Gee, I’m getting a lot of opportunities to write, “I told you so!” lately. But I won’t…
There is going to be a new film version of “West Side Story,” apparently to have one that doesn’t involve casting Russian-Americans (Natalie Wood) and Greek-Americans (George Chakiris) as Puerto Ricans. Of course, it’s OK for a white character to undergo a gender and nationality change because shut-up. This is, I believe, a doomed project, much as the remakes of “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” were doomed. Remaking a film that won ten Oscars is a fool’s errand. So is making any movie musical in an era when the genre is seen as silly and nerdy by a large proportion of the movie-going audience, especially one that requires watching ballet-dancing street gangs without giggling. Steven Spielberg, who accepted this challenge, must have lost his mind.
Ah, but apparently wokeness, not art or profit, is the main goal.
I am so glad that, based partially on this, I turned down an invitation to do a lecture right about now for the Smithsonian on the evolution of “West Side Story” through the years. For here comes the news that Stephen Spielberg, who has never directed a musical in his life on stage or screen, has completed his “improved” version with this considerate feature:
[T]o lend the movie an extra touch of authenticity, Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, made the choice not to subtitle any of the Spanish dialogue that’s regularly heard throughout the film. Instead, multiple scenes in West Side Story take place entirely in Spanish — or with a pronounced mixture of English and Spanish — and there’s no onscreen text to fill in the gaps for non-Spanish speaking viewers.
“Extra touch of authenticity”?!! Characters are singing their feelings in the film! I assume that, as in the first film version, they are also doing ballet in the streets. Musicals have no “authenticity.” But aside from that asinine statement from Yahoo! reporter Ethan Alter, the decision to frustrate non-Spanish speaking audience members by making dialogue from the book incomprehensible cannot be defended logically or artistically. What is the objection to sub-titles? It is not only beneficial to the movie to make certain all of the audience knows what’s being said, it is basic courtesy to the original author of the book (Arthur Laurents). What is the objective of this choice?
Divisiveness and to stick it to English-speaking Americans, it seems.
Here’s one contemptuous tweeter: “Steven Spielberg a king for not including subtitles in the Spanish dialogue for his West Side Story…very bold and non-compromising. Make these losers try and decipher what the boricuas are saying along with the rest of the Latinx.” Here’s another: “”Much to love about the new West Side Story, but Steven Spielberg’s deliberate choice not to subtitle any Spanish dialogue was his most brilliant decision. Cops and Jets gang members screaming, “speak English!” The real-world parallels to the American experience of today run deep.”
One choose not to speak English, or not to learn to speak it intelligibly. And then has chosen not to be hired for any job requiring clear and effective communication with the majority of Americans. “Speak English”? Damn right. If the new film’s objective is to discredit that basic obligation of citizenship, it doesn’t just deserve to fail, it deserves to be condemned.
Yet another tweet: “Also I like there are not subtitles when they spoke Spanish. The back and fourth between English and Spanish was so familiar ( in my house Portuguese) but you get the idea. That’s how it should be.”
Well why not communicate in grunts and clicks, then, or use pantomime? Lines in shows exist for a reason. Making them incomprehensible undermines clarity, and doing so to pander to Hispanics is obnoxious and patronizing. Not sufficiently pandering, though, for this tweeter: “So not subtitling the Spanish in “West Side Story” is weird to me because even this version doesn’t feel like something made for Latins first. When content made specifically for us doesn’t translate in subtitling it makes sense. But this, West Side Story is still by and for white folks first.”
And there you have it: the group/tribal identification obsession that is dividing the nation—and Spielberg has embraced it.
He hasn’t embraced it sufficiently to cast Puerto Rican performers as Puerto Ricans. Maria is played by a half-Columbian actress, but close enough: all Spanish speakers are the same in this “authentic” version of “West Side Story.” Ironically and stupidly, Spielberg has fallen into the trap of encouraging, rather than exposing, the foolish group bigotry exhibited by the Sharks and the Jets, but on a national scale.