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My favorite movie, so the story goes…

How in the hell am I supposed to write this godforsaken thing?

That’s the question that’s bugging me on this fine and frantic Wednesday afternoon. I’ve got an article due today, deadline fast approaching, and I’m starting to hear voices in my head. Douglas Adams says to me, “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Fran Lebowitz says to me, “A deadline is really out of my hands.” Hunter S. Thompson says to me, “Every deadline is a crisis.” Dorothy Parker has a good excuse for blowing deadlines, she says, “Somebody was using the pencil.” So at least I’m in good company here.

I smoke a couple bowls of homegrown. I chug a couple mugs of coffee. I puff a couple Camel Filtereds instead of my usual Marlboro Special Blend Red 100s thanks to a dollar off coupon for Camels. I listen back to a few demos my buddy and I have been tossing around for a record we’re tracking up in Portland at the end of February. I email our homie we’re hoping to record with and figure out logistics: the gear situation, the food and beer situation, the hang-out and party situation, all that good fun nonsense. I smoke another cig and review the most recent chapter of a Sci-Fi P.I. novel I’ve only been working on when I’m too drunk. I take a look at a beautiful video piece my girlfriend is editing together for an upcoming art show in Chicago. I eat a handful of peanuts, a few kalamata olives, a few peanut butter cups, a few slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese. I slug some OJ right outta the carton, the way it tastes best. I smoke some more weed. I smoke some more Filtereds. I do any and every little thing I possibly can to try and justify putting-off writing this article. I’ve really set myself up for some sort of sick masochistic challenge on this one, a Gulag of self-imposed cinematic homework. Even if it’s all just in my head, which it most certainly is, I’m feeling mad pressure on this article. And I know exactly why the pressure is so high.

West Side Story is my favorite movie of all time. Period. End of article. Right? Oh, if it were only that easy. I seriously don’t even know where to begin. How do you write about the flick that you love more than any other flick? That may not be a tough question for everyone, but it sure as hell is eating away at my cinephile soul today as this afternoon quickly becomes evening and my deadline starts staring me down with reaper eyes. How do you honor a film you love unconditionally? With a quick little plot summary? With a diatribe about the antics that took place off-screen? With a tip of the hat to your favorite actress, your favorite character, your favorite performance, your favorite snippet of dialogue? That just seems cheap to me. Seems like watered-down sycophantic crap. My point is, I don’t think one simple movie review can ever do West Side Story justice. And you wanna know why I feel that way?

Let me tell you a story.

A couple-few years ago, West Side Story had a brief theatrical re-release for its 50th anniversary. As soon as I heard about it, I dropped everything I was doing to get my hands on a ticket. It was early November, just after my late-October birthday, so I considered the ticket a birthday present to myself. I was gonna take myself out on a date to see my favorite movie on the big screen for the first time in my life. And that’s exactly what I did. I got there an hour early with a flask of bourbon in one of my coat pockets to toast the bits of the flick that I loved the best. I grabbed myself my favorite seat in the house, back row center. I put coats over the seats next to me on both sides so I wouldn’t have to risk dealing with sitting next to my all time greatest pet peeve: movie talkers. Eventually the room got dark, the crowd shut up, and I took my first long swig of hot brown liquor through an ear-to-ear grin. The overture for the picture began to play over a slowly morphing color field which would soon reveal itself to be the opening title card. And I laughed. And I cried. And I fell in love. And I felt my heart break. And I had one of the closest things I’ve ever had to a religious experience or a transcendental happening or whatever you want to label it. There I was in that sacred cinematic house of worship completely humbled and awe-struck by the magic and mystery of this holy parable in the form of a major motion picture.

Now, I told you that story so I could tell you this next one.

My grandma on my mom’s side was the first person to ever show me West Side Story. She was a funny and lovely aging folkie, wore exotic animal print muumuus, painted mountaintops from memory as tributes to her hazy “Rocky Mountain High” Denver days of yore. I remember seeing the movie for the first time at her apartment. I must’ve been five-years-old. I was instantly wrapped up in it. Completely consumed by the flick. I had never seen anything like that before in my life. At daycare the next day, I spent my entire play period acting out the knife fight between the Sharks and the Jets with Lego figurines. A couple of kids sat down to watch the fight play out, and when it was over they asked if I would do it again. Before long, I had the entire class lined up and taking turns to watch my reenactment of the infamous rumble scene towards the end of the picture. Pretty messed-up if you think about it, a five-year-old kid describing the stabbing deaths of two young gang members to his peers. I’m a little surprised our classroom supervisors didn’t break-up the whole bloody scene, but I think they were just really charmed by the fact that I was the only five-year-old they knew who had seen West Side Story.

