WEST SIDE STORY, Directed 2021

  • Perhaps like me, when you heard Spielberg was re-making West Side Story, you asked yourself… why bother? Movies achieve classic status precisely because they nailed it. I wondered if Steven wanted to take on the challenge because Wizard of Oz was a musical. Being of his generation, I remember West Side Story exploding onscreen in 1961 as a novel departure from that era’s elaborate stage productions converted to film. West Side Story’s transitions from plot action to song and dance numbers in the slums of NYC came off more natural than other musicals did, especially when the ‘juvenile delinquents’ were performing. I could understand why it might be the only musical that fit into Steven’s boyish repertoire.
  • Right off the bat, the viewer is flown in for an aerial view of the dismal destruction of the Jet’s neighborhood. These homes are not fabled safe havens. They look more like the bombed out villages we saw in Saving Private Ryan. Small-scalewar is a way of life for the displaced inhabitants.
  • Color is muted to subtle shades of hopelessness.
  • The first pop of red and yellow comes with the sign for ‘Doc’s Druggist’ where we are introduced to Tony’s safe haven.
  •  Hilariously, he enters his basement quarters by the same means as a storm hatch to a Kansas tornado shelter!
  • Maria’s bedroom is reminiscent of Dorothy’s, particularly the metal bed with its smattering of old fashioned worn covers. She sprawls across it much like Dorothy does.
  • The morning after meeting Tony, Maria opens the bedroom door and her family’s apartment is cloaked in a riotous mass of color with hanging fabric of every hue like the brilliant setting in OZ. She is entering a new phase of her life, transformed by falling in love.
  • Hues of red and yellow abound in the festive Puerto Rican ghetto, costumes as well. The inhabitants are as joyful in their unfettered exuberance as the munchkins ever were.
  • When Tony and Maria marry themselves before the stained glass window, there is a brief flash of bright backlighting. If you are familiar with Spielberg imagery, you know the significance—this streaming bright light emphatically defines the following scene at the bar when the handgun takes center stage. Danger is imminent. We have been shown both the victim and the means of his demise.
  • Note the promenade of cop cars before the rumble, echoes of Sugarland Express.
  • Speaking of promenades, Steven loves a little crowd support. The solidarity of a group having each other’s back is one of his favorite devices. What better venue than West Side Story to feature strength in numbers. My personal favorite procession is when we see the rival gangs crossing the railroad yard…I swear at one point they sound like the witch’s soldiers chanting Oh ee yah, ee oh ah.
  • As their confederates congregate at the salt shed to rumble, Tony and Chino have to slide under the closing metal door like the tin man, scarecrow and lion make it through the witch’s castle gate at the last moment. It’s been a long time since I watched Indiana Jones or a Jurassic Park but pretty sure that trick might be in those as well.
  • As long as we’re thinking about the witch’s castle scene in WOO, when Anybodys (the wannabe Jet), peeks over that hill of salt did it remind you of lion tin man and scarecrow peering over the surrounding cliffs? A similar scene appears in Close Encounters.
  • I could expound on the many creative takes in Spielberg’s interpretation of the original West Side Story (like having Tony and Maria initiate their romance behind the school bleachers, aww, nostalgic) but that kind of critique is not the focus of this website. Still I think it’s pertinent to point out the inherent complications of shooting certain iconic scenes, moments that were the ‘memes’ of yesteryear. I wonder how long he pondered how to cope with “I Feel Pretty”. He ends up garbing Maria in a green scarf at the department store. Green is an unusual color for Steven to emphasize so I right away perk up my antennae. It soon becomes clear with Maria posturing on podiums that she is clowning for her comrades like the Cowardly Lion does in his green cape while waiting for an audience with the wizard. ‘I am king of the forrrrest’ becomes ‘I Feel Pretty.’ Both scenesoffer comic relief before high drama comes back into play.
  • The minute Anita, swathed in black, is dragged to the morgue to identify Bernardo I visualized the slap that would be forthcoming. Who will ever forget the dead boy’s black veiled mother in Jaws and herslap across the sheriff’s face? Sure enough that resounding slap of death propels Maria into grim reality. Not exactly WOO, but all Spielberg!

