Friday, August 27, 2010

Film # 66: West Side Story: 70mm (Aug 26)

West Side Story

1961, 151 min.
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

with AIDS Services of Austin Happy Hour

Thursday marked one of the last events for the Summer Film Series at The Paramount. Before the screening of West Side Story on that day, there was a Happy Hour, brought to us by AIDS Services of Austin. The special admission ticket allowed access to the pre-show party (held next door at The State Theatre), which was complete with popcorn, soda, specialty champagne cocktails, a photo booth and all kinds of treats. Now, would your intrepid blogger go to such an event without his trusty camera to document? Not a chance. I was there, snapping away. Observe:

It was a fun time, and there was a lot to take in. In the photos you will see the healthy crowd that showed up, and the displays. There were simply incredible cupcakes by Austin's own Delish, and refreshments at the bar to go around. AIDS Services of Austin had information about their upcoming "Dining for Life" event, and the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (or, aGLIFF) also had a table with information.

I'd have to say one of the cuter things I've seen in a while were the "Pride Socks" for sale. Set up at a table, they had wonderful colorful socks of all shapes and sizes. the girlfriend and I picked up a few pairs: two for kiddos and one for her. What more can I say? They're tres cool.

After about a half hour of taking in the sights and socializing, it was getting close to the start of the movie. Walking back into The Paramount, we were astonished to see the large crowds. There were even more people attending the screening than I anticipated. A hole in front of the men's room downstairs wasn't deterring anyone from coming to witness this film in 70mm glory.

One thing I absolutely love about about seeing a movie in theaters is getting to experience the overture in front of classic films. Shortly after we took our seats, the overture started, and the house lights went to a half dim. Patrons found their places and the musical medley enveloped over us all, whetting our appetites for the dish to come. When the title sequence began, I was practically salivating.

I'll admit I had never seen West Side Story before tonight, so I had no idea I was in for such a treat. I was familiar with many different films from director Robert Wise, but my mind could not grasp how his style would fit into a sing and dance musical (I also have not seen The Sound of Music, by the way). Would it work? Could the man who made The Day The Earth Stood Still (NOT the Keanu crappy remake), The Haunting (again, the original), Run Silent, Run Deep and The Andromeda Strain possibly craft a musical?

The answer is a resounding"hell, yes." A modern (for the time period) retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, it is quite simply the most ambitious and grand musical I've ever seen.

West Side Story introduces the audience to a neighborhood run by the Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs. Basically the allegiance of the gangs depend upon one's ethnicity, since neither seems to have a leg up on the other from a socioeconomical standpoint. The Jets are a bunch of white kids led by a guy named Riff, and the Sharks are a gang of Puerto Ricans run by a guy named Bernardo. They all battle each other constantly except for when they're feeling harassed by the cops. Funny how they all play nice then. Both sides agree, however, that a big rumble should take place to establish supremacy of one or the other.

Now, as luck would have it, two people from opposite sides of the Jets/Sharks rivalry strike up an unexpected romance. Maria (Natalie Wood) is Bernardo's little sister, and falls for Tony (Richard Beymer), the best friend of Riff and former member of The Jets (the gang, not the NFL football team). Tony seems harmless enough, with his toothy grin and wardrobe that makes him look like a Century 21 real estate agent. But there is a great deal of concern for the two lovers. The strife between the warring factions may be too great to overcome; so they see each other in secret, avoiding exposure. Amidst all the singing and dancing, the situations grow more tense and threaten to break under the strain.

Watching the film, one thing that surprised me was that I was already familiar with most every song in the soundtrack. It was unexpected, and often very relieving. A "thank goodness 'Somewhere' wasn't originally done by Barbara Streisand" kind of relief. In addition, I had heard "I'm so pretty," "America," "A Boy Like That," and a couple of others as well.

But the familiarity wasn't limited to the songs alone. The crater left by West Side Story on American pop culture is deep indeed. I had watched references to the film in a million different shows without ever being the wiser. Off the top of my head, I could see this movie's influence on two Michael Jackson videos ("Beat It" and "Bad") as well as direct references in a Nike commercial featuring Maria Sharapova, an episode of "Friends" where Kathleen Turner played Chandler's transgender dad, and the rumble scene in Anchorman. Heck, I even remember Larry David carrying on about the "Officer Krupke" song in the last season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Oh, but what about the film itself? I thought it was fantastic. First and foremost, it was absolutely gorgeous to look at in the restored 70 mm print. It blew my mind how good this looked. The colors were so vivid that I could've sworn this was filmed this year in some digital IMAX ultra super-duper process in HD. A few times, I'd lose myself in the environment instead of the story. "Wow," I thought, "look at her window. It's like a box of crayolas!" Quite simply, it was beautiful. The superb direction by Wise only added to the process.

The performances are also top notch, but I found the Sharks are much more interesting as a demographic and in their characterization. Rita Moreno (an Oscar winner for this role) is great in her role as Bernardo's love interest, Anita; providing wisdom and a dark counterpoint to young Maria's newfound romance. And since I had just seen George Shakiris in The Young Girls of Rochefort a couple of weeks back, I was thrilled to see him in his Oscar-winning performance here (as best supporting actor). And, well... I've said it before, but it bears saying again, How great was Natalie Wood? Seems like everything she's touched turns to gold. Although I had difficulty buying her Latina accent at first (it at times sounded a bit like a "South Park" episode about Jennifer Lopez), she quickly won me over. She puts a stamp on heartache unlike any other actress I've ever seen. And since this is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, you know some bad things are in store.

From a sociological standpoint, West Side Story could probably fill a couple of textbooks. Of course, there are obvious topics like the class struggle that is subdivided between the two races, and the empty promise of their American life. I found it amusing also that the "Officer Krupke" song was a laundry list of excuses regarding the causes and treatments of maladjusted juvenile behavior. However, I was most taken by the gender roles depicted in the film. Yes, it was period accurate in regards to social differences of men and women that were expected. But what caught my eye was the strength of the female's roles in the picture, while the men seemed almost emasculated in their depiction (and lack of control). Although shackled by more weighty societal expectation, I could see that the young women (particularly Anita and Maria) seem more willing to try to take control of their destinies. Even a tomboyish little sister of The Jets wants to get involved in an attempt to stave off her own feeling of helplessness (but, alas, is always being sent home). The boys, however, behave in a more reactionary manner. Their actions reek of such desperation and disenchantment that street cred is all they have to live for. It's frustrating to see such self-destructive acts, and the feeling of powerlessness help feed the inevitable sense of tragedy that you see unfold.

As I try to keep my comments short, I feel I can not express the power of this film. Even the knowledge of Shakespeare's original story (a reeeeal bummer) can't dilute the joy of the songs and dancing. The choreography and the fluid camera movements make the screen come alive. It's all so incredibly dazzling and filled with exclamation. My senses were overwhelmed by the visual extravaganza of West Side Story. For never was a story of more whoooa, than this of a Juliet and her Romeo.

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