Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winnipeg vs. San Jose

Film: West Side Story
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Before I started this journey, I had a track record with musicals. I don’t like them much, although there are some exceptions. If we disregard those exceptions, though, I had basically two opinions on musicals. First, if I’d seen it, I didn’t like it. Second, if I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t want to. Those few others were held up as the exceptions proving the rule that musicals leave me cold. I don’t like something that purports itself to be the real world, but contains choreography and orchestras evidently hidden around every corner. Of the musicals that inspired my wrath, one of the chief ones was West Side Story.

Oh, I know its long and storied history. I know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, and that it won a shit-ton of Oscars. I know that the songs are generally regarded as some of the finest in the history of musical theater (and by analogy, film). But I hated it, admittedly more on the general principle that it’s a musical rather than for any concrete reason.

So I’ve watched it again. I still don’t love it, but now I have reasons more sound than just it’s a musical and therefore icky.

Let’s start with the ending, and yes, I’m going full-bore into spoilers here. West Side Story has been around for 50 years, is highly acclaimed, and based on a story that’s been told for 400 years and was itself reminiscent of ancient Greek tales (Pyramus and Thisbe come to mind). If you don’t know how Romeo and Juliet ends (or for that matter how West Side Story ends), it’s your own fault at this point.

Bluntly, they mess with the ending. The whole point of Romeo and Juliet is that the star-crossed, tragic lovers both die, and do so from a misunderstanding. Maria (Natalie Wood) survives the film. She threatens to kill herself, but doesn’t. So this major theme, this significant part of the ending, is simply ignored. I’m not saying I want Maria to die; I’m just saying that her death is sort of an important part of the tale being told here.

Next, let’s deal with the fact that our characters here are, essentially, punks. These are not heroic characters except in their own minds. They are juvenile delinquents bent on fighting to protect a little patch of ground. And, of course, they seem to spend a lot of time practicing their choreography and singing as opposed to, y’know, doing gang stuff.

Sorry. But they are delinquents, with the exception of Tony (Richard Beymer), who has a job and has done his best to get out of the gang world. His gang, the Jets, is run by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and is made up of American mutts of various ethnic backgrounds, but all born in New York. The rival gang, the Sharks, is entirely Puerto Rican, and run by Bernardo (George Chakiris), who happens to be Maria’s brother. Of course, he is overprotective of his sister and most especially wants her to have nothing to do with the white kids, Tony in particular.

And there are some pretty good fights, and a bunch of songs that go around them. The Jets suggest one big rumble with the Sharks to decide who gets to go where, and Tony convinces them that it should be fists only, and only one member from each gang. Why? Because he is immediately enamored of Maria and she of him, and so he’d like there to be some measure of peace between the two gangs. Of course, everything goes wrong. Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills Bernardo, and then all of the Sharks want to kill Tony, who only wants to run away with Maria.

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the songs aren’t good, or that the dancing isn’t good, or even that it is poorly staged. It simply comes down to the fact that I don’t like it very much. I’m not a tremendous fan of the story, and that’s a big part of this. I don’t love Romeo and Juliet in terms of Shakespeare’s canon—there are a number of his plays I like a hell of a lot more. And that really damages my opinion here.

It’s also long, and could probably stand with a little chopping here and there. Perhaps a song here or there to get us to something a bit under 150 minutes. It could do with some trimming, although in all honesty, we could shave off a good 8-10 minutes by getting rid of the essentially pointless overture and unnecessary intermission.

Would I like it if I liked the story? Well, probably. The songs really are good, and it is beautifully filmed. In fact, the story is really the only place I can find real fault here. And that’s something that no film can overcome.

Why to watch West Side Story: It’s a classic musical for a reason, and it’s based on Billy the Shake.
Why not to watch: There’s that whole “it’s a musical” thing.


  1. When I saw your heading, I thought I would disagree with you more, but you're not too far off from me here. I agree that Maria should have done herself in. And Natalie Wood ain't Puerto Rican. But Richard Beymer in the lead is not as bad as some say he is. And I'm real fond of the music. There are so many great songs, America, Officer Krupke, When You're a Jet...

  2. Yeah, we're still in the heart of Hollywood racism when this film was made, hence the casting of Natalie Wood.

    I can't fault the songs--they're great. I can't fault the choreography, which is excellent. It really comes down to the fact that the story does nothing for me.