Just one last minor detail I’d like to mention. West Side Story, 2022’s version, is the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since the pandemic began. It took some strong-armed coercion to talk my Valentine into this holiday date but even the curmudgeon admitted it was the shortest two and a half hours he ever had to sit through. High praise indeed.

BFG (2016)

  •   Freshest WOO moment: “I am your humbug servant,” says the word-bumbling BFG to the Queen of England.  We all remember this scornful accusation hurled at the great and powerful Wizard of Oz when Toto revealed he was nothing more than a humble little man ‘behind the curtain’.
  •  The film and trailers showcase an open window, the curtain blowing inward, the tempting light and Sophie’s irresistible urge (despite sensible warnings to herself) to peek out.   She spies what she ought not to have seen, resulting of course in the giant being forced to abduct her.

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    Top to bottom: BFG, Wizard of Oz, Poltergeist
  • They fly in soaring leaps against the moonlit blue sky recalling shots from E.T.  Transcending reality by means of flight to enchanted lands is standard Spielberg/WOO fare.
  •  I was amused by the scene where the squadron of British helicopters must follow BFG to the land of giants.  In other Spielberg projects such aerial armies hearken back to flying monkeys.  Here he reverses himself and they are portrayed instead as a promenade of solidarity for Sophie’s cause.  Natch—flying monkey references always denote evil.
  • This seems like a good time to point out Spielberg’s essential theme: Sophie’s overwhelming desire to return ‘home’, complicated by the conflict that ‘home’ is no longer safe from marauding giants.
  • Leading of course to the requisite ‘quest’, to stop the evil giants.
  • Steven’s mysterious recurring green goo gets another cameo as Sophie emerges from the snozzcumber.
  • The set for BFG’s house is whirring with cyclonic motion, spinning water wheels, circulating wheel barrels, even Steven’s beloved bicycle re-tooled as a hand mixer to whip up the ingredients for the queen’s dream.
  • Finally I must point out yet again prodigious use of red and yellow, (Steven’s homage to RG color space?)  I noted it first with the little red jacket Sophie turns inside out to spare BFG his painful memories.  Its subtle tones of scarlet and ochre enhance her chameleon goldish-red glasses and her blushing lips.  Later I detected that even her shabby nightgown was sporting a faded pattern of red and yellows. The pigment duo boldly moves to multiple repetitions of crimson and gold at the queen’s palace: the guards, servants, walls and carpets.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

