Despite the fact that the both cinematographic adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”: “West Side Story” (1961) and “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) exploit essentially the same motifs of love, revenge and “corporate solidarity”, the semantic message, conveyed by these movies, varies significantly, which can be explained by particularities of socio-political reality in U.S., associated with the time when both movies were produced. In this paper, we will aim at exposing the conceptual difference between “Romeo + Juliet” and “West Side Story” at length, while pointing out at it as such that signifies a thematic shift in people’s understanding as to what causes groups of individuals, united by common interest, to indulge in anti-social behavior. In our view, such shift has occurred, ever since the time when promoters of neo-Liberal agenda, have gained a monopoly on interpreting historical and political events in the domains of public education and entertainment. Whereas, in time before America began to be gradually deprived of its national integrity (early sixties), the majority of Americans used to think of historical dialectics as being essentially rational; by late nineties, this was no longer the case, simply because by this time, the hawks of political correctness have managed to instill the majority of citizens with the idea that social animosity, between the groups of people united by common agenda, is purely irrational. The watching and comparing both movies substantiates the validity of this suggestion better then anything else does.
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Even a brief analysis of “West Side Story” and “Romeo + Juliet” leaves no doubt as to the fact that the apparent similarity between two cinematographic pieces is only a skin deep. In its turn, this explains why, despite “West Side Story” being produced in the form of musical, its storyline appears to be much more realistic, when compared with “Romeo + Juliet” storyline, even though that the latter movie utilizes Shakespeare’s original text for characters’ dialogues and monologues. The reason for this is quite simple – whereas, “West Side Story” depicts a racially motivated (rational) conflict between the gangs of “Jets” (White) and “Sharks” (Puerto-Rican), with members of both gangs referring to their hatred towards each other as such the originates out of universally recognized notion that “this turf is too small for all”, “Romeo + Juliet” depicts the conflict between two equally corrupted families of Montague and Capulet, the members of which do not even have a good reason to be continuously shooting at each other, as shown in the movie, simply because they seem to be little too preoccupied with “celebration of diversity”. Apparently, the producers of “Romeo + Juliet” were unaware of the fact that the concepts of “gang violence” and “gang solidarity” cannot be discussed as such that solely derive out of people’s unhealthy preoccupation with accumulation of material riches. In multicultural society, the gang-related activities directly correspond to the racial affiliation of gang members. This is the reason why “family oriented” illegal business in America, has been traditionally associated with Italian, Russian, Black, Vietnamese and Irish mafias – only the gangsters related to each other by blood can shoot at cops, without experiencing much fear over the prospect of their identity being reported to police by their own friends. Therefore, producers’ “creative” decision to have Black person playing the role of Mercutio, can be referred to as anything but overly smart. Moreover, movie’s producers have made a deliberate point in portraying “Montague boys” (White) as a bunch of retards, who are simply incapable of effectively opposing “Capulet boys” (Hispanic).
On the other hand, in “West Side Story”, the members of “Jets” (White) are being shown in much more favorable light, with the ultimate cause for their stance being revealed the fact that they simply did not want to see a Manhattan Island being turned into another Puerto-Rico. There is a memorable scene in “West Side Story”, when Anita talks about her native Puerto-Rico with utter sense of sarcasm: “Puerto-Rico! My heart’s devotion! Let it sink back in the ocean! Always the hurricanes blowing! Always the population growing! And the money owing!”. In “West Side Story”, the members of “Jets” gang look as anything but gangsters – their youthful idealism had prompted them to put up a fight for what they considered theirs, which in its turn, can be explained by the fact that they belonged to a generation not affected by neo-Liberal brainwashing. The “Sharks”, on the other hand, are also being portrayed as honorable people, who are quite willing to risk their lives, while standing up for their interests. Therefore, we can say that, unlike “Romeo+Juliet”, “West Side Story” refers to the conflict between two confronting gangs as being essentially rational, and therefore both: unavoidable but resolvable. This is why “West Side Story” reveals the tragic outcome of its storyline as leading to the end of hostilities between “Jets” and “Sharks” – it is only after members of both gangs have tested their physical and moral strength in open confrontation, that they began to treat each other with respect. Tony’s tragedy consists in the fact that he naively believed that it was possible to establish a peace between two gangs, while avoiding such confrontation. He acted like modern day Liberal politicians, who simply cannot understand that, by constantly promoting the notions of political correctness (tolerance, equality, multiculturalism, diversity), they make things worse – they actually increase the degree of racial tensions in this country. By trying to break up a solitary fist-fight between Ice and Bernardo, Tony had escalated this ordinary (and even necessary) outbreak of violence into “kill or die” kind of situation, which resulted in the deaths of Riff, Bernardo and eventually – in his own death. Therefore, it would be quite appropriate, on our part, to suggest that love turned Tony into a regular whiner, for which he had paid an ultimate price. Thus, it is why impossible for viewers with healthy instincts to feel towards Tony anything but disgust.
