Do you ever put in a DVD and cue it up to a certain scene that you've seen hundreds (if not thousands) of times? I myself do this with whole movies all the time, (for more on this, please see the "Gone to Bed" series here at Trash Aesthetics). But I am referring specifically here to certain scenes that you, for some reason, love to watch over and over for the sheer enjoyment of the repetition of the scene. If you're like me, my old roomie Fred or other members of our "Dateless" weekend Friday at Fred's jamboree (which usually includes stimulants and lots of "selective viewing") then you too have probably engaged in the practice of DVD scene cherry pickin'.
Well, in this new series of columns, I'd like to discuss one of these scenes that I refer to; I put it on occasionally and it ALWAYS knocks my goddamn socks right off.
West Side Story is certainly one of my favorite musicals (my all-time favorite is A Star is Born 1954); it has my ALL TIME FAVORITE actress in it, Natalie Wood, and it is sublime beyond the powers of descriptive prose in many regards. I consider portions of West Side Story (1961), to be cinematic perfection. The film not only aggressively tackles its literary progenitor - Romeo and Juliet, but contextualizes this theme into mid-twentieth century New York City and the prejudices and biases that seem inherent to cosmopolitan hubs like Manhattan. West Side Story does not sugar coat its racist ideologies, they are at the forefront of the entire film, providing the engine for its multiple tragedy, star-crossed lovers ending. Some may argue that the potency of these issues is lost under the weight of Bernstein and Sondheim's work, I would disagree adding that the messages of West Side Story resonate even more deeply in the contemporaneous American social and political milieu. 10 Academy Awards went to West Side Story, a monumental number - If I recall correctly it is in second place for most Oscar wins behind Ben Hur, Titanic, and most recently, The Return of the King which all have 11. Do I give a shit about Oscars? Not really, I merely mention it as a marker for historical significance, which the Oscar is surely representative of...
Like listening to the solo from a favorite piece of music or reading a passage from a favorite novel, the cueing of a scene from a favorite movie offers the same pleasures. The scene that I frequently cue up is the famous rooftop number "America" which takes place immediately following the local dance where Maria and Tony meet (John Astin is so great in that scene!). "America" is one of the most iconic musical sequences ever filmed, and for good reason. Everything about it is perfection. Rita Moreno (a Puerto Rican born actress playing a Puerto Rican for a change) owns the scene. Smoldering, steamy, oozing sexuality in her every move, Moreno begins the number with her "Puueeeerrrrto Rico, my heart's de-votion, let it sink back in the O-cean" and we're off and running. She elegantly and seductively GRINDS her way through the number trumping George Charkiris' quips and egging him on like a woman Toreador at every moment (one can EASILY see why she received the Emmy, Tony and Oscar all in the same year). It's hard to put into words exactly how the synergy works between image and sound during this sequence. The music and lyrics are spectacular, this is a given, but the choreography and visual sophistication of the scene are where Shakespeare would claim the rub lies. Robert Wise displays a deceptively "simple" approach to the scene and it is often in the "simplicity of things" where true creative genius can be found. The camera set-ups are numerous and edited seamlessly together, the color palette is made up of a variety of red, purple, pink, and orange pastels juxtapositioned against the dark backdrop of the city that never sleeps. Let's have a look shall we?
The Youtube clip is a very poor substitute for the cinematic experience that I discuss in this post, but perhaps, at least, it gets my major points across. I'm not sure how to phrase my next point as it is a tough one, but I'll do my best to connect the following thoughts with the topic of this post. Life can truly throw some horrible shit at you, after all, it is the bumps in the road that forge who and what we are and shape the contours of our character. I will deal with these issues the best I can and I suppose that's all anyone can do in the face of trauma of varying kinds and degrees - no tears, no major distress, just handle the situation.
So why is then that I can turn to mush from seemingly innocuous distractions like cinema, or tv, or whatever? I was watching Casino Royale two nights ago (see post below and WARNING: Spoiler herein) and I knew that Vesper was going to die, but when she did, I simply broke down emotionally. It's not that she was going to die, any idiot could see that coming (with pre-knowledge of the book or otherwise), it's the WAY they chose to handle it. On the page, it would read quite tragic, but Martin Campbell's visual elocution of the scene proved a potent punch to the gut. Trapped in an elevator, underwater, rapidly running out of air, Bond desperately tries to save the first woman he ever loved - despite her lack of disclosure about costly secrets and despite his heartbreak (I knew people that said, "ah hell, let her die" and I thought "Are you crazy? He LOVES her, He will ABSOLUTELY do everything humanly possible to save her!"). Separated by a locked rot-iron elevator door - thirty feet under the Adriatic, Bond reaches desperately for her through the gate, kickig and tearing the iron door - and Vesper calmly takes his hand, caresses her cheek with it and then tenderly kisses it - well ladies and gentlemen, I just fucking LOST IT there. Couldn't help it. I wasn't sobbing uncontrollably mind you, but I did well up nice and good. WHY?
And why is it that this scene from West Side Story (NOT a sad scene mind you) makes me well up too? I'll attempt an answer. To begin with, art - whether it be music, literature, cinema, painting, sculpture - etc. possesses great power; it binds us, exalts the soul, conquers all.
Eschewing any vulgar Marxist reading which would place these documents into a simple superstructure paradigm, I offer instead that the human condition has never been more fragile than it is right now. Our species has grown a bit soft in our major strides forward. Would we, I wonder, for example survive another ice age as our predecessors once did? Despite all of our technological and scientific advances? Or is it precisely because of them that we are far too reliant ON them? This is a simple question that has been asked before and by more sophisticated than I, but I think that aggregately we are a bit "softer" than our distant relatives. Emotional is the word I am eager to use here. And, whilst we navigate our lives with abandon and scorn for one another (I worked retail for years, trust me, it's true,), hurting one another, lying to one another, we build such armor, such walls, such fortresses around our hearts that perhaps the one thing we will allow in is the safe parasocial identifications we forge with cinema, television, literature, and music. I know that my love of Natalie Wood is never going to hurt me, beyond the sadness I felt when she died of course. I mourned Vesper's passing in Casino Royale, but only for a little bit, and not really. But, I did in fact FEEL something, which is better than feeling nothing at all. And therein perhaps lies the enigma I describe. Trauma and tragedy assault us and we are numb - but watch one "heartfelt" episode of Hanna Montana and, boy oh boy, the tears come. Perhaps by being affected by ONE - we are in reality, acknowledging the OTHER.
So, when I throw in America from West Side Story and marvel at the sheer, for lack of a better word joy (I would be tempted to say jouissance, but it's not that) it brings me, I am probably doing it to re-connect with myself and the pleasures and beauty that life can indeed offer.
Well then, until the next cherry picked scene, I bid you a sweet adieu.