By the time they’re eighteen years old, the average American child will have witnessed 200,000 violent acts on TV, and 16,000 murders, and since I’m nothing if not average, I guess that applies to me as well. And, since I’m more than twice as old now, we could probably double or even triple that number.
Make no mistake: I’ve seen people killed on TV. And, in the movies. A lot of people. I’m a horror movie guy: I’ve seen every Alien movie multiple times, even the ones I hate (3 and 4, I’m lookin’ right at you). I’ve seen Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Evil Dead: Army Of Darkness, and the Evil Dead reboot from a couple of years ago. I’ve seen at least two Texas Chainsaw Massacres, three or four Halloweens, and every Rob Zombie movie including the execrable Lords Of Salem (I actually unfollowed his Facebook page, not because of him, but because of all the pics of “Salem” tattoos people keep posting. Yes, there’s at least a battalion of people out there who permanently disfigured themselves to pay homage to a movie that makes Caligula look like Chariots Of Fire). But, then again, for some reason I have to watch Jason X every time it’s on, so maybe I shouldn’t be throwing stones.
Thanks to the magic of movies, I’ve seen people shot, stabbed, dismembered, set on fire, then shot again. I’ve seen people ripped apart with meathooks, melted, had their eyes put out with blowtorches (although I decided shortly after that I wasn’t an Eli Roth fan). I’ve seen people die in ways that almost certainly would have driven me insane if I’d witnessed it in real life. I’ve seen “realistic war violence,” “unrealistic cartoon violence” and “pervasive violence throughout”. Let’s just say I was part of the first generation of kids who-compliments of HBO-saw R-rated movies in the comfort of my own home on cable TV. I’m way too desensitized to violence-and its aftershocks.
Except for one curious case.
I saw West Side Story on PBS for the first time when I was about eight years old. At least, I think I was eight, because we went and saw Grease in the theater shortly thereafter (but more about that later). I guess I was watching because it was on the TV, and everybody else was watching it, and it was 1978 and TV had four channels (counting PBS). And, we had ONE TV…my early memories of TV are black-and-white, but I’m pretty sure we’d graduated to color by then, because my first memories of “Story” are definitely color.
I was captivated. I understand why now, but at the time, it was a mystery. What hooked me was Leonard Bernstein’s score-easily the greatest music ever written for a Broadway production, and one of the finest movie soundtracks ever recorded. I fell in love with the colors, the action, the rhythm, the gorgeous cinematography that somehow managed to make the city streets look gritty, dangerous, and gorgeous all at the same time.
And Natalie Wood, my God, Natalie Wood. Yes, I understand she didn’t do her own singing, and even I can tell now how phony her Spanish sounds. And, no, I don’t give a shit. Perfection, thy name was Natalie Wood.
So, between Bernstein and Natalie Wood, I was hooked. Of course, I’d never heard of Romeo and Juliet. All the business about hostility towards immigrants, gang warfare, and tension between poor communities and the police (problems we’ve all solved, thank God, amirite?) went straight over my head as I watched the love story between Tony and Maria unfold. You know, there’s a part of the song “Maria,” where the lyrics are just “Maria” over and over again for at least three lines? And it doesn’t sound the least bit stupid? I mean, if you’d just met a girl like Maria, wouldn’t you just run around in circles screaming her name over and over again?
So, halfway through this amazing movie full of roaring, rapturous music and romanticism that could floor the most jaded soul imaginable, people start knifing each other. I was horrified. It was almost like Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise were playing the sickest joke on me imaginable. I still remember seeing the flash of the switchblade on TV and thinking, no, Tony will manage to talk them down and the Jets and the Sharks will get along and he and Maria will ride off into the sunset, like the glossy Aaron Spelling shows that were coming into their own at the time.
But, no, Wise and Robbins aren’t Spelling (Spelling also isn’t Shakespeare). Riff and Bernardo went down, and I still clung to the hope that Tony and Maria would make it out of town. I know now why they don’t, why they can’t but it still doesn’t mean I can’t hope, every time I see it, that they’ll make it to the bus station, and not run into Chino at the playground.
My mom took us to the movies to see Grease a week later, and I was sweating bullets the whole time. I refused to emotionally invest myself in Danny, Sandy, or any of the rest of the crew or allow myself to get sucked into the songs or the fun because I knew, KNEW at some point the knives would come out, Danny and Kenickie would be toast, and it would end with Sandy sobbing over Danny’s lifeless corpse. And, even now, going on 40 years later, I STILL don’t trust Grease…just like I keep hoping that Tony and Maria will escape in some alternate universe, I can’t trust that, at some point, Danny will end up face-down at the playground. West Side Story scarred me that bad.
And this, friends n’ neighbors, is why I can watch Cabin By The Lake, Oculus, Grindhouse, and The Hills Have Eyes over a full meal and sleep like a baby afterward, but I have to completely steel myself to view West Side Story and am spent for days afterward.
I’ve taught a twice-weekly music class for a group of middle-schoolers at a small private school this year, and they think they’re pretty tough. Compared to me at their age, they ARE pretty tough. They come from a neighborhood that still deals with most of the issues detailed in “Story.” Most of them are Hispanic (Nicaraguan, Cuban and Mexican) and several of them weren’t born in the US. And, most of them are girls.
I’ve introduced various bits of high culture to them during the year with mixed results. They have hard shells: they live in a hard neighborhood, have hard parents, watch hard movies and listen to hard music. In order to get to them, I need to break them a little bit, so I decided to see if West Side Story has the same effect on them it had on me. I want to get them to fall in love with Tony and Maria and end up shattered, because maybe if it shatters them the way it shattered me, it’ll leave some room for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, or-dare to dream-Brahms or Beethoven.
West Side Story is amazing because it’s one of the few (hell, only) works of art I’ve ever seen that creates a world, destroys it…and then creates it again. We’re about forty minutes in and the kids are hooked so far-I’ll keep you posted 😉