  • Steven’s return to an emphasis on red and yellow set design in his latest undertaking jumped out at me right away. If you check out my remarks on his early films, you will note he tended to hit hard on the Technicolor pairing of ruby slippers and yellow brick road hues featured in Wizard of Oz. Here, the introduction to downtown Brooklyn lingers on red and yellow signage. Note the red and yellow paint on the artistic spy’s desk. As the movie progresses, you will see red and yellow wallpaper in the Donovans’ house as well as a faded version in the dumpy apartment in East Berlin. Courtrooms and embassies, both stateside and abroad, are resplendent with crimson and gold. Add to the list the neon motel sign where the pilots are recruited. Even the climactic phone booth provides a glowing backdrop for our hero with its eye-catching palate.
  • A playful WOO reference by insurance lawyer/negotiator Donovan crops up at the beginning when he uses the example of a tornado destroying someone’s house rather than the more typical scenario of fire or flood.When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
  • When James Donovan first encounters Rudolf Abel, Spielberg silhouettes Tom Hanks against the blaring light of windows in the background. It happens again in court and in Vogel’s office. If you’ve explored my website, you know that the bright light which lured Dorothy into Munchkinland foreshadows danger lurking ahead for the protagonist.
  • The oft-used device of ascent and descent from normality to a whole other dimension of reality is touched on when Lt. Francis Gary Powers soars over then crashes down into Soviet territory. Steven makes the most of cyclonic motion with the spinning exploding chaos of the doomed aircraft. Note the camera sees it from above, much as we see Dorothy’s rooftop twirling downward.
  • Berlin, east and west, exhibits an air of hopelessness by use of subdued dreary colors, a Kansas air of greyness.
  • The Amblin’ bicycle makes its first cameo in East Berlin as Pryor attempts to execute an escape through the last portal of the famous wall. It pops up again—complete with Miss Gulch’s whimsical basket—as a means of delivering mail in the embassy.
  • In the embassy bike scene, listen for the bell ringing. AHA! This is the Glinda chime moment. Pay attention now; you are about to be treated to a crucial plot twister…Sure enough, immediately afterward, Donovan confides his bombshell to the hapless ambassador’s assistant: the deal must include ‘two for one’ or there will be no deal at all.
  • An interesting prop appears on Vogel’s desk; it is the same hourglass that we saw on Indiana Jones desk in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, a smaller version than the Wicked Witch’s sand sifter that terrified Dorothy.
  • Through a train window, James Donovan is assaulted by the horrific sight of refugees being gunned down as they try to scale the wall. He relives this memory at home in Brooklyn when from a subway window he sees a gang of boys leaping a chin link fence. Normal scenes surveyed through windows take on surreal undertones in Spielberg fare like Dorothy’s bedroom view of the world caught up in a tornado.
  • Check out how at the end James collapses diagonally across the bed. It is very reminiscent of Dorothy’s position after her bedroom window knocks her out. When he awakens, we are assured he will find himself safe at home again.
  • How and why does Steven Spielberg decide which projects he’s interest in taking on? Like Wizard of Oz, the story usually involves the theme of someone wanting or needing to return home again. Certainly that is the case for these three ‘spies’. ‘Is home really safe?’ —another question Steven likes to play around with comes up again in this film. The Donavan household undergoes a lot of safety angst not only from cold war propaganda, but due to the community’s disapproval of James’ quest. Ah, yes, the quest, the lending of a helping hand to get someone home where he/she belongs comes straight out of Wizard of Oz.
  • Finally we meet again the trickster. Only through James Donavan’s clever manipulations will the main characters be able to attain their noble goals. To complicate this obvious theme, we even have layers of tricksters like the CIA agents’ insistence that James appear to be acting alone, like the Soviet and East German official’s similar insistence upon no traceable government involvement.

SUGARLAND EXPRESS 1974 (wrote & directed)

  • If you haven’t seen this in a few decades like me, it’s worth re-watching. Somehow I mis-remembered it as a Smokey and the Bandit farce—which it definitely is not.  Great character development throughout.
  • Spielberg wrote the script based on an actual event. Did the project appeal to him specifically because it centered on an individual quest that attracted a huge procession of followers, even well-wishers? Check out two scenes: one where Lou Jean asks for hair curlers etc. and the one where they drive through the center of town’s impromptu parade. This pageantry echoes back to Munchkinland and Emerald City, both of whose populations cheered Dorothy on to her adventures with the same pomp and enthusiasm. See The Terminal, Joe vs.the Volcano, Twister, The Color Purple, Catch Me if You Can for other calvacades.
  • By the way, there is a small sign outside the parade town that reads Val Verde, Spanish for Green Valley…symbolizing Emerald City?  
  • Early on is the favorite backlit moment when innocent Baby Langsdon opens the front door of the Sugarland house. Interior of house is dark and shadowed, outside is brilliant….alluring but full of danger. That is the classic image of how Dorothy enters OZ. Langsdon’s father will be fatally shot right out there. The scene is Lu Jean and Clovis hair sugarlandrepeated later with grownups at the door: however, they perceive the threat and begin to collect the fragile vases.  See Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, 1941.
  • After the massive police car pile-up, Lou Jean suddenly realizes her errand is no longer just a personal mission. All the hoop-la will not fade away once she’s accomplished what she set out to do. “Clovis, honey, don’t do no good runnin’ from a tornado,” she prophecies. There will be no safe place for them, just as getting home was not enough to prevent the twister’s power from sucking Dorothy up into its maelstrom. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can, (1941)  for other instances where ‘home’ did not live up to its illusion of safety.
  • Steven’s love of kids and bikes is spotlighted. At one point, a bunch of mischievous boys ride through the center of a roadblock despite the cops’ protestations. At another, the vigilante complains when he finds his flashers have been commandeered to adorn the handlebars of his son’s bike. See Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Inner Space.
  • cop car promenade sugarlandThere is a predominant color palate in this film of red and yellow. Clovis has red hair, Lou Jean blond. Clovis wears a red and yellow plaid shirt. The interior of the Sugarland house is done in red and yellow. Red and yellow fringe decorates the Car Dealership’s lot where they spend the night. The motor home is red and yellow, inside and out. The TV/radio van that inspired all the publicity is red and yellow. Before they enter the downtown parade, there is a lingering shot of the yellow traffic signal with its red light shining. As they proceed, the interior of car is aglow with red roses juxtaposed against yellow gold stamps. Many shots of crowds show extras dressed in stand-out reds and yellows. Just before Lou Jean, Clovis and their hostage crash the final time, you see red road signs against golden turf. The entire film features gold and red sunset skies. One of the enduring Clovis red yellow sugarlandimages of WOO is the close-up of Dorothy’s ruby slippers with the yellow brick road as the backdrop. Schindler’s List, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
  • Do I even need to point out that the entire caper is to get Baby Langsdon home to his real mother where he belongs? See Empire of the Sun, A.I., Hook, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Catch me if You Can, The Color Purple, Poltergeist, Jurassic Park (to Grampa) and WOO (to Auntie Em).
  • NOT WOO BUT… Let me urge you to sample this early Spielberg if for nothing more than to check out the scene where Lou Jean points out Roadrunner playing at the drive-in next-door. Clovis provides his own soundtrack for her amusement. When Coyote takes his final dive, Clovis foresees his own demise. Absurdly awesome.

