Some of the best speculative fiction has achieved its impact by creating a world identical to our own except for a single noticeable difference, be it absence or presence. What courses might society have taken if, for example, we could read minds? Or had lost the Second World War? Or had just recently intersected with an alien civilization?
West Side Story falls into this tradition: it posits a dystopian America in which menacing street gangs control New York, and violence (both physical and emotional) and repressed homosexual attraction are sublimated into spontaneous, flamboyant eruptions of singing and dancing.
In a technique similar to the lauded 'stargate' sequence in 2001 (a film to which West Side Story can be easily compared), the film begins with a a wash of slowly iridescing colors accompanied by music in order to establish that the action to come will take place in an otherworldly locale. The camera pans over the alternate New York before focusing on the Jets, one of the two rival gangs. As the Jets stroll through their territory, they snap their fingers in unison to a rhythm only they can hear, a collective beat linking their identities. There is a permanent spring in their step, and their movements soon give way to acrobatic leaps and spins. The impact of these early scenes is jarring in a way that resists description, and it is a technique which will be repeated many times throughout the film: internal torment, anomie, and same-sex desires are transfigured by means of a malign grace into something rich and strange.
The Jets encounter their Puerto Rican rivals, the Sharks, who pelt them with cabbages before engaging them in real combat. No punches or kicks are thrown here; the emphasis is solely on demonstrating their respective dance mastery. Jets dive at their foes only to be caught, while Sharks hop and twirl away. The influence of these scenes on West Side Story's descendents, such as The Matrix, cannot be overemphasized.
The brawl is interrupted by officers of the law, who, in an obvious satire of the real NYPD, do not sing or dance but instead threaten to "personally beat the living crud out of each and every one of you." They have not mastered the art that the gangs have, the art of laughing through pain.
Later, Jet leader Riff decides to call a war council with the Sharks to decide once and for all their territorial boundaries. To do so, he must convince former leader Tony to return to the fold. Tony, who possesses dancing prowess that can only be described as psychotic, has left the gang to work in an abandoned warehouse moving crates around at random, which in the world of West Side Story is a viable occupation. This disconnection of livelihood from accomplishment is also present in Brazil and 1984, in which workers toil at jobs which are neither understood nor relevant. Oppressed by this dead-end economy, Tony decides to join the Jets at the upcoming youth dance, which is masterminded by an unnamed, comical authority figure whose incompetence is intended to satirize the bungling higher-ups of Soviet and other totalitarian regimes still extant at the time of the film's production. The dance has been devised by these potentates in order to expend the gangs' raging dance fury in a manner that won't pose a threat to their oligarchy, and for the most part it succeeds, until the word "Mambo" is uttered, and the dancefloor explodes into a turbid, torrid, tempestuous sea.
In an earlier scene, Maria - the sister of the Sharks leader Bernardo - agonizes over what to wear to the dance, before settling on a white dress intended by the filmmakers to represent her vestal nature. At the dance, Maria is transfixed by Tony's supremely corybantic moves, while he imagines her to be the subject of a dream he had the previous night. As Tony and Maria are drawn to each other from across the dancefloor, the movements of the dancers around them slow and the atmosphere blurs and darkens. This is not because Tony and Maria's singleminded attraction abrogates their attention to anything else in the room. It is because Tony's dancing prowess literally alters the fabric of time and space.
The pair are interrupted by Bernardo, who feels that Tony is "only after one thing." He is, and that one thing is the opportunity to repeat Maria's name almost indefinitely, extending his encounter into an improvised solo entitled, appropriately enough, "Maria."
The war council proceeds as planned, and - after cycling through a list of possible weapons such as belts and chains that point to a subconscious BDSM fixation - it is decided that a decisive fist fight will take place between the two strongest members of each gang, due to Tony entering and decrying the use of weapons. "Afraid to use plain skin?" he asks them. Indeed.
Bernardo and Riff shake on it with an exceedingly tentative, effete handshake, a small gesture that betrays the facade of masculinity and points to their deep-seated homosexual attraction.
Bernardo assumes that Tony will be the one to fight, and tells him "When I get through, you will be like a fish after skinning." - implying, of course, that Tony will be limp, wet, and raw - conditions which can also describe a post-ejaculatory penis.
After the Sharks leave, Tony converses with Doc, the owner of the store where the council took place. A remarkable scene ensues in which Tony mentions "A trip to the moon." and describes how "It ain't a man that's up there. It's a girl. A lady." It is a shame the film doesn't devote more time to this future history, although judging from Tony's remarks in this future the moon has been colonized.
Meanwhile, Maria and Bernardo's girlfriend Anita are finishing up a day's work at the dress shop when Maria - dressed in a bright yellow shirt - places a large pink ribbon on her head and expresses her frustration with her brother's pretensions to heterosexuality in the musical number "I Feel Pretty.":
"I feel pretty, and witty, and gay." (emphasis mine) she sings, before donning a crown and imitating Miss America - a gay kitsch icon. It is not the first time this virginal young woman will be lured down the path of same-sex indulgence. Maria and Anita then have an exchange in which key elements of the film's subtext are revealed:
Maria: They fight each other tonight?
Anita: They don't play potsy.
Maria: Why must they always fight?
Anita: You saw how they dance...like they gotta get rid of something. That's how they fight.
Maria: To get rid of what?
Anita: Too much feeling. And they do get rid of it. Boy, after a fight, that brother of yours is so healthy.
The "feeling" mentioned here is, of course, the attraction to other men that the gangs' society has not equipped them to deal with, and which they dispense with by means of extravagant choreography. Presumably, Bernardo is so "healthy" after a fight due to being propelled into a state of frenzied concupiscence by his time spent near the Jets (the gang names "Jets" and "Sharks" are blatantly phallic), and uses sex with Anita in this state as a substitute for anal intercourse with Riff or Tony.
