In a world that deals almost exclusively in violence, our media should reflect it accurately, and tell the stories that humans are both hard- and soft-wired to accept. Our narrative-driven consciousness needs no introduction to suffering from a young age. The birthing act itself is hyper violent, rearing a child is bumpy, and letting her loose into the unforgiving wild is dangerous no matter the station. If one’s too rich: people snipe at her heels for a piece of the pie, and if one’s too poor, the street sucks her in with no discernible contempt. Somewhere in the middle, anonymous, is probably best. But it isn’t immune the hyperreal stray bullet from a gun, or the recently rebooted whip-viper of a particularly cruel tongue.
And a media that sanitizes the violence for consumption is the norm. We don’t let our children, whose brains are fluff, see a favela murder or a starving village. We conspicuously edit meaningful conflict from our stories to ease them, the children – the future – into adolescence. And this is commendable, to a point. If adulthood is soul crushing, let the child have a soul, first.
Film doesn’t have a soul. It’s a visual medium for movie “magic,” whose main concern continues to be visual storytelling. The color and movement need to sell the attention span of the audience, which is getting shorter. Quick bursts of violence and sex do this; familiarity with previous characters does this; violence and sex between and among familiarity is intriguing. But this is new, too. The standards have relaxed considerably where there’s no longer a visum prohibitum on what’s allowed to be shown on screen; visum in se is still true and is monitored by what a public will stand. Snuff, as violent as it gets, is not tolerated; neither is anything off-color involving children. Explicit sex is only moderately tolerated, as it is seen as niche, will get an unfriendly rating and killed at the box office; but mostly everything else goes in service of the story.
West Side Story is tame by rude comparison. It was written as an update to Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, and makes the conflict mostly racial. The Puerto Rican “Sharks” and Caucasian “Jets” are “gangs” of New York that argue over a nonsense turf battle borne mostly from boredom. Why they don’t like each other is unimportant. But they do dance-kill each other a lot. The choreography is purposefully flamboyant and it out-visualizes the heavier violence by design. West Side Story is, after all, a musical, and the point isn’t to overwhelm with violence but placate with song and dance. And this movie has famous music: Maria, America, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, Something’s Coming and this movie has lithe dance moves. It’s a visually compelling movie. The violence is an afterthought.
But that makes West Side Story sterile, superficial, and superfluous. The movie is family friendly because the violence is sanitized; but it’s not human friendly because it lies about what it is. The movie isn’t about racial tensions or love. It’s not a turf battle or a musing on society. It’s a story of the human condition, one that favors violence and primordial leanings. It’s not kill-or-be-killed: it’s die now or die later. It asks what hill you want to die on.
But it also doesn’t. West Side Story demands very little from its audience. It’s supposed to be fun and effortless. It’s a wolf in a tale of two cities’ clothing: it’s an Anywhere, USA that’s supposed to be New York. But New York is cruel, and violent. So it’s a New York City, Anywhere with dancing and redface. It’s disingenuous but it’s fun, for people who like their movies like they like their cultural impact: an acceptable other. The Overton window is small for what makes film great, and even smaller when hundreds of people have to decide the best film of the year. In 1961, the world whiffed a little and chose safety over honesty; red dye over blood. It’s not good enough, but it’s what we got.
West Side Story decidedly beat: The Guns of Navarone, Fanny, The Hustler, and Judgement at Nuremburg to win Best Picture and nine other awards, effectively pushing aside these films in Oscar lore. The winning picture is neither groundbreaking, incendiary, or particularly entertaining. It is hard to judge culture outside its context, but West Side Story does not hold its weight in the pantheon of film gestalt.