SCHINDLER’S LIST 1993

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  • Famous for the moment this black and white film moves to color. Wizard of Oz was also renowned for that trick. Note: I do think on his serious films, Steven uses a very light hand when sprinkling in his bit of WOO flavor. I get why he sometimes has to be sly or vague about it. No use risking spoilage of delicate material. So if you think I am reaching on some of my examples…maybe you’ve got a point…or maybe he purposely inserted it so deep that it would be perceived only subliminally.
  • I wonder if Spielberg didn’t originally intend to put the little girl in red shoes, but decided to fly under radar and use the red coat instead. He does finally use the red shoes in Saving Private Ryan. No accident that the hues Steven features in this film when B&W goes to partial color are yellow hair and red coat.  Those two primary colors defined WOO’s commercial eye appeal.  They were specifically chosen to make the most of a brand new process called Technicolor.  The yellow brick road contrasted better with red so Baum’s silver slippers became ruby ones instead.  See Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jaws, 1941, Joe vs. the Volcano, Twister, Inner Space, Jurassic Park, Used Cars, Sugarland Express, Poltergeist for other highlights of red and yellow.
  • WOO’s creators wanted to create an ‘air of grayness’ for Kansas scenes, meant to imply a sort of hopeless environment, hence Dorothy’s wish to go over the rainbow.  Steven employs that air of grayness throughout this film to emphasize the plight of the persecuted. See E.T. the Extraterrestrial, War Horse, Twister, Joe Vs. the Volcano, Twilight Zone the Movie Kick the can Episode, Poltergeist. 
  • Note too the sepia tones that accompany Schindler’s color sequence.  WOO’s intro was filmed in sepia but televised in B&W, so fans know it both ways.
  • There are a profusion of key scenes framed by windows… but camera slips over each with the barest gliding touch. Steven decided not to make a big deal of them so neither shall I. See WOO, Empire of the Sun, Catch Me if You Can, Poltergeist, Lost World of Jurassic Park  for other surreal glimpses through windows.  Like Dorothy’s peek into the center of tornado, everyday sights take on a bizarre twist.
  • Oskar Schindler is the consummate trickster. Spielberg returns again and again to the mischievous enabler in so many of his films.  An honorable protagonist often needs some underhanded finagling to achieve his/her goal.  In WOO, Professor Marvel (AKA Wizard of Oz, Gatekeepers 1 and 2, Driver of horse of a different color) often uses his guile to the betterment of all.  In the case of Schindler, our rogue transcends to martyrdom. By his willingness to get dirty, Schindler achieves a noble goal at great personal cost, the sacrifice of his purity. His soul may never be at peace with his former deeds. See Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Lincoln for other benevolent tricksters. In both Munich and Saving Private Ryan the protagonists’ missions carry out the virtuous aims of invisible tricksters. On a lighter note, you also find tricksters in WOO, A.I., Always, Goonies, Jaws, Catch Me if You Can, Joe Vs. the Volcano.

