Friday, July 5, 2013

Love and War

by Jean Roberta

Movies have been described as a modern version of opera. They have everything: costumes, sets, music, drama, sometimes choreography. As a child, I was lucky to be taken to watch live musicals even before I started school, and I’ve always been attracted to big shows, the ones that resemble operas.

Two movies about war and star-crossed love (those standard subjects of opera) linger in my memory.

I heard the soundtrack of West Side Story long before I saw the movie. In 1962-63, I was in sixth grade in California, where my academic father was writing his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University. I had a glamorous teacher who looked like Elizabeth Taylor and who had avant-garde taste, which she demonstrated by playing the vinyl record of West Side Story (“Maria!” “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way”) during free time in school. My parents were avant-garde too, which is clearly why they didn’t complain about a teacher who exposed their innocent child to a musical about juvenile delinquents. I knew that my mother had grown up in Manhattan, but I was sure her life was nothing like the plot that was suggested by the music on the record.

Years later, I watched the movie, made in 1961 and based on a hit Broadway musical which, in turn, was an Americanized version of Romeo and Juliet. I was riveted. By the time I saw Natalie Wood playing Maria on the screen (“When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong”) she had already died under mysterious circumstances. The creepiness of the star’s actual tragic death enabled me to forgive her for not being a very convincing Puerto Rican on-screen. (Maria is supposed to be fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico and still thinking in Spanish.) The luminous, hopeful quality of the two stars as lovers is heartbreaking against a background of gang warfare.

Bear in mind that when the movie was made, the Civil Rights movement hadn’t yet made much of a dent in American racial/ethnic segregation. By the standards of the time, the love affair of Tony (a white boy who is not exactly WASP) and Maria is interracial. And urban violence is the context in which the lovers meet and recklessly dream about a wedding. Teenage boys with switchblades and brylcreemed hair are the stars of this show. They wear jeans (not allowed in public schools at that time), while their girlfriends sashay up to them in outfits that would induce hissy fits in every school administrator in the nation. There was nothing I couldn’t love about this movie, except maybe the polarized gender roles and intense heterosexuality presented as Fate, but those features were part of the Shakespeare tragedy on which the plot was based.

Then I met my Spouse, a Latina from Chile. We both joined the local queer choir (part of an international network); actually Spouse has been musical all her life, spawn of a musical culture, so I felt she was born to sing, while I was there to keep her company and support the soloists by singing harmony. When the choir did a medley from West Side Story, I was chosen to do a very brief solo: “Maria!” (spoken in the voice of lovesick Tony, gazing up at Maria’s fire escape). This is the introduction to the song of the same name, in which Tony (represented by the whole choir) serenades the girl of his dreams. Spouse and I had both been fond of the movie before that time, but since we actually sang the music together in public, it has seemed like part of the soundtrack of our relationship.

And then an epic movie about actual war came to the local Film Classification Board in 1995. By then, I was privileged to be part of a small board of citizens whose job was to watch brand-new Hollywood movies that arrived at our basement screening room in cans. (Only one member of our board knew how to run the ancient projector that constantly threatened to burn up the celluloid with an open flame.) We took notes, discussed what we saw and voted on a classification (General, Parental Guidance, Parental Accompaniment or Restricted) which then became law throughout the province of Saskatchewan. Our ultimate boss was the Minister of Justice.

When I learned that on my next shift, I was assigned to watch Braveheart, featuring Mel Gibson in a kilt, playing fourteenth-century Scottish hero William Wallace, I told my family. Spouse and I were still raising all three of our kids: her two sons and my daughter. Youngest Stepson, at age 14, was more excited by my news than by the release of a new video game. He desperately wanted to come to the basement screening room with me, and see Braveheart before any of his friends. Please, please, please, he said.

So Spouse and I brought Stepson to the very first screening of that movie in our neck of the woods. The head of the Film Board was not impressed that I brought such a young family member, considering the amount of onscreen violence. Technically, though, the film had not been rated yet when we all watched it, so the presence of Stepson didn’t violate any laws.

Gratuitous violence in movies generally turns me off, but anything that might encourage young people to study history usually overrides my aversion to blood. The scenes of late-medieval warfare with shields, bows and arrows in Braveheart are spectacular. And the hero (as distinct from the actor) is irresistible: a Man of the People, but fluent in Latin as well as several more current languages. (He actually delivers lines in non-English words, with subtitles.) The significance of the Scots as underdogs was not lost on Stepson, the son of two political refugees in Canada.

And then there is the French princess, played by Sophie Marceau, who has been imported to the English court as a bride for the king’s son and a means of continuing the line of succession (the time-honoured role of princesses). It was heartening to see her admiration for Wallace, a fellow-outsider, and to watch her play her trump card after Wallace has been condemned to death. As the king lies dying, she whispers in his ear that she carries in her womb a child that is not of his line. Checkmate!

Even though I was watching in an official capacity, it felt like a family date night. Stepson asked me questions about the actual history behind the movie which encouraged me to think he might grow up to be an intellectual who would make all his parents proud. For weeks afterward, he seemed like a vicarious Scottish nationalist with an interest in claymores.

In my mind, I won several imaginary arguments with lesbian-feminist friends who seemed to disapprove of: 1) movies about war, 2) Mel Gibson, 3) sons in general, including stepsons (a child who is not of my line, but mine by choice), and 4) popular culture as a bad influence on the young. Hell yes, I thought, I watch epics about patriarchal bloodshed and intrigue, and expose my loved ones to such stuff. I also teach the literature of the past. Bring it on.

There is nothing like an ambitious movie to take me out of my everyday life while showing me that the most over-the-top spectacles can serve as metaphors for things I’ve seen in real life.


  1. Hi, Jean,

    West Side Story! I haven't thought about that film in years, but it was one of my favorites when I was in my early teens, that is, when I hadn't yet learned that romance and tragedy were mutually exclusive... ;^)

    A middle class Jewish girl from a liberal family, I never really thought much about the racial issues involved. I was too emotionally involved with the lovers.

    And now I'll be singing "There's a Place For Us" for the rest of the evening...!

  2. I first saw West Side Story at the Uptown theatre in North Philly. My friend and I were the only white people there. Even as a teenager, it hit some of the buttons I was getting interested in. Some of my friends were black and Puerto Rican and at the time, Momma and I were sneaking around because she came from a Jewish family and I was considered not worthy of going out with a Jew. It's the only time I ever felt ethnically discriminated upon. Not so good. Then I kept getting discriminated about the fact I was a hipster.

    I'd heard high praise about Braveheart and have tried to watch it, but I have this thing with so-called 'action movies' I fall asleep. Not only did I do it in 'Braveheart, but in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, any Die Hard and Mission Impossible. Sorry, all the battles, explosions want to make me check out. And forget about those movies that consist of computer screen after computer screen to supply the action. Bah-- humbug. arggghh!

  3. Thanks for the comments (even yours, Daddy X, lol). Well, I don't like blood, noise, flying body parts, etc., for their own sake, but sometimes a historical movie seems to need some real-life nastiness -- because sh*t happens. :(

  4. I share your delight and nostalgia about the movie West Side Story - love Natalie Wood - although seeing it on stage is an even bigger thrill, but Braveheart - oh dear - Mad Max in the Highlands just didn't do it for me. As a Scot I was appalled at the histoical inaccuracies - the battle of Selkirk Bridge was fought on a bridge for goodness sake and Gibson's rampant and well known homophbia made my blood boil.
    Then again it wouldn't do if we all like the same thing.
    I've watched John Carter of Mars - Disney's most colossal financial loss - three times and enjoyed it every time - CGI effects and all.
    So what do I know?


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