Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Film festivalWatched West Side Story in Grant Park last night, the finale of Chicago's Outdoor Film Festival, settling into those nylon expando-chairs (which roughly half of the crowd of a few thousand owned) and watching the swift, low evening clouds dust the glimmering night skyline, at one point shrouding the Sears. A spectacular outdoor venue for a classic movie.

I'd never seen WSS before, nor did I study Romeo and Juliet (on which it's based) in school. What I was struck by was how precocious the story was in how viscerally and lucidly it captures and anticipates the urban angst of the late 60s and beyond. The movie was released in 1961. At once it speaks to the riots of the 60s, the urban decay of the 70s and 80s, and the gentrification of the global 90s, and so personally and passionately. Barely a year after Eisenhower, it also contains a lively satire of social-pscyhobabble about the causes of gangs (in the Jets' song to the police lieutenant) that is far beyond more tired debate of late.

I did find it odd, though, that the urban settings were so polished and somewhat glamorized, making for an artificial, and not gritty, street atmosphere. I seemed out of place to be plastering these sterilized visions of city life, with twirling gang members, on a giant screen just miles away from Chicago's impoverished South and (yes) West Sides last night.

It turns out the urban backdrop for the movie was actually the condemned Manhattan zone that gave way for the gleaming Lincoln Center.

Opening dance sequences were shot on the upper west side of Manhattan where Lincoln Center stands today. This area was condemned and the buildings were in the process of being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The demolition of these buildings was delayed so that the filming of these sequences could be completed.

Other trivia from IMDB:
- The actors in the rival gangs were instructed to play pranks on each other off the set to keep tensions high.
- Although the producers tried to keep the different gangs separate during filming to create tension, Russ Tamblyn (Riff), said that he knew of at least one 'Jet' who was roommates with a 'Shark' through filming.
- An update of Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet," the script was originally meant to be about a Protestant boy falling in love with a Jewish girl. The working title was East Side Story. After a boom of Puerto Rican immigration to New York in the late 1940's and 1950's, the story was changed.

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