Tuesday, December 14, 2021

West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)

Batang West Side

Not sure why people are surprised Spielberg has done a dance musical--arguably he's been making them throughout his career, from the deadly pas de deux between the colossal Peterbilt and little red Valiant in Duel to the lines of police cars snaking behind Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express to the Ferris Wheel strolling down a seaside dock in 1941 to the alien ships playing tag across the clear Wyoming skies in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg isn't just a master at shooting people dancing (see the USO dance hall sequence in 1941), he's a master at shooting anything dancing, from cars to saucers to Ferris wheels; the first time we manage to view the entire Great White in Jaws (after teasing us for about an hour) Spielberg cuts to a high overhead shot of the creature gliding smoothly past the fishing vessel (accompanied by John Williams' eerie harpstrings) and we see with an electric tingle shooting up our spine that it's about the size of the vessel. That's why the quip "You're gonna need a bigger boat" lingers so in memory--turns out Police Chief Brody was right. 

Helps that Tony Kushner explicitly locates the drama--Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim channeling Shakespeare--in San Juan Hill, the neighborhood soon to be demolished by Robert Moses to make way for the Lincoln Center (sidenote: this film premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, proving that yes even film producers can have a mordant sense of humor). The context--an early example of urban gentrification--helps explain why these gangs run so hot; one is reminded of piranhas going into a feeding frenzy--when trapped by drought in steadily shrinking pools of water they become stressed and desperate, and start tearing into each other. 

Critics note the dancing--Justin Peck riffing off of Jerome Robbins--but in Spielberg's film chairs whirl, ladders glide, benches tip up, planks of wooden floor explode in clouds of dust. Even the camera is as graceful a partner as Ginger Rogers, gliding spinning leaping high overhead or swooping low to the ground, often backwards. 

Yes Ansel Egort's Tony feels vacuous but I disagree with the assertion that he can't possibly look dangerous--some of the most violent kids I know have the face of angels, and are all of twelve. It's an unintended tradition, I suppose, to cast the blandest possible actor in the role--see Richard Beymer (to Beymer's credit he's since become an interesting writer, filmmaker, even actor suggesting yes there's life after West Side). But I ultimately find the lovers irrelevant: it's all about the struggle between communities, the different ethnicities wrestling with each other for territory and respect, and while the Puerto Rican Sharks are given due prominence (they form gangs as protection from racist attacks) even the Jets have their point of view (they have nowhere to go and nothing to lose). 

It's Spielberg working with lyrics by Sondheim and dialogue by Kushner, for once free of the cloying influence of John Williams (Leonard Bernstein being a marked improvement), deftly wielding his camera like a switchblade. It's Rita Moreno given the Doc role as Doc's widow, singing 'Somewhere' as the prayer it's meant to be--screw the pretty lovers, let's listen to the neighborhood matriarch long for peace, dammit. 

'Cool' becomes a game of keep-away only instead of a ball they play in deadly earnest with a gun; 'I Feel Pretty' isn't the cute words of an adorable ingenue but a spirited girl's sarcastic take on conspicuous consumption. 'Officer Krupke' the play's comic highlight moves to the 21st precinct and becomes an even funnier highlight, with furniture and papers and props coming to life (brief shot of a streetwalker locking herself in a nearby holding cell, to ogle the ongoing insanity). One by one Spielberg and his actors, Kushner and his 'Puerto Rican Talmudic prayer group,' even Sondheim pitches in to tweak what he himself admits is some of his least favorite work and yes the result is better than the original, not in my book a very high bar (not a fan of the director responsible for The Sound of Music and Star Trek the Motion Picture among other elephantine efforts).

And really the star of this picture is the onetime boy wonder behind the camera. Spielberg on a serious note is hard to take; he doesn't seem to have the sophistication or intellectual heft or emotional delicacy to take on issues of substance, despite collaborating with Kushner at least twice before (Munich and Lincoln being worthy productions marred by moments of either maudlin sentiment or hysterical angst), despite all the rather forced unhappy endings. Sondheim helps but really what saves this film lifts it above and beyond the 'Berg's recent work is the simple fact that it's a dance musical; it allows room for people objects camera to mill about and breathe; represents a chance for the kid prodigy (now some threescore and ten years of age) to cut loose, to (as Pauline Kael once put it) 'stage a cliche so that it has Fred Astaire's choreographic snap to it.' This in effect is West Side Story liberated from the hidebound proscenium arch, for arguably the first and definitive time--the musical's golden moment, as realized by a young-at-heart wizard in his golden years, before the final fade perhaps. As far as happy endings go, I've seen worse. 

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