“America”: let’s ask Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to sum it up

1 October 2012

Maybe you remember this song from West Side Story (1961) as being dated, and perhaps a fantasy of primitivism: Anita (Rita Moreno) fantasizing about Cadillacs in America while reminding her boyfriend/ dance partner Bernardo (George Chakiris) that the “natives” back home in Puerto Rico were perpetually unemployed and pregnant.

But watch it again and tell me if it isn’t an improvement on our own debate 50 years later. This song remains a slap in the face to the American dream, and also a paean to it. More important, watch the dynamism between the dancing, the camerawork, and the ultimate seriousness of the debate amongst these young Latinos. This sequence fundamentally subverts the occasional ick of the lyrics, pushing Latino voices to the forefront and allowing them to debate amongst themselves the pros and cons of being brown in America.

And holy crap, the dancing. It’s exhilarating.

7 Responses to ““America”: let’s ask Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to sum it up”

  1. Didion,
    I could kiss you on the mouth; I love this post so much. How absolutely tragic that in 50 years we have actually lost a great deal of movement for civil rights for people of color, as one can see from the clip you have included juxtapose the laws being enforced now in Alabama and Arizona. We certainly have our work cut out for us to help ensure that Latino voices are represented at the table.

    • Didion Says:

      Hey, thanks, Michael! There is something so subversive about this sequence — it throws so many things into juxtaposition that it makes me weep a little bit, and that despite the deceptively simple back-and-forth of the “debate.” It makes me want to pause my lectures mid-semester and do a mini-instructional talk on how to read conflicting messages in film.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Yeah, I’d like to attend that lecture as well. I recall this film so very well. The Jets and the Sharks. Tony & Maria… all that marvelous music.

    I would also be interested in knowing how this particular piece from America’s musical history, and the film as a whole, came to mind for you today, or was it last night. What was the motivation?

    • Didion Says:

      Oddly, I came to this clip by two separate avenues. First, it seems for the last week I’ve been reading nonstop about opportunity in America and the American dream, which I simultaneously bridle against and desperately want to believe in.

      Second, I read a cranky (but accurate) piece by Matt Zoller Seitz about seeing From Russia With Love (that classic early James Bond flick) with an ironic, smirking audience that ruined the experience for him. They tittered and commented throughout, as if nothing at all in the film was worth enjoying on its own terms, as if they were all sitting on their own sofa rather than in a public theater. He was furious and took the attitude that if you go to see old movies just to laugh at them, YOU’RE WATCHING THEM WRONG.

      That reminded me of going to see West Side Story in New York back in 2003 or so. As I sat down, a very young couple sat next to me — all tattoos and irony, talking shit about their mutual friends, super-cool and super-detached, and I wanted to cry. I just knew they’d behave that way during the film, whereas I wanted to settle in for the tragic love, racial conflict, and gorgeous dancing of the film.

      But I was wrong. The couple next to me never opened their mouths once the film started and, just like me, sniffled during the best parts. We all had to splash water on our faces afterward.

  3. servetus Says:

    I liked this a lot and it’s connected in my mind with what you said about the film about the little African-American girl — isn’t it possible to let beauty and objectionable things stand next to each other in our minds?

    • Didion Says:

      And in fact, allowing those two things to happen at once sparks enormous possibility for thought and creativity.

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