fighting for people was what Carmen loved to do.”

“I want to tell her it’s O.K. to go now,” Philly told the crowd gathered in the church. “Go, fly away. You don’t need to stick around with us in our cold, dark apartments. We can fight for ourselves now,” Philly said, then crushed the rose she was holding and threw the petals up in the air.

It was a wonderful blessing for a woman of such devotion. Carmen’s story won’t make it to the big screen — even if her name does seem worthy for a rock opera. But her life, and the lives of those she loved and fought for, is the real story of “Rent;” that’s the real East Village that people battled over.

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