Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg’

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.

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The first time I happened across an analysis excoriating Steven Spielberg’s films (or by proxy, the man himself), I thought it curious, even strange perhaps, that he was singled out for such invective. It’s indisputable that the fellow is an accomplished filmmaker, and his movies are almost always enjoyable and sometimes even good. If I bother to see a Spielberg movie in the theater, I usually expect to gobble my popcorn breathlessly and forget about the experience quickly after getting home, knowing it will be visually polished but narratively stunted. If the subject is more serious, I’ve learned to expect that I’ll be frustrated by the implications, not merely because the films open up uncomfortable questions on controversial subjects but because his treatments are usually found wanting after being filtered through his odd cinematic lens. (Cinema aspires to being art, but its feet are yet too firmly stuck in business, or money making; otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many formulaic films or constant criticism of cookie-cutter filmmaking.)

The second time I read how Spielberg is bad for film, I had to admit something is there, something more than idle enjoyment of a couple hours spent in the dark. It’s not just that the worldview presented in a Spielberg film is artificial — that’s true for almost all films — it’s that he has had a toxic effect on the whole enterprise. Consider this characterization, published in a review in the Chicago Reader:

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