At the same time, despite the fact that producers of “Romeo+Juliet” had failed at trying to realistically portray the true causes of gang-related violence, they nevertheless succeeded in instilling viewers with the idea that love is actually a “manly”, hard feeling. Unlike the “West Side Story”, this particular movie reveals love as such that is not only capable of encouraging men (Romeo) to act in manly manner, but also women (Juliet). Romeo’s love towards Juliet, had turned him from someone who used to purposelessly roam along the beach, while melancholically contemplating on the subject of romantic sensuality, into someone capable of pulling gun’s trigger with ease – his love towards Juliet had turned him into someone worthy of being loved in return. In its turn, this allows us to suggest that, unlike the producers of “West Side Story”, the producers of “Romeo+Juliet” were able to provide viewers with the insight on what corresponds to the notion of “high tragedy”, in Shakespearean context of this word. “Romeo+Juliet” depicts love as something that has value in itself. Moreover, just like Shakespeare in his original tragedy, this movie actually promotes the idea that, the more a romantic feeling is being affected by tragic undertones, the more it is worthy of admiration – the more it is noble. Whereas, it is quite possible to imagine what would happen if Maria had married Tony (instant pregnancy, bunch of noisy kids running around, Tony eventually succumbing to alcoholism, etc.), we simply cannot imagine the possibility of Romeo and Juliet being united “happily ever after”, outside of the scene when they embrace each other, while laying in the coffin. This is because people who wrote a script for “Romeo+Juliet” belonged to a so-called “third generation” of Whites, who are being largely deprived of their former will power and physical strength, with intellectualism and taste for decadent aesthetics remaining only the existential traits of their psyche. The representatives of “first”, “second” and “third” generations replace each other on a continuous loop, as history goes by. Just like Shakespeare, “third generation” people sense that it is only when they are being subjected to a particularly strong emotion (in our case love), that they have a chance of mentally grasping their true selves. We can say that, whereas love has no effect on representatives of “first generation” (founders of new nations, religious leaders, warlike barbarians, etc.), it makes the representatives of “second generation” (baby boomers) weaker (which is being illustrated in “West Side Story”) and, what is the most interesting – it makes the representatives of “third generation” (Di Caprio’s portrayal of Romeo) existentially stronger. It is only when he was being brought to the point of nervous breakdown, that Romeo begins to treat his enemies as they deserved – shooting them in rather unemotional manner. Such behavior, on the part of Romeo, is nothing but a sublimation of producers’ own subconscious anxieties. It is not simply an accident that, according to statistics, the overwhelming majority of those who embark on shooting sprees in today’s America, before ending their own lives, fit into the stereotype of “middle-aged White men” as such that represent a potential danger to society. It is namely the existential weakness of such men, which created a precondition for the process of America being slowly turned into a Third World slum, to begin gaining a momentum. While being faced with life’s challenges, these people often prove themselves incapable of admitting even to themselves that they do not particularly like “celebrating diversity”, as their foremost social duty. For example, they explain their willingness to reside in White suburbia by the fact that such suburbia features “safer living” and “better schools”, while lacking the courage to openly express their opinion of the process of themselves becoming a minority in their own country. They are no longer capable of defending their interests as a part of racially-cultural group (as shown in “West Side Story”) – all that is left to them now, is trying to appease the representatives of racial minorities, while naively hoping that it would redeem their historical guilt, as descendants of slave owners. And, it is only when they experience a nervous breakdown, that their true self becomes apparent. This is the reason why “Romeo+Juliet” has gained status of a cult movie, particularly among the White moviegoers, even though that most of them do not even realize the reason why this movie appeals to them so much.
Before we conclude this paper, we will need to summarize the ideas, expressed in it earlier: 1) Motifs contained in “West Side Story” and in “Romeo+Juliet” directly relate to America’s socio-demographic dynamics, during the course of early sixties and late nineties, respectively. 2) The watching of both movies is highly recommended to for just about anyone. Whereas, “West Side Story” provides viewers with insight on the naked force, as the only “engine of history”, “Romeo+Juliet” helps us to get a better understanding as to what accounts for the process of people being deprived of their will power, and on the possible social effects of such process, especially when the factor of love comes into play 3) The watching of both cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedy allows audiences to adopt an outlook on love as utterly complex psychosomatic phenomenon; because, according to both movies, love is equally capable of weakening or strengthening people, in psychological context of this word.
1). There are two distinct thematic shifts can be defined in how both movies portray motifs of love and group violence. In “West Side Story”, the gang related violence is shown as being essentially rationalistic – the members of “Jets” and “Sharks” have come to realization that their neighborhood was just too small, in order for both gangs to coexist peacefully. While not hating each other on personal level, Sharks and Jets would still indulge in the acts of violence, as the way to prove to the members of opposing gang that they would be willing to “stand their ground”. On the other hand, “Romeo+Juliet” portrays gang related violence as being fueled solely by irrational hatred – the members of Capulet and Montague families hate each other just for the sake of hating. Also, whereas in “West Side Story” the motif of tragic love appears to be underdeveloped (In their songs, Tony and Maria actually rationalize the different aspects of living together, with viewers not even suspecting that both characters’ love affair might end up in tragedy, until movie’s very end), in “Rome+Juliet” the strong motif of tragic love is being established from the moment movie begins, because: a) love between Romeo and Juliet is being shown as particularly passionate b) both lovers are too young (Juliet is 13 years old).
