It was one of those days the expats where I lived called a “Bad China Day.” This was a day when the commonly high-strung population of our city on the South China Coast seemed unusually aggressive in their pushing and shoving and shouting on the streets — like the crowd of extras clustering to jump on that train in the first reel of Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS. It seemed as if every local person had the reckless energy of a young Jerry Lewis on a drip i.v. of Ephedrine.
My one wish at day’s end was to see people move in a self-possessed manner, with intention, clarity and (why not?) sexiness. Through this mist of yearning came remembrances of dancing clips I’d seen from WEST SIDE STORY. Though there had been plenty of chances, I’d never seen the whole movie. Actually, I was one of those who laughed at the old joke that only in WEST SIDE STORY could a guy run through a Latino neighborhood, shouting “Maria!” and only one girl would come to the window.
But dancing — serious, sexy dancing — was what my eyesight craved. So I ducked in one of the pirate DVD stores found through the city and purchased a disc of the film. (This was the year that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was banned from theater screens in China, yet anyone could purchase a pirated copy at their neighborhood DVD store for under a dollar.)
Back at my apartment, I poured a cocktail and started the film.
After half an hour I was saying to myself, “…oh…my…god…”
It was more than the dancing. It was more than the music or performances, or Robert Wise’s and Jerome Robbins’ direction. It was My Culture up there. A culture I knew and had almost forgotten.
It was a landscape of gangs, violence, and prejudice — played out in energy and impulses — layered with a particular brand of American optimism that (as usually happened in real life) was crushed at the end.
Later I thought my memories might have played too active a partner in my response to this film until last autumn, back in the U.S., having a casual conversation with a recent Korean immigrant and a Latina nurse born in New York in the 1950s.
The Korean was asking me for films to watch in order to understand America. Without blinking I recommended WEST SIDE STORY. I started to wonder if this was the appropriate choice when the nurse chimed in, saying indeed WEST SIDE STORY will help him understand the territoriality, the gangs, the prejudice he’ll be seeing in daily life.
When I presented him the DVD later as a gift, an older Asian woman who had lived in the U.S. for over twenty years complimented me on my movie choice for a new immigrant.
With all these voices saying the same thing, I’ve got to ask: is WEST SIDE STORY the great American film??
I’m not asking if it’s the best, but if — as an achievement of understanding, capturing and manifesting ideas and ideals — it’s the greatest film to come out of the U.S.A.
The popularity of the film within the U.S. is surprising, since its philosophy goes against many of the comforting fictions of the American Dream. Nobody gets what they want: Anita’s boyfriend Naldo is killed; Maria’s lover Tony also dies. Despite dreams of affluence in the song America, nobody will have climbed up the socio-economic ladder by the final fade-out. Even the power-wielders of the terrain — the cops — are still stuck in their dead-end jobs, pounding the same dirty beat.
Another film, GONE WITH THE WIND, equally held as a great American movie, is also a story of loss: Scarlett loses Rhett, Rhett loses Bonnie, Ashley loses Melanie, Melanie loses her life, the South loses the war, and on and on. Yet while GWTW focused on privileged adults, it’s the young and marginalized who are destroyed in WEST SIDE STORY. True, much of its tragic impact brings us back to the Shakespearean source material, but how did this translation succeed while so many other cultural migrations of the Bard didn’t? And why is this one seemingly beloved and treasured?
Could it be we know in our soberest moments that, despite the rhetoric of work ethic and social mobility, this isn’t the best of all possible worlds? Perhaps we only allow ourselves to view the underbelly of the American Experience when it’s lovingly, expensively delivered in cinematic wrappings. Does WEST SIDE STORY give us the catharsis of weeping for our cultural prejudice and violence and immutable existences within a safe and aestheticized environment?
Is it the great American movie?