MONDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2021
What's wrong with West Side Story / with Lara Logan?: For whatever reason, Steven Spielberg has filmed a remake of West Side Story, the Broadway musical which became a Hollywood smash in 1961.
Concerning the original film, we quote the leading authority:
"Released on October 18, 1961, the film received high praise from critics and viewers, and became the highest-grossing film of 1961. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture, becoming the record holder for the most wins for a musical."
And so on, from there.
We don't know why Spielberg decided to do a remake. Nor are we entirely clear on what is now supposed to have been wrong with the original film, though such complaints do exist, and some may be perfectly valid.
Yesterday, the New York Times decided to tackle that second question. What was or is wrong with West Side Story—whether with the original film, or with the overall property?
The Times decided to tackle that question or questions. Below, you see the headline which appeared, and part of the introduction to the feature which resulted:
The Great ‘West Side Story’ Debate
Since its Broadway premiere in 1957, “West Side Story”—a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” and created by four white men—has been at once beloved and vexing.
Why does “West Side Story” continue to have such a large cultural footprint? Should it? Is it possible to be true to such richly emotional material and still be responsive to our moment?
We asked five experts to weigh in...
Inevitably, the New York Times had decided to round up the putative experts. According to the introduction, "Scott Heller, the interim editor of Arts & Leisure, kicked off the conversation, and it got going quickly from there."
That headline may seem to suggest that a "great debate" ensued. We'll have to admit that we found the "conversation" to be a bit underwhelming, and to be poorly formed.
The younger two of the five experts were most critical of West Side Story—sometimes of the original film, sometimes of the underlying text.
But what exactly was wrong with the property? The conversation, while highfalutin, tended to ramble about.
The clearest statement of fault appeared early in the transcript of the conversation. We highlight that statement below:
HERRERA: Unfortunately, my memories are wrapped up in a microaggression that has stayed with me since high school. My family is Dominican, from the city of Santiago de los Caballeros, and I am likely one of the only kids of Dominican descent who attended my high school. I remember when, in English class, a white classmate reprimanded me for not having seen “West Side Story” at the time, saying, “But aren’t you Puerto Rican?!”
DEL VALLE SCHORSKE: Ugh, Isabelia, that’s such a familiar story! In a messed-up way, your classmate’s confusion makes sense, because the musical itself might just as well be about Dominicans—it’s that general. I first saw “West Side Story” on a VHS tape my mom and I rented from the public library when I was maybe 9 or 10. I grew up in California, away from my Puerto Rican family in Washington Heights, so I thought I might find something out about my culture that I didn’t know before. But nothing onscreen—beyond the latticework of fire escapes—reminded me of the people or neighborhood I knew from frequent visits to New York. I finished the movie feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean—to me, and to the “average” American.
In turn, these experts graduated from Barnard in 2014, from Yale in 2009. When Carina Del Valle Schorske watched the original film, presumably in the late 1990s when she was 9 or 10, she ended up "feeling even more confused than I was before about what being Puerto Rican was supposed to mean."
Did this conversation among five experts produce a "great debate?" In our view, the conversation was utterly lacking in focus.
Based upon the published transcript, the interim editor of Arts & Leisure never asked any of the experts to speak with specificity about what was wrong with the original film, or with the overall property. The conversation ended with the two younger experts offering these remarks:
HERRERA: I don’t know if there is such a thing as a great remake, but I’m certainly hoping this version releases its grip on stereotypes, offers its more underdeveloped characters a bit of autonomy and perhaps provides more texture about the actual life and experiences of Puerto Rican migration at the time. And please, give us at least a few songs with actual Afro-Caribbean rhythms! A plena take on “I Feel Pretty”?
DEL VALLE SCHORSKE: I want it to flop so we can move on.
Isabelia Herrera voices a complaint about alleged stereotypes. She also hopes the Spielberg remake "perhaps provides more texture about the actual life and experiences of Puerto Rican migration" in the 1950s.
More simply, Del Valle Schorske hopes the remake flops. So ended the great debate.
(Meanwhile, what does "plena" mean? You can just click here.)
In our view, that conversation wasn't much of a great debate. In our view, it isn't even all that clear that it should be classified as a conversation.
It's entirely possible that Herrera or Del Valle Schorske could have produced a fully cogent criticism in a stand-alone essay. But the Times decided to round up three additional experts, resulting in a wandering array of observations and claims.
Was something wrong with the original film? Is the West Side Story property flawed at its very core?
We'd like to see a serious statement of such claims—but we didn't see it here.
Nor should that be surprising. Decades of work in the vineyard have left us wondering if we humans, as we exist at this time in this floundering nation, have the ability, at our highest levels, to produce anything like a discussion, analysis, debate, conversation or critique of anything at all.
(The difficulties of low-income schooling? The amazing cost of American health care? Have you ever seen those topics discussed? We don't really think we have!)
What are the actual intellectual attributes of our failing race? It seems to us that our highest-level news orgs are very limited in their abilities—but then too, a stranger set of manifestations also darken the land.
We'll start tomorrow with Lara Logan—with her latest observations about Anthony Fauci. Such peculiar manifestations are more and more common at this juncture. As part of the problem we just mentioned, our major news orgs rarely assemble teams of experts to discuss what this might mean.
The questions we'll be asking this week are these:
To what extent does "mental illness" mix with our remarkable lack of basic intellectual skills?
Also, what is the actual cognitive state of the human race? To what extent, as we slide toward the sea, are we modern Americans "the rational animal?"
Extensive branding to the side, are we humans "the rational animal" in any clear way at all? After all, as we've said for the past several years, it's all anthropology now!
Tomorrow: What Logan said