 

Here’s another story.

The summer I graduated from kindergarten was the same summer my brother was about to enter kindergarten. It was also the same summer that we got in the first and only fist fight with the neighbor kids. They were a pair a snaggle-toothed twins who were a little bigger than us. It was a pathetic fight, as all fights between kids are, mostly a lot of pointing sticks at each other and screaming gibberish. The bigger of the twins socked me in my stomach with a good jab. It’s twenty years later, and I still distinctly remember the image that popped into my head at that very moment: Riff (Russ Tamblyn) getting stabbed in the stomach by Bernardo (George Chakiris) as Tony (Richard Beymer) watches on. Maria (Natalie Wood) and Anita (Rita Moreno) popped into my head simultaneously. And the next thing I knew, I was running home at full tilt. This effectively ended the fist fight and confused the hell out of my brother and the neighbor twins who all ended up getting along and hanging-out together. To this day, I still don’t know why I ran away. But I’ll never forget the big mid-picture medley from West Side Story playing over and over in my head on that whole run home.

Stories. So many stories. Hyper-personal stories from my own life that are directly connected to one story in particular: West Side Story. That’s why this movie is my favorite movie, for completely selfish reasons. I can’t help it. Every time I see the flick, it drums up countless odd episodes from my past. I’ll remember myself struggling to learn the tune for “Maria” on piano whenever I hung-out with a friend of mine that I had a heavy duty crush on, a friend of mine who ended up being my girlfriend. Or I’ll remember the time when me and my buddy got stopped for jaywalking by an actual Officer Krupke, actual as in the name on his name-tag was KRUPKE. This movie reminds me of so many different memories, so many different people, so many little idiosyncratic blips that make up my lifetime thus far. Call it blatant over-sentimentality, but I am in love with this picture, and I can’t picture my life without it. So no, I don’t think that any movie review could ever sum it all up or give it the proper treatment it deserves. It’s bigger than that. In my mind, West Side Story will forever be a holy text of a feature length motion picture. I’m convinced in my heart of hearts that it’s a flawless movie. If I tried to explain why I love this movie with a lot of funny factoids, tabloid tidbits, storyline summaries, and famous name-drops? I’d be doing a disservice to myself, to my favorite flick, and to anyone else who has ever truly loved this movie, or any other movie or any other story for that matter.

West Side Story is a part of my life. It will always be a part of my life. And when I finally kick the bucket? This movie, in some strange highfalutin way, will be a part of my death too. Yeah, I know that sounds like pretty heady stuff to be pondering on because of one little movie. But maybe great movies let the old brain get away with bubbling-on about high stakes concepts like mortality and meaning and all of that other existential goodness. Maybe great movies can let you really reflect on and read into your own (life) story.

Just one last story for today.

I’ve got an article due. The deadline is fast approaching. I don’t know how the hell I’m gonna pull it off. So what do I do? I lay belly-down on the floor of my bedroom and put my treasured VHS copy of West Side Story into my little combo TV/VCR. The overture for the picture begins to play over a slowly morphing color field which will soon reveal itself to be the opening title card. I am instantly wrapped up in it. And I am reminded of stories, all the stories of my lifetime, the picture playing out in all its cinematic glory until its inevitable end. Then, as soon as the flick is finished, I pound the beer that I’ve been saving all day and type-up the article in a flash. I manage to turn the sucker in at 11:59pm Western Time, the literal last minute before my deadline is up. I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I dodged the bullet. So what do I do to celebrate? I get high, and I smoke a cig, and I watch West Side Story all over again. At least that’s the story I’m sticking with.

 

 

Directed By: Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise

Produceed By: Saul Chaplin, Walter Mirisch, Robert Wise

Written By: Ernest Lehman & Arthur Laurents

Starring: Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Ned Glass

Story by: Jerome Robbins

Based on: “Romeo & Juliet” by William Shakespeare

Distributied By: United Artists

Run Time: 152 minutes

Release Date: October 18, 1961

Rating: Unrated

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