“West Side Story begins with a blast of stereophonic music that had me clutching my head. Is the audience so impressed by science and technique, and by the highly advertised new developments that they accept this jolting series of distorted sounds gratefully—on the assumption, perhaps, that because it’s so unlike ordinary sound, it must be better? Everything about West Side Story is supposed to stun you with its newness, its size, the wonders of its photography, editing, choreography, music. It’s nothing so simple as a musical, it’s a piece of cinematic technology.” - Pauline Kael, Film Quarterly, 1962
Kael’s most energetic and best writing can be found in her rave reviews, but some of her most vigorous arguments—and the best examples of her cutting humor—are in her pans of films like West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), big-budget Oscar bait extravaganzas that other critics fawned over. (She was also fond of quoting from other critics’ reviews in her own writing; her contention of Stanley Kauffmann’s praise for the film led Kauffmann to issue a defense of his position.) Tracing Kael’s thoughts on a particular type of film or a particular genre is revealing. Soon, for instance, I’ll be looking at her review for Dennis Potter’s musical Pennies from Heaven (1981), which she adored. “I love musicals,” she insists at the beginning of her review of West Side Story, and her takedown of that film says a lot about what she loved about her favorite musicals—Singin’ in the Rain and the 1930s Astaire/Rogers vehicles. These earlier films were simple, virtuosic without being epic or showy. “If there is anything great in the American musical tradition—and I think there is—it’s in the light satire, the high spirits, the giddy romance, the low comedy, and the unpretentiously stylized dancing of men like Fred Astaire and the younger Gene Kelly,” she insisted. She objected to West Side Story’s straining for greatness; in her eyes, it was trying to improve upon a genre that had already achieved perfection.
One aspect of her critique that doesn’t seem to hold up is her complaint about the dancing; maybe I’m just more appreciative of Jerome Robbins’ choreography—which looks stunning to me—but her remarks about it seem unnecessarily harsh, if funny (she claims that the dancing is “trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good”). She didn’t like the message-y nature of the film, which she felt informed even the dance numbers—that even there the film was trying to be “urgent and important,” to make a statement about the alienation of modern youth. (For Kael, “making a statement” was nearly always a bad thing for a film to try and do.) Perhaps in 1961 other critics believed that West Side Story’s depiction of urban gangs really was hard-hitting; now, fifty years later, it’s hard to believe that anyone would make a case for its being a statement about anything. West Side Story is still a beloved film, a classic, and Kael would probably still be bitter about that if she were still around, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone praising it on the grounds of social realism anymore.