During her next meeting with Tony, Maria asks him to intercede and prevent the fight between the gangs. The two then profess their love, and use nearby props to enact a faux wedding sequence. As they kneel, a beneficient yellow light shines down as if to bless their union, likely originating from Tony's allies on the lunar colony.
Soon after, both gangs prepare for the fight, and both unite their voices in song, with such double entendres as "The Jets are gonna have their way, tonight." and "We'll rumble 'em right." included. The fight commences, with actual fists being thrown. Singing and dancing has failed, and the gangs' attraction to each other is translated into sadomasochistic violence. Before long knives - more phallic substitutes - are drawn, and Bernardo and Riff are killed, victims of their inability to find an acceptable or lasting outlet for their desires. Penetration, in this context, equates with death.
A moving scene follows, in which the young Jet Baby John mourns his lost friend on a rooftop, and is confronted by another Jet, A-Rab.
Baby John:I don't want the guys to see me, A-Rab.
A-Rab: Why not?
Baby John: Well, I'm crying.
A-Rab: You are? What for?
Baby John: I don't know, I'm just...
The intimacy between these two young gay men is all the more more affecting for it being forbidden by their code, as shown all too well in the following musical number, "Cool," which opens with dialogue containing a reference to oral sex and a clumsy anal penetration metaphor:
"Now you all better dig this, and dig it good. No matter who or what is eating you, man, you show it, and you are dead! You are cutting a hole in yourselves for them to stick in a hot umbrella and open it wide."
The lyrics are even more explicit:
Get cool, boy
Got a rocket in your pocket
Keep cool, boy
Don't get hot, cause man you've got some high times ahead
Take it slow, Daddy-O
You can live it up and die in bed
Stay loose, boy
Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it
Turn off the juice, boy
Go man, go
But not like a yo-yo schoolboy"
The references in "Cool" to anal sex, oral sex, and mutual masturbation are almost too numerous to count, and it is the closest any of the Jets come to directly expressing their orientation to each other.
The Jets are then accosted by Anybodys, a pugnacious lesbian who is the only female they feel comfortable around. She tells them that "I hear Chino tell the Sharks something about Tony and Bernardo's sister. Then Chino says, 'If it's the last thing I do, I'm gonna get that Polack.' Then he pulls out the bad news." (referring to Chino's penis)
Earlier, Chino had been romantically linked to Maria, perhaps in an attempt to expunge his feelings for Tony. Realizing that Tony and Maria are incurably heterosexual, Chino takes out his frustration by roaming the streets in search of Tony, whom he wishes to sodomize.
As for Maria, after having sex with Tony in her apartment, she is confronted by Anita:
Anita: Maria? Open up. I need you. (emphasis mine)
Seeing Maria has been with Tony, Anita seizes her - asserting lesbian dominance - and tells her: "Forget that boy and find another. One of your own kind. Stick to your own kind." Anita says, "your own kind" referring to other women. Disillusioned with heterosexual relations by Bernardo's death, Anita seeks to seduce Maria, but to no avail. As Maria sings:
"Oh, no, Anita, no. It isn't true, not for me. It's true for you, not for me. I hear your words, and in your head, I know they're smart, but my heart, Anita, my heart knows they're wrong. You should know better."
Maria wears a blue robe over her white nightshirt in this scene, signifying how her vestal white has been compromised. No longer a virgin, she has become a capable young woman certain of her sexuality. Simply put, she doesn't swing that way.
Anita realizes she has failed, and so warns Maria that Chino is after Tony. Maria sends Anita to the drugstore to deliver a message for Tony. When she arrives, the Jets are gathered. What follows is one of the film's most disturbing scenes. Jarred by Riff's death, threatened by Chino's outright homosexuality, the Jets call Anita a "tramp," a "pig," and a "lying spic." Here, racial hostilities act as convenient masks for the Jets' deep-rooted fear of Anita as a sexually desirable woman.
Anita is assaulted and then held down, while the Jets, desperate to assert their manhood, lift up Baby John and prepare to throw him at Anita in a cruel parody of intercourse. Baby John, who is the youngest gang member and the one seen crying on the rooftop, represents vulnerability, tenderness, and - by virtue of his age - buggery. In other words, all the things the Jets despise in themselves. By attempting to have Baby John defile Anita, the Jets are trying to ritualistically make him one of them, affirm his status as a "man," and erase everything in him that threatens them.
Anita is rescued by Doc, and then tells the Jets out of spite that Maria has been killed by Chino. "When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy." Doc tells the Jets, implying that their surreptitious sex has caused them to neglect using protection, thus spreading disease.
Tony hears of Maria's apparent death and runs out into the street, yelling for Chino to "get" him. He and Maria are reunited, only for Chino to emerge from the shadows and shoot Tony with a gun (yet another phallic substitute). Upon seeing Tony and Maria embracing, Chino realized the futility of raping Tony, and decided instead to end his life. The film ends with the two gangs gathering as Maria breaks down and weeps over Tony's body. Tony, like Riff and Bernardo before him, is a casualty of forbidden desires left unaddressed and grown malignant, like an undiagnosed cancer.
Clocking in at well over three hours, West Side Story can be ranked as a fantasy epic that foreshadows such films as Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings - although none of these (save perhaps Star Wars and its lightsbaber/severed right hand symbolism) possess its tremendous social conscience and enduring message for the gay youth of today. It is a difficult film, and this message is frequently concealed within interlocking layers of drama and subtext, but each repeated viewing astonishes more than the last. They don't make 'em like this anymore.
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