  3. So your response to "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" is... turn it off.

  4. I like musicals, but I don't like West Side Story.

    I've never understood the criticism of musicals that they are supposed to be "real". Who says? Is Die Hard supposed to be "real"? (Better remove the jumping off the roof scene.) Is Airplane supposed to be "real"? (Better remove most of the gags.) Is Lord of the Rings supposed to be "real"? (Better remove, well, everything.)

    I have no more problem with someone breaking into song than I do with the hero never getting killed in action movies, imaginary creatures showing up in SF/Fantasy movies, or the people in comedies not realizing how ridiculous they actually are. These are just features of the genres.

    On a related note, one of the actors on Lord of the Rings kept harassing the DP about making the lighting natural. He asked the DP yet again where the lighting was coming from in a scene and the DP, fed up, said "the same place the score is coming from". The DP was pointing out that pretty much every movie was fake because of the lighting and score, yet that doesn't bother anyone.

    Anyway, I don't like West Side Story because I just can't treat a street gang who ballet dances as tough or intimidating, thus much of the tension in the story goes away. (Not because it's not real, but because that particular kind of dancing is not associated with toughness.)

  5. I'll address that real/unreal problem as best I can, and I realize that at some level I'm equivocating.

    In films like LotR, I know intellectually that it's not real--but it is internally consistent. The film is consistent within itself--there is a sense of verisimilitude in that the world of the film works in a certain way.

    As for the score in most films, well, the score is there for us, the audience in general. It's non-diegetic in that it doesn't exist within the world of the film, but is there in the world of the audience for mood, etc. Since it is external, it has bearing on my reaction, but not on the characters or the film story in and of itself.

    But not in a musical. In a musical, the characters interact with the soundtrack in a real way, making the music a part of the film world, which for me causes an immediate breakdown in that verisimilitude. I always wonder when they had time to rehearse and where the orchestra is hiding.

    Essentially, that's my problem with musicals. I've found, over and over, that the musicals I tend to like are those that are obvious fantasy (The Wizard of Oz) or those in which at least a significant portion of the songs/dance numbers make legitimate sense within the film world (All That Jazz). There are exceptions, of course.

  6. @SJHoneywell - Action films have completely unreal sequences in them that the characters interact with. So do most comedies.

    I probably did a poor job of communicating my main point. It was that most genres of movies have their own set of unreal occurrences in them, all of which if you stopped to think about them would take you out of the movie.

    In real life I've never seen a car flip over umpteen times and the people crawl out okay, or a cop get shot then rip open his/her shirt to show everyone they had a bulletproof vest on. I was just saying that musicals are no different from those other genres. It's the stopping to think about it how unreal it is that's the key thing. If you don't do that, then it opens up a whole new genre of movies for you.

    Perhaps you just can't help it, though. If so, I understand. That's what shakycam does for me. It reminds me that there is a person standing there holding a camera on two actors who are talking to each other. The movement is no unnatural that it instinctively takes me out of the movie.

  7. Well, I did say that at some level I'd be equivocating. I realize that my disliking of musicals as a genre is in some part irrational. There are plenty I like--I won't, for instance, hear a word against Singin' in the Rain despite the fact that it often has the same "problems" as musicals I don't like.

    Ultimately, this may be my "shaky cam." I've never not watched a film because it's a musical, though. There are enough I like and enough I at least respect that I'll give each one a fair shake. I'm frequently surprised--I loved My Fair Lady and really liked A Star is Born. Surprised the hell outta me on both counts.

  8. I read your old discussion with Chip and it struck me that this was very much at the heart of why I disliked West Side Story. More than the Romeo and Juliet theme there is this complete clash between "updating" it to something modern and real (street gangs in a very real conflict in NY) and musical reality colapse happening three times a minute. It just completely lost me. The musical you mentioned are exactly the ones I like + some old Fred Astaire and Berkeley.

    1. A lot of it for me really does boil down to the source material. I realize that I'm supposed to think that Romeo and Juliet is romantic and special, but in reality, he's like 17 and she's like 13, and it comes off as just creepy. Updating it just updates a creepy story that, regardless of intent, is sort of the opposite of romantic.