“West Side Story” and the decline of cinema


The new “West Side Story” is, so far, a box office flop. Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated remake of the landmark 1961 musical received rave reviews and was called a masterpiece. Still, its first weekend theatrical release only grossed $ 10.5 million, which Variety called “a dismal result for a film of this stature and scope.”

What happened? The entertainment press offered possible explanations. With the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus, people are uncomfortable in theaters. Audiences for musicals are older, with the demographics having most reason to be shy. This is the cast: no one has ever heard of the stars. Ticket prices are too high. People are shopping. Who wants to see a remake of a classic? Maybe the musical audience is just over.

There is probably something to all of this. Two more thoughts:

The first is that some who would be part of the movie’s natural audience might not have gone because they thought he would be awake because most of what comes out of Hollywood is awake, and they experience waking up as a form of intellectual and moral harassment. People don’t want to see something they like translated, so they would stay away.

But I think there is a larger and more immediate reason. Mr. Spielberg and the great old American movie should match a massive blockbuster. The unsuccessful release of “West Side Story” tells us that we have undergone a fundamental change in the way we watch movies in America. And the entertainment industry should see it for what it is. Many believed as the pandemic spread and theaters closed that everything would come back as soon as the pandemic was over. People were coming back in droves to do what they had been doing for over a century, not just out of habit but out of tradition: they went to the movies. But a technological revolution has arrived; the pandemic accelerated what had already started, just as it accelerated the Zoom revolution that is transforming the work of businesses and the office.

People got streaming services and watched movies at home. They got used to it. They liked it. They would invite friends over and release new releases together. Or they would stay in their pajamas and watch him.

I never thought that theaters would go out of style, but I see that in the last few months since New York has slackened and things opened up, I’ve been to Broadway and Off shows five times. -Broadway and to a movie not at all, except this week for this column. Like all Americans, I really love movies. But I can watch them at home.

America’s old world in the movies, from the gathering to the local temple of culture, the multiplex, is over. People won’t be rushing to see a movie they’ve heard, it was great, but it’s limited to a theatrical release; they will stay at home knowing that it will be broadcast soon.

Movie theaters will not close their doors completely; quite a few will survive as people will fill them up to see superhero movies and big fantasy action movies. People will want to see those on screen together and boo and scream. But it will never be the same again, different generations, different people, meeting Saturday night at the jewel. The jewel is now at home, on the sofa or the bed, streaming in ultra high definition.

Come to think of it, I come back to James Agee’s little masterpiece, “A Death in the Family,” a novel published posthumously in 1957. He was the first major American film critic, but in the book, he remembers his childhood in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1915, and his father said at the table, “Well, let’s go to the photo show.” They walked to the cinema and the whole town was there. “And there was William S. Hart with the two guns and his long horse face and his long hard lip, and the great country was moving behind him as wide as the world.” Then the screen filled with a city and there was Charlie Chaplin. “Everyone laughed the minute they saw him,” and when they left, his father’s face was “wrapped in good humor, the memory of Charlie”.

You lose something when the whole town is gone. It’s better when the whole city is gathered. The switch to streaming seems to me to be another huge cultural change, and I don’t know the answer or the cure for this change and others will have to find it. Because not all movies can be superhero movies, and not all movies should be.

As for “West Side Story”: It’s lovely. It’s beautiful, beautiful, and tender about America. The music is even richer and fuller than in the original and the look of the film is more colorful and softer. It is beautifully sunk; every young star is talented and believable, and you have the honest feeling that you are witnessing the start of successful careers – the guy who plays Riff, the guy who plays Bernardo and the young lady who plays Maria.

It’s not awake, it’s wonderful. “America”, the most American of songs, therefore knowing but not jaded, is done differently from the original but better, more communally, and it is just as joyful and comical.

Joe Morgenstern of The Journal used exactly the right word to describe this movie: “Exulting”.

It’s good that this story, this music and these lyrics, are entering the world again.

It all looks like America has a chance.

If I was a teacher in middle school or high school, I would take my class to see it and say, “The music and lyrics are very good and you have to know them to be culturally educated; also America used to be a bit like that. I would take a college course after having them read Jane Jacobs to better understand what was lost in the slum clearance that made way for Lincoln Center.

There are flaws, but so what? The cultural framing of the Jets and Sharks is a bit orderly and not quite to the point. It made me think of Clifford Odets pointing out the steadfast socio-economic forces that propelled the anguished worker boxer who prefers to be a violinist. It didn’t all need to be explained, and some things were overly emphasized. The mine clearance sets were a bit too war-torn in Berlin and looked like clips from “Saving Private Ryan”. New York didn’t look like that even in the age of urban renewal. And the ending kind of takes a little longer than you’d like. But again, so what?

A closing word on the audience. I saw him at the AMC Theater on the 68th and on Broadway at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday. This is roughly where the action of the story took place, in 1957. The theater was about 10% full. A mixture of ages, but more biased after 50 years. Here is what struck me. No one left at the end. They remained seated throughout the closing credits and applauded everyone’s names. Mr. Spielberg got the most, but everyone got.

My thinking maybe only 10% see excellence in America right now, but when they do they are so grateful and want to show it. Ten percent of the 330 million people is 33 million, and that’s quite an audience. Someone will have to figure out how to serve them fully in the revolution we’re in, and it won’t be with superheroes.

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