MONDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2021
Our tribe: We spend a pretty good chunk of the weekend watching West Side Story (1961). We tried to imagine how the movie may have seemed to the many people who saw it in real time.
We were thirteen when it came out; we don't recall going to see it. But how did it seem to those who did? Also, how does it seem today?
As we watched it over the weekend, it struck us as surprisingly underwhelming. Its political / sociological messaging seemed to be captured in an exchange between George Chakiris' Bernardo and Natalie Wood's Maria, after Maria has suddenly fallen in love with somebody from the wrong group:
BERNARDO: Couldn't you see he's one of them?
MARIA: No. I saw only him.
In the end, we think that remains the ultimate message, even today. But we were puzzled by the way so many people swear by West Side Story (1961) as the greatest musical ever, a position we've seen widely stated by commenters to recent articles in the New York Times.
This morning, Slate offers an essay about Leonard Bernstein's politics at the time the film appeared. Simultaneously, Slate offers a portrait of our own self-impressed tribe with a rather typical onslaught of surrounding articles.
No, we aren't making this up. We've cited this syndrome before:
ELISA SHOENBERGER / DEC 13, 2021 / 5:45 AM
Go Ahead, Call Your Dog Your “Fur Baby." Science Supports You.
DANIEL WORTEL-LONDON / DEC 13, 2021 / 5:50 AM
Conservatives Say Liberals Want West Side Story to Be "Woke Side Story." The Real History of Its Politics Is Much Stranger.
STACIA L. BROWN / DEC 13, 2021 / 5:55 AM
How Do I Tell My Parents About My Boyfriend?
STACIA L. BROWN / DEC 13, 2021 / 6:00 AM
Dear Care and Feeding: Should I Tell My Girlfriend’s Kids The Truth About Their Father?
How to Do It / DEC 13, 2021 / 6:00 AM
The Absolute Worst Trend in Dating Now Is Really Getting To Me
EMILY WILLINGHAM / DEC 13, 2021 / 8:00 AMWhy Brain Games, Supplements and Other Cognition Boosters Can't Fulfill Their Promises
As we started typing this report, those were six of the last seven articles published by Slate. They supplemented similar fare from yesterday morning, including "Is What I Just Did Really 'Cheating' on My Boyfriend?" and Amanda Ripley's meatier piece, "How To Bounce Back From a Bad Dog Experience."
Let's stick with movie imagery! The article about West Side Story seems to be hiding among the others, as E.T. once hid among the large stuffed animals clogging Gertie's closet. Meanwhile, the article about "cognition boosters" almost seems like a bit of peak irony, perhaps like an inside joke.
We assume this relentless flood of pap represents what Slate has to do, on a daily basis, in order to keep its doors open. Meanwhile, when we clicked on the piece about West Side Story, we found an over-intellectualized, fuzzy essay by a (roughly 34-year-old) eternal graduate student.
For the record, Daniel Wortel-London is plainly a good, decent person. Near the end of his piece, he says this:
WORTEL-LONDON (12/13/21): For most of my life, I rushed to West Side Story’s defense. Lonely, introverted, fearful of conflict, I looked to the burning chords of West Side Story like I looked to Whitman’s poetry or New York’s public spaces—as hymns to the possibility of communication across divisions. To criticize West Side Story’s treatment of empathy and understanding as naïve—or worse, malevolent—was to confirm my personal isolation, and foreclose the civic potential of urban life. I recognize the vehemence with which defenders of West Side Story rally to their icon’s defense. I recognize how the transcendent strains of “Somewhere” can hold the allegiance of humanists.
Wortel-London is thirteen years out of college (Ramapo, class of 2008). Beyond that, he's plainly a good, decent person.
He describes himself as a Public Policy Researcher | Project Manager | Civic Storyteller | Urbanist. He says that, for most of his life, he had been rushing to West Side Story's defense—but who's been debating West Side Story over the course of those years?
We don't have the slightest idea what Wortel-London is talking about at various points in his essay. It seems to us that his essay is unlikely to inform any useful debate about the value and meaning of West Side Story, whether back then or today.
It seems to us that Wortel-London's essay sails over the head of any useful current debate. Meanwhile, his piece is surrounded by the kind of low-IQ pap Slate relentlessly publishes, apparently in order to keep our self-impressed tribe coming back in sufficient numbers.
As our nation slides toward the sea, large parts of the conservative tribe seem to be losing touch with reality, or perhaps with Enlightenment values. It falls to us in our liberal tribe to keep our systems, such as they are, afloat.
Do we have what it takes to accomplish that task? It isn't clear to us that we do, but our self-impressed tribe, like all human tribes, tends to have a very hard time imagining any such fact.
Over the weekend, Kevin Drum offered a perfectly sensible post about a very basic question. He wondered how many Republicans—in the leadership and in the rank and file—really believe the current claim that the last election was stolen.
We thought Drum reasoned in certain sensible ways, drawing some basic distinctions. But then, the comments began to come in. We thought they were instructive.
The other tribe is routinely quite daft—but what about our tribe? How much faith can we actually put in our logic, our facts, our instincts?
We'll examine such questions all this week, starting tomorrow.
Tomorrow: Several distinctions
Film factoids: West Side Story was apparently the biggest-grossing film of 1961. It exceeded the second highest-grossing film (The Guns of Navarone, which we did see) by roughly 50 percent. Plainly, it must have been speaking to quite a few people.
In April 1962, West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Guns of Navarone was also nominated. So was Judgment at Nuremberg, which we saw, having walked to The Palm, and were deeply impressed by.
Regarding the box office race, The Parent Trap and The Absent-Minded Professor came in fourth and fifth. La Dolce Vita came in ninth! In more ways than one way, go figure!