JAWS 1975

  • Jaws_045Pyxurz Alex’s mother appears in the midst of the harbor’s competitive chaos.  Everybody in town is debarking.  They hope to win a fabulous bounty for catching the man-eating monster. Mrs. Kintner is dressed all in black. Like the Wicked Witch of West, she cleaves through the center of crowd.  You recall how the Munchkins hailed Dorothy in raucous celebration until witch sucked their joy away?  The bereaved mother has same effect here. With vitriolic demeanor, she confronts Martin in an angry threatening speech, beating him down as the witch did Dorothy.
  • There are several clinking, tinkling interludes in this movie that warn you the shark is coming, like the WOO signal  that let you know Glinda was on her way.  Unlike the soundtrack music that tricks you sometimes…this prescient clinking is never wrong. The buoy rings as the girl goes for her dip, a warning the shark is going to get her.  Before Alex and Tippett get chomped listen to the background music for orchestral chimes.  Those two won’t escape.  There are no chimes in the famous roast beef scene because the fisherman escapes, but you will hear them at the pond when the helpful man falls out of his boat and becomes shark bait.  Listen for a flat drumming knell when Hooper dives around Ben Gardner’s disabled boat before he finds the gory corpse. Even when Orca’s crew is chasing and being chased, despite music implying danger, suspenseful clicking of fishing pole, beeping of monitor, you only hear the chimes to verify doom.  No chimes when shark initially toys with broken boat but when they tie on three barrels, Jaws gets mad.  He goes after them and then the chimes sound.  Someone is going to pay.  When he eats Hooper’s cage the chimes are silent; Hooper will survive.  When the ship is sinking and the bell tolls, Quint will soon be a dead man.  The bell rings again right before Martin shoots the gas canister that blows the shark to smithereens at which point you will hear a profusion of happy chimes while pieces sink!  See Always, A.I., E. T.,The Color Purple, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
  • I have seen this film dozens of times, two or three at the movie theater when it first came out.  It is one of a handful that never fails to suck me in as I try to click by.  I thought I had noticed everything WOO until recently I became aware of the heavy use of red and yellow color scheme: Amity’s billboard, beach decor, costumes the extras are wearing, Ben Gardner’s boat scene, the man’s red and yellow dinghy on the pond, Alex’s yellow raft covered in blood, yellow barrels, red lifejackets, the Orca herself.  And here’s an interesting detail: the Orca’s paint job changes frequently.  Watch how she starts out with yellow letters on a red transom.  Then she goes to an all red stern with black hull…perhaps as a better backdrop for yellow barrels?  At one point before the boat burns, the stern even seems to turn yellow!  WOO, one of the first color films ever made employed its eye-popping hues to best advantage, most notably ruby slippers against the yellow brick road.  See  A.I., E. T.,The Color Purple, Always, Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Super 8, Twister, Twilight Zone, Joe vs. the Volcano, Poltergeist.
  • On the 4th of July an army of bicyclists debark from the ferry.  See E.T., Munich, Adventures of Tintin, Amistad, 1941, Always, Super 8, War of the Worlds, Empire of the Sun,The Goonies, Sugarland Express, Inner Space, Used Cars.  If there’s a way to squeeze a bike in, Steven will find it… even in a film that is set primarily on water!
  •  Quint, of course, is the lovable trickster.  His methods are questionable, especially when he destroys the radio that might have saved them all.  But Martin’s quest to kill the monster would not have been fulfilled without Quint’s maniacal manipulation.  See Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., Always, Goonies, Jaws, Catch Me if You Can.
  • The happy ending shows our survivors coming in sight of home as they swim. See references to safety of home, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters, Catch Me if You Can, Amistad, The Terminal, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, Poltergeist etc.