2). In both movies social messages vary significantly. Whereas, “West Side Story” conveys the message that the best way to resolve a conflict between groups of people, united by the same interests, is allowing these groups to have an ultimate showdown, “Romeo+Juliet” subtly implies that such conflict can be resolved by the mean of education. “West Side Story” implies that utilization of negotiations, within a context of two gangs establishing their “zones of influence”, leads nowhere. “Romeo+Juliet”, on the other hand, promotes the idea that peace between conflicting groups of people can only be achieved through negotiations. “West Side Story” portrays White gang of “Jets” in much more favorable light, when compared to Puerto-Rican gang of “Sharks”. Contrary to this, “Romeo+Juliet” portrays the Hispanic family of Capulets as deserving more respect, on the part of viewers, when compared to mostly White family of Montagues. Whereas in “West Side Story” cops side with “Jets” (White), in “Romeo+Juliet” they clearly favor Capulets (Hispanic).
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3). The points made earlier are best substantiated by reviewing both movies from historical perspective. As we have mentioned earlier, the time gap between production of “West Side Story” and “Romeo+Juliet” is more then 30 years. Ever since the beginning of sixties, the socio-political situation in U.S. has undergone a dramatic transformation, due to the fact that, around this time, the policy of “multiculturalism” attained an official status. Today, this policy has resulted in creation of an unofficial politically correct censorship, which requires moviemakers to actually promote the idea of “interracial harmony” in their cinematographic works, in order for these movies to be allowed for release. This is the reason why producers of “Romeo+Juliet” strived their best to depict the families of Capulets and Montagues as not being racially homogeneous (the character of Mercutio is played by Black actor), while understanding perfectly well that it would undermine movie’s conceptual soundness. Given the fact that there was no politically correct censorship in existence, at the time of “West Side Story” production – this movie portrays gang related violence in much more realistic manner, even though that “West Side Story” is actually a musical.
4). The significance of arguments expressed earlier, in regards to both movies, derives out of the context of this paper, as whole – the sequential watching “West Side Story” and “Romeo+Juliet” leaves no doubt as to the fact that race does matter, despite what neo-Liberal politicians want us to believe. In fact, it is namely people’s racial affiliation, which largely defines their social attitudes and behavior. The pure artificiality of concept of “interracial harmony”, promoted by “Romeo+Juliet”, is little too obvious, in order for viewers not to notice it. This is the reason why in this movie, it is only the story of a love affair between Romeo and Juliet that has a dramatic value (both lovers are not simply White, but have clearly Nordic facial features, which actually explains their hypertrophied sense of existential idealism). Whereas, “West Side Story” is worthy to be watched, because of its realism, “Romeo+Juliet” is worthy to be watched solely because of a supreme artistic performance, on the part of Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes.
5). It is very easy to anticipate the criticism, which can be hypothetically directed at the main idea of this paper. This criticism can be summarized in one word – “racism”. The potential critics are very likely to point out to the fact that exposing the factor of racial affiliation as such that actually defines both movies’ semiotics is utterly inappropriate. It goes without saying, of course, that while coming up with this type of argumentation, these critics would not be able to substantiate their point logically, simply because in their eyes, it would not make any sense – they believe that “racism” is evil and they expect everybody else to subscribe to such point of view. If this does not happen, they simply begin to throw accusations.
6) To argue with racial egalitarians on whether race matters or not, is the same as arguing with Bible-thumpers on whether God loves us or not – the consensus can hardly be reached. The ultimate massage of this paper can be expressed as follows: “The reason why characters’ motivations in “West Side Story” and “Romeo + Juliet” appear as being conceptually different, is because during the course of last thirty years, the racial, intellectual and aesthetic integrity of American society has been significantly undermined by promoters of neo-Liberal agenda, which even now enjoy an almost complete monopoly on interpreting the meaning of politics, history and culture in this country”. We simply happened to think that the policy of “multiculturalism”, which is being jammed down citizens’ throats, ever since the beginning of sixties, does a great deal of harm to America. Our analysis of both movies substantiates such our opinion, because it reveals that it is namely people’s preoccupation with “celebration of diversity”, which undermines their ability to rely on their sense of rationale, while assessing the objective reality, thus provoking them to indulge in irrational violence (“Romeo+Juliet” exploits the motif of violence as some sort of fetish – the same can be said about other comparatively recent “progressive” movies, such as “Reservoir Dogs” or “Natural Born Killers”). On the other hand, while not denying the fact that the process of “multiculturalization” in this country has began in sixties, our potential critics would point out to this process as being utterly beneficial to America, simply because they believe in it to be the case. Such their belief can hardly be challenged by considerations of reason, due to its irrational essence. It is only when our potential critics would be forced to take a leisurely stroll through Hispanic, Black or Chinese “ghettos”, after it gets dark, that they might be willing to change their opinion on the subject of “multiculturalism”.