West Side Story (1961)

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If you know nothing else about West Side Story (like, say, your fearless blogger), you know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet.  Okay, I’m familiar with Shakespeare, so I have a pretty good idea of how this movie is going to go.  Somebody dresses up as a woman (and/or man), everybody gets married in the end, and a Fool sings in rhyming couplets, right?  Just kidding – it’s one of the ones where everyone is brutally murdered, obviously the best choice to set to music.

I know plenty of people who really love this movie, so I came into it with the cautious skepticism that accompanies any viewing of a favorite.  (Basically, I’m always expecting to be disappointed, both in the movie/TV show/whatever and with myself for being so damned contrary).  In past posts, I’ve noted my low to moderate interest in musicals, which is merely to say:  don’t expect me to go crazy here.

From the beginning, I couldn’t help noticing the filmmaker’s deep appreciation of color, as many of them as possible, in fact.  In the overture, I was half-convinced that something had gone horribly wrong with my television set.  Later on, there are moments that suggest someone went a little wild with the Instagram filters.  The Sharks and the Jets conveniently dress themselves in coordinating colors, like uniforms for their respective sports teams, which is honestly what they seemed like more than rival gangs.

Let’s just be real here:  it’s really hard for me to take a musical seriously.  I can’t immerse myself in a story about racism and blood feuds when somebody’s busting out into song every few minutes.  My attention flags quickly in the middle of a number, because I’m just waiting for something else to happen.  And sure, the dance choreography is pretty neat, but it just makes me think of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” more than deeply affecting emotional drama.

This also reminds me a lot of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  These were the sorts of stories that originated in an era when clean-cut preppies faced off against the greasers, and everybody had hilarious nicknames.  Sort of like hipsters versus everybody else today.

Though it’s certainly not the most egregious case of whitewashing in cinematic history, it’s worth noting that Natalie Wood is not, in fact, Puerto Rican.  Does it matter?  Natalie Wood was apparently the child of immigrants, so perhaps she could speak to the immigrant experience in some way.  Or maybe studio execs and America weren’t willing to see an actual Latina woman in a starring movie role in 1961.  How many are there even now?

Speaking of Natalie Wood:  she died in a boating accident in somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Also on that boat was her husband, Robert Wagner, and a man who later became famous for all sorts of other reasons – Christopher Walken.  Random trivia.

What more is there to say about West Side Story?  Well, I watched it.  Another iconic film from the twentieth century, probably on that list of 1000 Films to See Before You Die.  I feel like I’ve checked something off the list of shared human pop cultural references.  No, I am not an alien living among people and pretending to know your ways – that is, our ways.  I am completely normal.

 

Theme:  Whitewashing

First Time Watching?  Would you believe yes?

Final Verdict:  Let’s negotiate a RUMBLLLLLE!

 

The Deer Hunter (1978)

One of the most interesting things about this film is that, in a way, it’s really not about war much at all.  In fact, the screen time devoted to a wedding – its preparation, its celebration, its aftermath – far outstrips that spent in combat.  In fairness, war is the catalyst that drives so much of these characters’ actions, but the daily lives of these people, a close-knit community of Russian immigrant steelworkers in Pennsylvania, is what’s truly important.

I find myself complaining a little less about the length of these movies now that I’m a seasoned Oscar-film-watching veteran.  So many of them top out at three hours, and The Deer Hunter is no exception.  And yet, I didn’t struggle with the length of this one like I have with so many others.  Which is maybe surprising, considering how much of the first hour consists only of following a group of drunk dudes shout-singing at each other.  Voyeuristically, the viewer is plunged into the middle of the action without much of a sense of what’s going on, or who’s who, and yet, it gradually becomes clearer what the dynamics are between characters (even if one may still struggle with remembering names and faces…).

So much of the film revolves around this game of Russian roulette, which the guys first encounter in what seems to be a makeshift prison camp somewhere in Vietnam.  We don’t get many clues as to what’s happened to bring them to this point.  Instead, we focus on how they react under the intense stress of the situation.  Steven the newlywed can’t cope; he panics.  Robert DeNiro’s Michael takes charge, relying on the cooperation of his old roommate Nick for backup.  That’s when something changes for all of the men.

I mostly think of Christopher Walken as a cheesy guy, often mimicked for the sake of a joke.  The guy who appears dancing in a Fatboy Slim music video, who shows up in a wide array of films of varying quality.  But here he is tearing it up in a serious role that also happened to land him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Although the movie follows the law of Chekhov’s Gun (corollary: if a gun is used in Russian roulette, at some point, the gun will fire and kill a major character), it still manages to surprise in the meandering, unsettled way the soldiers’ lives resume after their service.  Michael doesn’t say much of his time in war, and yet he walks the town in his Special Forces uniform, mostly accepting the welcome return he receives from friends who stayed behind.  Nothing much seems to have changed for any of them.  And yet, not all of their number have come back whole.

War brings out an inner brutality in people that’s kept hidden in peacetime.  I’m not sure if it’s trauma or something else that triggers Nick’s transformation.  One shot is all it takes to kill a deer, Michael says.  One shot changes everything.  Big Buck Hunter this ain’t.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  Vietnam

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Fuckin’ A