Monday 10 January 2022

Rubble: "West Side Story"

Steven Spielberg was already into post-production on West Side Story when the world went into lockdown in early 2020. (His biggest headache up until then had been what to do with regard to star Ansel Elgort's alleged misdemeanours.) Clearly his take on the Jerome Robbins mainstay was never conceived as a post-pandemic pep rally; it would in any event be overtaken by the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, which had the good fortune of opening in summer 2021, when cinemagoers had confidence enough to return to the Odeon. It seems more likely that the American filmmaker most attuned to popular taste and mood circled back to this particular text amid the fractious disharmony of the Trump era, seeing in his source a potentially relatable vision of rival tribes and the perilous place of the immigrant in a divided America. It's not as if those issues have been smoothed over the Biden administration's first year, so in theory this much-delayed project could still have forged a powerful connection with its audience; the fact it hasn't - and not by a long chalk, becoming the closest in a while to a Spielberg flop - merits closer investigation. The new WSS uses the distance it has on its 1950s setting to offer a statement of sorts on post-WW2 America (for which those of us looking on in 2021-22 might read post-crisis America) as a place in dire need of a fresh start. It's written into the film from the word go: a masterful establishing shot that cranes over a billboard marking the future site of the Lincoln Center before the camera takes its place in the sky alongside the dozen or more wrecking balls looking down on the rubble of a New York slum being cleared. This is what the 2021 movie's gangs are fighting over; this is all they have left, a few square hectares of dead and dusty turf. As Riff (Mike Faist), defacto leader of these Jets, sees it: "I woke up to everything being sold or wrecked or taken over by someone I don't like. And they don't like me." Welcome to America. Welcome to the world.

Rubble has become a prominent feature of the Spielberg filmography in recent years: it was scattered throughout 2018's Ready Player One, a film I kept thinking of as West Side Story hoofed around the slums, although there it was pop-cultural, electronically recovered fragments of an earlier, simpler, shinier time. (Even as he enters his filmmaking dotage, Spielberg has remained ahead of the curve in certain aspects: that prominently branded pixellated bric-a-brac anticipated the much-discussed virtual avatars of last year's Space Jam: A New Legacy.) The recurrence of rubble in West Side Story begs the question of what it represents in this filmography (beyond, y'know, fallen masonry); one answer, I think, would be the remains of boomer optimism post-9/11, post-2008, post-2016. Well, boo hoo, you might say: the world turned out to be a far more complex and turbulent place than that generation who were handed comfy homes and cushy jobs ever imagined. Yet it's also - and this is where this West Side Story gets a little more touching - representative of a shift in Spielberg's conception of the American family unit. Gone are the comfortably middle-class households of the director's 1980s output; in their place, ragbag, asymmetrical, identifiably working-class clans and gangs with soot-smeared faces and dirt on the soles of their feet - and the idea is that these bashed-up gleaners and wanderers better reflect the demographic currently occupying the cheap seats. No mistaking the fact West Side Story is Spielberg embracing diversity in a big way: the overbearing whiteness of E.T. and Close Encounters, and even something as recent as 2005's War of the Worlds (more rubble), is far behind us. Yet in this respect he is having to play catch up, and to do so in terms he feels comfortable with: that's why he's reached back to a foundational text from his own youth (which, in turn, was throwing back to the Bard). The result is another of this year's awards contenders caught looking over its own shoulders, unsure what's next; the film is simultaneously progressive and regressive, which is a tricky startpoint for a musical, and possibly a bit too reminiscent of the limbo we find ourselves in as 2022 rolls around to fully function as escapism. At best, it's a retreat.

I write that knowing full well that one of the weaknesses with the source material is the sappy conception of the romantic leads, which is very late 1950s, has gone bafflingly unaltered here, and is one reason this landmark musical now plays as such a drag in spots: all its wondrous movement has to stop for the lifeless mooning. Had Spielberg cast performers worth mooning over, this West Side Story would have improved on its 1961 predecessor. But Elgort (as Tony) is a 21st century kid playing 20th century games: knowing; a bit smug, considering; one note away from openly winking into the camera. Rachel Zegler as Maria is better, while also being entirely doll-like, too pristine to be in any street-level way true. (Movie stars traditionally repair to their trailers between set-ups; Zegler looks to have been taken down from a display case, and it's a cruel joke on Spielberg's part to have her mimic mannequins while trilling "I'm So Pretty".) In the Heights, which for better and worse was very now, has the advantage here; it was also compact and lithe, where this roadshow-boxy film keeps giving the viewer time to ponder its flaws. The Spielbergian generosity sporadically pays off: "America", one of the great works of 20th century satire, is given expansive treatment on a Disney-Fox budget, and now fans out from a rooftop to touch the furthest corners of the Five Boroughs. And there's real, rare, cherishable craft on display, little felicities of blocking and composition - a particular achievement in a film where what seems like half of New York passes through the frame at one time or another. It's the plot that falls apart, because there's scant chance of us caring for this Tony and this Maria; the would-be tragic ending Robbins and company arrived at under Eisenhower now seems an even bigger anticlimax than it may have done back in Shakespeare's day. When the stage is too big, the people start to seem like rubble: that much was evident even as I watched West Side Story on an awards screener at home, several weekends on from the film's disappointing opening, with the multiplex having been ruled off-limits once more by newfound Corona. It's all rubble now, whatever's left from an era when the movies used to work as a mass entertainment medium. Once upon a time, though, these things really were worth fighting over.

West Side Story is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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